The last man condemned to death by a Mecklenburg County jury walked off death row on Wednesday a free man.
Michael Wayne Sherrill, convicted 12 years ago for the 1984 fatal stabbing and rape of Cynthia Dotson, climbed into a truck with his brother on Wednesday evening and drove off from Central Prison in Raleigh.
Earlier in the day, the 65-year-old pleaded guilty via a video link to lesser charges in Dotson’s death during a highly unusual court hearing.
Sherrill’s freedom hinged on the discovery in April that several pieces of evidence, which could have strengthened his defense, had not been shared with his attorneys before his 2009 trial.
Sherrill’s release after more than 16 years in custody angered and dismayed two members of Dotson’s family who were in Superior Court Judge Lou Trosch’s courtroom on Wednesday, according to courtroom observers.
Under an agreement between the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office and the defense team, Trosch set aside Sherrill’s death sentence for the murder and rape of Dotson, a 23-year-old Charlotte waitress.
Instead, Sherrill pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, second-degree rape and second-degree arson. He received a new 20-year sentence.
Under the state’s previous sentencing laws, which still applied to the case, Sherrill already had served more than his expected punishment.
In previous court appearances, Sherrill had said he did not kill Dotson — even though his DNA had been found at the scene.
Among the problems cited in the consent order was a missing fingerprint taken from the scene and the fact that Charlotte-Mecklenburg police had destroyed a rape kit in 1985 with material collected from Dotson’s body, calling the handling of DNA evidence into question, according to court filings.
Prosecutors with the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office on Thursday stressed that they still believe Sherrill killed Dotson, but they agreed to his release “in the interest of justice,” according to a written statement.
“After a thorough review of the available evidence surrounding the defendant’s allegations, the State was not in a position to confirm or disprove the defendant’s claims,” the statement from the prosecutors’ office said.
“The State remains completely convinced of the defendant’s guilt and is pleased the defendant has now accepted responsibility for his crimes by pleading guilty,” it also stated.
Defense attorney Jeremy Smith of Charlotte told the Observer that Sherrill’s case represents “an indictment of the death penalty as a whole.”
“The case has taken 16 years from when he was charged to get to this point. Because of mistakes and negligence on the part of his defense lawyers and destruction of evidence by the state — and specifically CMPD — this result happened.”
Trosch, according to an onlooker, told the two family members in court that he hoped they found some solace in the fact that Sherrill had finally admitted a role in Cindy Dotson’s death, 37 years after her murder. The woman, whose body was found in her partially burned trailer on Wilkinson Boulevard, had been raped and stabbed 13 times in the chest. And her throat was cut.
Dotson’s family could not be reached for comment Thursday. But following Sherrill’s trial in 2009, her loved ones said their 25-year wait for justice had ended.
“I had given up that my sister’s killing would ever be solved,” John Dotson told the Observer at that time.
Vacated death sentences
Sherrill becomes the ninth N.C. inmate within the last year whose death sentence has been vacated, according to the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. Those sentences were set aside for a variety of reasons, including racial discrimination, juror misconduct, ineffective assistance from counsel and prosecutors’ failure to turn over evidence.
Sherrill was arrested and indicted for the killing a quarter of a century after Dotson’s death when detectives, operating under the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s new cold-case unit, said they found his DNA on a fingernail retrieved from Dotson’s body in 1984.
Sherrill in 2005 was also charged with the murders of three people killed in Charlotte eight months after Dotson died. Linda Taylor, Jackson Bostic and his 14-year-old daughter, Amy, were found beaten to death in their partially burned home off Old Pineville Road.
Sherrill’s trial judge allowed evidence from the three killings to be presented at Sherrill’s trial for the killing of Cindy Dotson. Years later, the second set of murder charges were dropped.
Up until Wednesday, Sherrill had been one of 136 people awaiting execution at Central Prison as he appealed his conviction. His departure leaves four Mecklenburg defendants on Death Row.
Sherrill’s status suddenly changed in April during a hearing in Trosch’s courtroom. Sherrill’s appeal was built primarily on claims that his trial attorneys — Deke Falls and Bill Causey — had not effectively represented him. Falls and Causey could not be reached for comment Thursday.
During questioning by Sherrill’s current lawyers about his handling of the case, Falls testified that he never received the potentially exculpatory fingerprint taken from the murder scene, observers said. Now a federal public defender in San Diego, Falls also said he did not know during the trial that rape kit evidence had been destroyed by police a year after Dotson’s death, according to observers and court filings.
Under the so-called Brady Rule, prosecutors are required to turn over several categories of evidence to the defense, including anything that points responsibility for the crime toward another suspect or casts doubt on the credibility of police.
After hearing what Falls said about the missing evidence, Trosch immediately halted the hearing, according to people in the courtroom. The defense team then told the judge they would amend their appeal to add constitutional violations of Sherrill’s due-process rights. Prosecutors said they would investigate to determine whether any Brady violations had occurred.
In the weeks that followed, attorneys from both sides agreed to a compromise: Sherrill would be freed. But he had to plead guilty to killing Dotson first.
Smith, a former prosecutor, called it a “horribly sad” situation for the Dotson family.
“This doesn’t make their pain any less real,” Smith said. “It doesn’t change the fact that they lost a family member. But ultimately justice has to be done according to the Constitution and the laws we have.”
Sherrill leaves prison as a very sick man, his lawyer said. He is being treated for advanced liver cancer.
“He’s taking life one day at a time now,” Smith said.