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Innocence commission advances murder case to judicial review

November 19, 2018

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A man serving a life sentence for killing a North Carolina college student has earned the chance to ask a judicial panel to set him free after a special state commission found evidence of his innocence, the state announced Monday.

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission found sufficient evidence of James Blackmon’s innocence to send his case to the three-judge panel for review. Blackmon was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1979 fatal stabbing of Helena Payton at a college in Raleigh, and he’s served more than three decades in prison.

After a three-day evidentiary hearing last week, the commission voted unanimously to allow Blackmon to proceed to a hearing in Wake County court before the judges, who will decide whether to overturn his conviction. That hearing date has not been set.

The evidence considered by the innocence commission included a fingerprint from the scene that matched someone else, said Beth Tanner, associate director of the commission. The eight-member commission also heard testimony from Blackmon, a fingerprint examiner, a detective and expert witnesses.

The commission, the only state agency of its kind in the country, is tasked with investigating post-conviction innocence claims. Defendants submit to a lengthy, rigorous examination of their case. Since 2007, the commission has reviewed more than 2,500 claims, and its investigations have resulted in 10 defendants’ exonerations.

Attorneys for Blackmon, 65, initiated the process of having his case reviewed by the commission in 2011.

Payton was found stabbed in September 1979 in a bathroom stall in her college dorm at what’s now known as St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh. She died after several weeks in a coma.

In the following years, Blackmon became a suspect and was prosecuted. In 1988, he entered an Alford plea to the second-degree murder charge. The plea allows a defendant, without admitting guilt, to acknowledge prosecutors have enough evidence to win conviction.

A defense attorney declined comment Monday because the case is pending.

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