It’s Not Just About Nifong, Part II

Durham County district attorney Mike Nifong is now off the case, but his departure provides me with another opportunity to argue that the Duke University case is not just about Nifong.  (Dorothy Rabinowitz and Randy Barnett have made interesting and related points in recent days, for those interested in reading more).

Let’s assume that the North Carolina Attorney General’s office reviews the entire matter and then dismisses all of the charges against the Duke students.  Some will say that the system “worked!”  That is, prosecutorial overreaching was exposed and an injustice was averted … so let’s punish Nifong, close this case file, and … move on.  I disagree with that.  And, in defense of my view, I will introduce you to another prosecutor by the name of Tom Lock, district attorney in Johnston County, North Carolina.

Lock is responsible for jailing an innocent man for four years.  It is a long and twisted story, but I’ll give you the highlights.

Three men get together to rob a small business in Johnston County.

Keith Riddick planned the job and was the getaway driver.  Kendrick Henderson and Terrance Deloach went inside and brandished handguns.  Deloach then shot a woman twice at point blank range (she miraculously survived).  The men make their escape with petty cash.

Henderson left a fingerprint behind and was quickly apprehended. He tells the police that his accomplices were Keith Riddick and Riddick’s cousin from New York … first name “Terrance” … last name unknown. 

The police pick up a young man by the name of Terrance Garner, not Terrance Deloach. 

Garner declares his innocence, but the authorities believe they have their man.  From this point forward, the authorities seem utterly impervious to reason.

For example, when Henderson learns the police have the wrong man, he speaks up and tells them so.  His conscience bothers him so much that he disregards his attorney’s advice and testifies on Garner’s behalf–“He had nothing to do with the crime!”  DA Tom Lock calls Henderson a liar in front of the jury. 

To nail Garner, Lock made a deal with Riddick.  The deal is simple: If Riddick provides testimony against Garner (“cooperation”) he will get less jail time.  Riddick fails a polygraph shortly before the trial, but Lock uses him anyway.  From Riddick’s point of view, he gets leniency and does not have to “snitch” on his relative, Terrance Deloach.

Garner is convicted and is sentenced to 30-40 years in prison.

But wait.  Police in a nearby county go out of their way to follow up on the old “Terrance from NY” lead.  They arrest Terrance Deloach and get a confession to the robbery and the shooting.  Deloach is Riddick’s cousin and he has spent time in NY.  In fact, he spent time in a NY prison for shooting a person there.  Garner, in contrast, has no history of violence–just a drug possession arrest.

At first, DA Lock holds a press conference in which he confesses his mistake.  After all, why would this guy Deloach confess if he was not involved? 

Now things get mysterious.  After one night in the Johnston County jail, Deloach recants his confession.  DA Lock reverses course the next day and says his original case against Garner was solid after all. 

Garner’s attorneys move for a new trial.  A new jury ought to hear about Deloach and his written confession to the crime.  A new jury ought to know that Riddick gave perjured testimony where he denied having a cousin from NY named “Terrance.”  DA Lock fights this legal motion and prevails. Garner’s appeals go nowhere in the N.C. court system.  He starts serving his long jail sentence.

Summary of the case:

  • Riddick, the planner and perjurer, gets four years.
  • Henderson, who told the truth about Deloach, gets 11 years.
  • Garner, a totally innocent man, gets 30-40 years.
  • Deloach, the attempted murderer, goes free.

However, a terrific Frontline documentary brings new scrutiny to the forgotten case.  The film is so powerful that the system just cannot withstand the spotlight.  About one month after the documentary airs, a court sets aside Garner’s conviction and he is freed.

Frontline really helped Terrance Garner.  And the national media attention has really helped the accused Duke University students.  Without such intense scrutiny, Nifong would still be on the case, and it is doubtful that the North Carolina Bar Association would have launched an ethics investigation.  But what about all the other cases that do not get such intense scrutiny?  Something to think about.