On Dec. 9, 1973, Jesse Lee Walston, 24, Vernon Leroy Brown, 23, and Bobby Hines, 25, all of Tarboro, N.C., were convicted of raping a white woman. In accordance with North Carolina’s capital punishment statute, they were sentenced to die in the gas chamber.
SPLC attorneys, convinced of the young black men’s innocence, took their case, appealed their convictions to the North Carolina Supreme Court and won a reversal. In January 1974, the high court ordered a new trial.
The three men never denied having intercourse with the white woman, but they steadfastly denied raping her. As preparations for the new trial were under way, the district attorney said he would accept a settlement of a 12-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. Knowing the death penalty hung over their heads, they refused his offer because they would not plead guilty to a crime they did not commit.
On the morning of the new trial, the district attorney again offered a settlement – six years in exchange for a guilty plea – and again the men refused to accept.
SPLC attorneys had conducted an exhaustive investigation and had uncovered important evidence that was not produced in the first trial. They were primed for trial when the final, acceptable settlement was offered by the prosecuting attorney – a plea of nolo contendere, or “no contest,” to a charge of assault with intent to rape and a six-year suspended sentence.
In August 1975, Walston, Brown and Hines were finally set free to return to their families after spending nearly two years in prison. Years later, Hines was killed in a job-related accident. Walston and Brown, friends since childhood, have lived productive lives and have maintained contact with the SPLC over the years.