Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Gross Injustice -- The Donna Justice story

How ironic that Donna's last name is Justice. This is perhaps the most outrageous story of prosecutorial misconduct identified by the November 2003 "Justice Withheld" series in The News & Observer. You can read the entire story, "Woman robbed of freedom, love" by clicking here, but these are the highlights:

On September 17, 1978, Willard Setzer, the only security guard in Waynesville, North Carolina, was murdered in a doctor's office. David Hugh Chambers admitted his role in the murder, and implicated Donna Justice (the driver of the getaway car), her brother Elliott Rowe, and her former boyfriend Mitch Pakulski.

Justice, Rowe, and Pakulski had a convincing alibi--they were in Toledo, Ohio at a birthday party for Everett Rowe. They produced 14 alibi witnesses in an Ohio court to fight the arrest warrant and convince the Judge beyond reasonable doubt that they were not in North Carolina at the time. And they subsequently convinced a federal judge.

The tide changed, however, in March 1984 when a federal appeals court sent the three to North Carolina for trial. In spite of 19 witnesses to affirm her presence in Toledo, Ohio, the night of the murder, and the testimony of Waynesville Assistant Police Chief Coleman Swanger who drove by the scene about the time of the break-in and whose observations contradicted Chambers' testimony, Justice was convicted and sentenced to 150-300 years in prison. It took three trials, but Rowe and Pakulski were finally convicted and both sentened to life in prison.

Marcellus Buchanan was the district attorney who prosecuted the three. And these are the evil tactics he employed to obtain the convictions.

  • Buchanan did not disclose that his star witness, David Hugh Chambers, had been promised "first class treatment" by investigators or that he had been granted total immunity.

  • To rebut the alibi witnesses, Buchanan used John Holcombe, a part-owner of a nightclub who said he saw Justice, Rowe, and Pakulski in town one day before the murder. Just days after telling this story to investigators, the Waynesville police hired Holcombe despite Holcombe's felony record, which was against State law. Holcomb testified in uniform.

  • After Justice was convicted, Buchanan engineered a gubernatorial pardon for Holcombe. He wrote to Governor Jim Hunt in May 1984, asking him to wipe Holcombe's felony record clean. Seven law enforcement and court officials, including Robert Burroughs, the trial judge, also wrote to the Governor. Holcombe was eventually pardoned by Governor Jim Martin.

  • Buchanan did not disclose Holcombe's felony record or the pardon request to Defense counsel.

  • During Pakulski's and Rowe's first trial, Buchanan announced he would arrest the 19 alibi witnesses who testified for Justice. Buchanan said he would charge each with multiple counts of perjury if they returned to North Carolina. Few returned to testify.

In 1987, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed Rowe's and Pakulski's convictions. Instead of trying them again, the Attorney General's office persuaded the judge to sentence Rowe and Pakulski on the robbery and breaking an entering conviction that the Supreme Court had not thrown out. They were sentenced to 20 years.

Finally in 1997 a lawyer with the N.C. Prisoner Legal Services looked at Justice's case. She found the evidence of the prosecutorial misconduct and filed an appeal for Justice, Rowe, and Pakulski. The new district attorney offered a deal -- the three could plead guilty to a single count of breaking and entering, they would be sentenced to five years, which each of them had already served, and they would be free that day. On April 6, 1998, they each pled no contest and walked out of court free.

But were they free? Justice had a 5-month old baby when she was arrested, a daughter who grew up in a broken home. "I know my dad thought she was innocent, but I've seriously hated my mom my whole life. How could she go out and commit that crime when she had a little baby." Can that 20-year experience be erased, and that relationship made whole?

The no-contest plea is a felony conviction that brings every job application to a halt. Justice works at a convenience store for minimum wage and no benefits. She's attempted suicide and spent years on anti-depressants.

Chambers got his preferential treatment and immunity; Holcombe got his job with the police and his pardon; Buchanan got his convictions. But what about Justice?


Burkey said...

Just saw this. Frightening stuff.

Karma Shuford said...

Thank you for this. Donna is a dear, dear friend of mine, and we are working on "her story." I wish I could say that her exoneration was quick and painless, but unfortunately, though she was realeased, she still has her battles to fight.

For many, these are just "other people" that you write about. But for their friends and family, it is not simply a story that can be forgotten; it lives everyday.

Thank you again.