WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — A grand jury in North Carolina has indicted a man who admitted to an innocence panel that he broke into a woman’s house 36 years ago and killed her, adding that the man sent to prison for the crime was nowhere to be seen that night.
Darren Leak Johnson, 55, confessed to investigators with the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission that he alone killed Blanche Ragins Bryson, according to commission records reported by the Winston-Salem Journal. On Monday, Johnson was indicted for first-degree murder in Bryson’s death.
Johnson told investigators and Winston-Salem police that Merritt Drayton Williams, who is currently serving a life sentence for Bryson’s death, was not on the scene Dec. 10, 1985. Johnson’s DNA was found on Bryson’s nail clippings.
The Innocence Commission unanimously ruled in June 2019 that there was sufficient evidence that Williams did not kill Bryson. A panel of three superior court judges has to now schedule a hearing to determine whether Williams should be exonerated. According to court papers, the hearing had been scheduled for the week of Nov. 29, but Williams’ attorney, Julie Boyer, has asked that the hearing be rescheduled for February 2022, saying her ability to prepare has been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Williams, 63, is currently serving two life sentences, plus 10 years in three separate homicides.
Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill has criticized the commission’s work and called it a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Bryson, a 65-year-old retiree who lived alone in a house in Winston-Salem, was found by her son strangled with a lamp cord wrapped around her neck. Her house had been ransacked and her car was found about a mile from her house, the newspaper reported.
The indictment moves Johnson’s case to Forsyth Superior Court, where either a date for a trial will be set or prosecutors and Johnson’s attorneys can negotiate a plea deal. It will be at least a year, if not more due to the pandemic, before the case is resolved.
Even though Johnson made statements to investigators with the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission that he acted alone in killing Bryson and that Williams was not there, Forsyth County prosecutors have contended they believe Williams made consistent statements about his involvement. They also said Johnson has admitted he was on LSD at the time. Prosecutors argue that Johnson and Williams could have broken into Bryson’s house and that Johnson just does not remember because of his drug use.
The only other person convicted in Bryson’s death was Robbin Carmichael, who confessed to his role in Bryson’s murder after he was arrested on unrelated charges. Carmichael had some of Bryson’s stolen items and his fingerprints were on Bryson’s car.