Saint Augustine's University
- 40 years ago, a Saint Augustine's University student was found stabbed in the neck and left to die on the floor of a dormitory bathroom.
- Police could not find a suspect until 1983 when they arrested James Blackmon based on information from a confidential informant.
- There was no physical evidence linking Blackmon to the murder, yet, he still confessed to it.
- Blackmon was diagnosed with Schizophrenia, which his lawyers argued was used against him to coerce a confession.
- In November, almost 40 years after the student's death, The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission announced they would re-evaluate the case. In late August, after 30 years behind bars, Blackmon was exonerated.
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In 1983, a North Carolina man was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison after he confessed to murdering a college student in 1979. Now, almost half a century since the student's death and after 30 years of life behind bars, Blackmon is being set free. So what happened?
The mysterious murder at Saint Augustine's University
Nearly 40 years ago, a mysterious tragedy rattled Saint Augustine's University's campus in Raleigh, North Carolina. The small historically black college in rural America rarely saw much controversy but that all changed one night in September 1979. Helena Payton, a Saint Augustine's University student, was found on the bathroom floor of the school's Latham Hall dormitory, stabbed multiple times in the neck. Payton went into a coma and died a month later with no trace of who committed the crime.
Then in 1983 police reopened the case and announced they had arrested a suspect with help from an anonymous tip. The suspect was 30-year-old James Blackmon. Blackmon was residing at Dorothea Dix Hospital at the time and was the only suspect that matched the physical description provided to prosecutors. Blackmon submitted an Alford plea — which lets a defendant acknowledge that prosecutors have enough material to forward a conviction but doesn't require the defendant to admit guilt — even though there was no physical evidence linking him to the scene of the crime. By 1989 he was behind bars.
Police and prosecutors used Blackmon's mental illness against him
With no physical evidence tying him to the crime scene, prosecutors relied solely on Blackmon's own confession of guilt. Blackmon reportedly led investigators into a wooded area to where bloody evidence had been discovered. He then took them to a toilet stall where he claimed the murder had taken place, according to The News Observer.
Blackmon's attorneys argued that their client had schizophrenia disorder, a condition, they said, was apparent at the time of arrest and confession. When he confessed to killing Payton, Blackmon was reportedly wearing a Superman cape and described to police his ability to create earthquakes. He also reportedly compared himself to Dracula and said he had telepathic powers.
During his innocence hearing in Raleigh, North Carolina, Allison Redlich, a false confession expert at the University of Albany, explained to the jury how a police officer had used Blackmon's mental illness against him; pretended to be his friend; and convinced him to confess to the dormitory murder, reported the Associated Press.
A new beginning for wrongly convicted prisoners
Blackmon owes the re-examination of his evidence in large part to The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. Founded in 2006 by the North Carolina General Assembly, the Innocence Commission is an independent agency that looks for "post-conviction claims of innocence." When the Innocence Commission finds a credible case, it is sent on to a three-panel judge for review. Since 2007, the Innocence Commission has led to the exoneration of 12 former prisoners, including Blackmon.
In a statement made to The Miami Herald following the news of his release, Blackmon's attorney, Jonathan Broun, said the news was welcome but late.
"Justice delayed is better than no justice at all," Broun said after the three-day hearing. "One of the problems here is that there's a problem with how the criminal justice system deals with mentally ill people. And It was a problem in the 1980s, and it allowed an innocent man to get convicted of a crime he didn't commit." Broun did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.
The Innocence Project, a national organization that attempts to exonerate wrongly convicted people through DNA testing, says that nationwide, 365 wrongly convicted prisoners have been exonerated since 1989. DNA evidence was not available at the time of Payton's death, and according to The Miami Herald, a reexamination of the evidence did not find any fingerprints that matched Blackmon's.
Now 66-years-old, Blackmon is working with his attorneys to find a place to live with his family.
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