Persistence to get to the truth leads to release of Washington County men convicted of murder

North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Two men from Washington County imprisoned for nearly 30 years for a murder they said they did not commit have been freed following plea deals with the state of North Carolina.

Brandon Jones, 49, and Leroy Spruill, 63, had to drop their long-running innocence claims as part of the deal, but the state agreed DNA evidence tested years after their convictions, while not conclusive, could have had “a direct and material bearing” on their case.

Jones and Spruill entered Alford pleas in the case and were sentenced to time served. An Alford plea allows someone to maintain their innocence while acknowledging there is enough evidence for a conviction.

A Superior Court judge vacated the convictions Monday and followed on Wednesday with a written court order. The men were released Tuesday afternoon.

Spruill: ‘I never killed nobody:’

It was 1993 in Roper where one night changed the lives of two men’s lives.

“They would say ‘You’re not showing no remorse’,” Spruill said. “I said ‘What do you mean show remorse? I never killed nobody.’ They said ‘If you don’t show remorse, we’re not going to help you.'”

Spruill and Jones were found guilty in 1995 for the murder of Frank Swain, which happened while they were out at a bar in Roper.

“You know I’m not gonna lie, I’ve partied, I’ve been to some places and done some things, but I ain’t no murderer,” Spruill said.

After 27 years, the men took a plea that finally allowed them to go home.

“Well when they sentenced me to this life sentence after saying no to that Alford Plea, you know it’s hard to go back into that jail walking, it’s like, you know, it’s over,” Spruill said.

Chris Mumma with Carolina Center on Actual Innocence said she believes they had enough to prove the innocence of Spruill and Jones, but it would have taken more time and both were ready to go home.

“There is no one … and I promise you … no one … who could read the transcript on this case and tell you how these men were convicted,” Mumma said.

Mumma also said during the time juries assumed if someone was testifying, they must be guilty. She believes if this were to happen today, Spruill and Jones would never have been charged.

Spruill said he had to make the best of a very bad situation.

“Are you angry about the time, Yes, I am … but I’m not going to hold onto it, I’m going to move on,” Spruill said.

Spruill said he was able to learn some trades and earn a GED while he was in prison. While he returned home to Washington County, Brandon Jones moved to Tennessee.

Mumma says the community in Washington County knows the men didn’t do it, and she believes Spruill will have a great support system there. She does however worry that Jones won’t have the same support in Tennessee.

Spruill said he won’t give up on proving his innocence but based on how things have gone, he has his doubts. Still, he remains thankful to the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence and the people who stuck with him throughout the years.

“Yesterday was a good day, I mowed the grass, done right good work, I even been washing dishes and vacuuming,” Spruill said.

Spruill said holidays when he was locked up were some of the toughest times. He is now ecstatic to start decorating the Christmas tree this year, he also joked about dressing as Santa Claus.

Mumma said the Alford Plea meant the men signed away their right to further relief, but she does not believe this trial is over and she will continue to work to clear both men’s names.

If you feel inclined to help Jones and Spruill rebuild their lives, you can donate to them at this link.

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