Freedom on the line for two North Carolina men

By Charlotte Stewart, UNC Law Student

This week a three-judge panel, formed as part of the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission process, is hearing a case which could exonerate two North Carolina men of murder convictions.

Kenneth Kagonyera and Robert Wilcoxson were convicted of the murder of Walter Rodney Bowman in 2000 in Buncombe County. Last Tuesday, however, a DNA analyst gave testimony regarding evidence found near the crime scene indicating that Kagonyera and Wilcoxson may not have been involved in the crime.

The DNA was found in saliva samples taken from bandanas that may have been used in the robbery that led to Bowman’s murder. The DNA did not match that of any of the six men originally investigated for the crime, but it did match that of another man, currently in prison, who was not originally charged with the crime.

In 2003, inmate Bradford Sumney was implicated by another prisoner in Bowman’s slaying and in 2007, there was a hit in the state’s CODIS database showing a match between the DNA sample from the bandanas and Sumney’s DNA. The DNA analyst who discovered the match testified that he sent notice to the Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office that a match had been made to someone other than the two men convicted of the crime. However, according to the Innocence Commission investigation, no action was taken.

Kagonyera and Wilcoxson, currently represented by attorneys Noell Tin and Chris Fialko of Charlotte, initially maintained their innocence, but later pleaded guilty to the crime to avoid the death penalty.

It may take over a week for the panel to hear all of the relevant testimony, after which the judges will vote on whether to overturn the convictions, which requires a unanimous vote among the three judges.

The N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission was formed in 2006 to investigate cases that may have ended in wrongful convictions and is the first of its kind in the country.

To follow continuing coverage of the hearing in the Asheville Citizen-Times, click here.

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