NC high court orders new trial for boastful death row inmate

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Posted: Apr 10, 2015 6:57 PM
NC high court orders new trial for boastful death row inmate

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's highest court ordered a new trial Friday for a death row inmate who once wrote, "Kill me if you can, suckers," in a letter from prison to his hometown newspaper.

The North Carolina Supreme Court issued a 4-2 decision vacating Danny Hembree's conviction and death sentence in 17-year-old Heather Catterton's 2009 killing and ordering a new trial. The court agreed with Hembree's argument that he was denied a fair trial because of several errors, including the presentation of evidence from another killing.

The 53-year-old inmate is serving a separate 26-year prison sentence for killing another woman, Randi Saldana, whose burned body was found in South Carolina in 2009. He had been accused of killing a third woman in 1992, but those charges were dropped as part of a plea deal.

The defendant admitted to smoking crack and having sex with Catterton in the hours before she died but denied during his trial that he killed her.

In Friday's ruling, the justices found that the trial court erred by letting prosecutors present too much evidence related to Saldana's death, call Saldana's sister as a witness and argue in their closing arguments that Hembree lied on the stand at the behest of his attorneys. No new trial date has been set.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Paul Newby wrote that there's overwhelming evidence of Hembree's guilt, including an initial confession to police that he later retracted. He was joined by Chief Justice Mark Martin.

"The jury took little time, less than four hours, to reject defendant's recantation and find him guilty," Newby wrote.

Newby wrote that Hembree failed to show "any reasonable possibility that the jury would have reached a different result absent the alleged errors."

An attorney for Hembree, Marilyn Ozer, said that Hembree is pleased with the decision. She expects him to be moved from death row to another prison, and he'll get to have a contact visit soon with one of his grandchildren.

"I think the opinion makes it very clear that the prosecution was stretching to get a conviction on Heather Catterton's murder," Ozer said. "We're just very pleased that the justices understood that introducing all that evidence about Saldana was not appropriate and that the forensic testimony was at best uncertain."

More than a year after his conviction for Catterton's death, Hembree pleaded guilty to killing Saldana as part of a separate prosecution.

Saldana's burned body was found about two weeks after the discovery of Catterton's remains, both in York County, South Carolina.

The grisly nature of the crimes drew attention to the case, but Hembree's letter to The Gaston Gazette in 2012 brought even more notoriety. The newspaper published a front-page story about the letter in which he boasted of being a "gentleman of leisure" on death row, watching color TV and taking frequent naps.

Hembree wrote that his execution wasn't likely to happen anytime soon, adding: "Kill me if you can, suckers."

Outrage about the letter included a bill to prohibit death row inmates from watching television, but the state legislation was ultimately unsuccessful.