Chatham man freed in 1975 murder can have DNA evidence used against him in new one

Josh Shaffer
·3 min read

Willie Womble walked free in 2014 after nearly 40 years in prison, cleared for a convenience store robbery and murder he didn’t commit.

Now 67, Womble faces new charges in a Chatham County slaying, in which a 54-year-old Pittsboro woman was found stabbed to death with a pair of scissors.

Womble faced a setback this week when the NC Court of Appeals ruled a lower court erred by suppressing DNA evidence found at the scene. That evidence, consisting of blood found on a broken lamp, matched a sample Womble gave more than a decade ago, while still wrongfully imprisoned in the convenience store murder.

In a unanimous decision, Judge John Tyson called the suppression “erroneous.” As a result, the ruling DNA goes back to the lower court, where Womble is still awaiting trial.

“We are hopeful the Supreme Court will review the case in light of the significant legal issues,” his attorney, Jay Ferguson, said this week. “The court system failed Mr. Womble once and hopefully we can prevent it from doing so again.”

The case represents Womble’s second time through the court system, having been wrongfully convicted of murder in 1976.

Just 21 at the time, Womble went to prison for shooting Roy Brent Bullock, a Food Mart clerk in Butner who was working alongside his 13-year-old daughter.

In Durham during those years, Womble denied having any role in the fatal robbery but remained behind bars until a second man convicted in the shooting spoke up and said his fellow inmate hadn’t been on the scene.

The NC Innocence Inquiry Commission reviewed Womble’s case, and the Granville County district attorney joined the effort to free him.

In 1976, Womble testified that he had signed a confession to being paid $20 as a lookout in the robbery, but that sheriff’s deputies had pressured him and he was “high off beer.”

The innocence commission later noted his IQ between 66 and 74, and that he could not recall what grade he had completed.

But before his release in 2014, Womble gave a blood sample in 2009, which was used to create a DNA profile and sent to the FBI.

This sample took on grave meaning for Womble in 2017, when Pittsboro police found Donna Todd dead and decomposing in her apartment, a pair of scissors in the back of her head.

Officers found blood samples, strewn papers and other signs of a struggle in the apartment, Tyson’s ruling said, and the state crime lab matched blood on a broken lamp to Womble’s 2009 sample.

Interviewed by police, Womble admitted knowing Todd and said he had given her rides to the Piggly Wiggly until she complained “he was trying to get with her,” court records said.

Later, he denied being in Todd’s apartment and would not provide a new sample while Pittsboro police knew about the earlier blood he had given, Tyson’s opinion said. Police by then had received an anonymous call about Womble wanting to “get” Todd for telling people about his unwanted advances.

Charged with murder in 2018, Womble and his legal team argued the blood evidence should be suppressed for a variety of reasons. While the trial court ruled the DNA had been lawfully gathered, it allowed the motion to suppress.

The court argued that Womble had not sought to expunge his old record from the books, which should have been automatic and placed too heavy a burden upon him, court records said.

Tyson disagreed.

“Defendant’s murder charge was dismissed by the ... 2014 order,” he wrote. “Defendant was not eligible to have his 28 October, 2009 sample automatically destroyed and the corresponding DNA profile expunged.”

Among the defense’s other arguments: the DNA sample came out of unconstitutional coercion in his 1975 confession to the Bullock murder and arose from a warrantless search.

The ruling sends the DNA motion back to the lower court.