Eighteen years ago, 17-year-old Derrick McRae, a black man, was convicted in the murder of a white man in the drug-plagued projects of Rockingham, North Carolina. Despite rejecting several plea deals and being found not guilty by 8 out of 12 jurors in his first trial, McRae was found guilty when retried several weeks later and sentenced to life without parole in 1998. As reported by the Independent Weekly, new evidence suggests that McRae is innocent and his constitutional rights were violated.
Nicole Wolfe, the forensic psychiatrist who first evaluated McRae after his conviction, described him as “one of the most severely mentally ill people I’ve ever evaluated.” She didn’t believe McRae was capable of murder. Years later, unable to shake the case from her conscience, Wolfe called the director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, asking that the organization look into his case.
The case was referred to Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic in 2007. Attorney Teresa Newman noticed that the two witness testimonies differed wildly. One, Edward Tender, a jailhouse informant who claimed that McRae confessed to the murder, described McRae as an angry, shrewd disciple of Stokely Carmichael who targeted the victim because of his race. The other, Thurman Nelson, who was also charged with the murder, said the murder occurred when the victim gave McRae counterfeit money in a drug deal. The allegation that McRae was an erudite Black Panther also contradicted Wolfe’s psychiatric evaluation, which noted that the teen could not name five cities or spell the word “world.”
In an unprecedented move, the prosecution called Tender to testify against McRae in the second trial while still under indictment for the murder himself. As Newman explained to Independent Weekly, “That doesn’t happen! Either he’s lying, or his indictment can’t stand. You can’t have it both ways.” When interviewed by Newman, Tender recanted his statement and said McRae was framed. When cross-examined in December, however, Tender said that his 1998 testimony was true, as far as he could recall.
Although both witness claimed at trial that they didn’t receive a deal in exchange for their testimony, both eventually received reduced sentences and dismissed charges after they testified. After the two witnesses testified, they received reduced sentences in their own criminal cases. Yet the prosecution never disclosed the existence of a deal in exchange for their testimony.
A brief filed by attorneys at Duke calls for McRae’s conviction to be overturned and the murder charge dropped due to the lack of evidence tying him to the crime. Judge W. David Lee is expected to decide this month whether the new evidence presented warrants a new trial.
Read the Independent Weekly article