Justice Withheld Series

The News & Observer / North Carolina

Presented here as a public-educational service by

Bonnie M. Wells


Woman Robbed Of Freedom, Love

By Joseph Neff, Staff Writer

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CLYDE -- Donna Justice, then a 27-year-old mother of three, was convicted of murder in 1984 when a prosecutor sat on evidence that could have cleared her.

She served 15 years behind bars before the truth emerged. Her days in prison are over, but another kind of imprisonment continues.

She struggles with depression and thoughts of suicide. She has retreated further and further from society; soon she will move from this mountain town in Haywood County to an even more remote part of Madison County.

Her husband divorced her while she was in prison. Her parents spent their savings on legal fees. And her daughter, now 20, grew up without her, thinking her mother was a murderer.

Justice's story shows that it can take years to right a wrongful conviction. To get even a belated fair shake, she had to get lucky: A new district attorney didn't like the case, some legal aid lawyers fought for her, and she landed in front of an open-minded judge.

But Justice's story also shows how prosecutorial misconduct does more than put the wrong person behind bars. Years after her release, the damage runs deep.

"I Have Constant Nightmares," Justice said. "I'm afraid I'll wake up in prison. I dream about being in prison: I can see everything and everyone walking around the grounds. ... It's like a filth inside me I can't get out."

Justice, her brother, Elliott "Peppy" Rowe III, and her former boyfriend, Mitch Pakulski, fill a formidable chapter in the annals of North Carolina justice.

In a series of trials and mistrials starting in 1984 in Haywood County, then-District Attorney Marcellus Buchanan hid damaging evidence about his two star witnesses -- a convicted felon and a police officer with a felony record.

He sat on evidence from an assistant police chief that contradicted the felon's testimony, even though state law and the U.S. Supreme Court required him to turn over evidence helpful to the defendant.

After 15 years in prison, Justice, Rowe and Pakulski were released in 1998 when Superior Court Judge Jesse B. Caldwell III threw out the convictions.

"I've never experienced anything like this," Caldwell said. "An injustice was finally righted."


A Criminal Chimes In

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On Sept. 17, 1978, the town of Waynesville was shocked to learn that the community's only security guard, Willard Setzer, had been slain in the middle of the night in a doctor's office.

Investigators eventually tracked down David Hugh Chambers, who had a lengthy criminal record. Chambers knew Pakulski, who was linked to several break-ins in Haywood County. Two months after the slaying, North Carolina investigators arrested Chambers on unrelated check forgery charges in Dayton, Ohio, a few blocks from where Setzer's car had been found.

Chambers said he knew about Setzer's murder. Over the next month, Chambers gave at least six accounts of the crime to police that differed in important details. He did not implicate Justice until his third formal statement.

Chambers' basic story: Donna Justice parked out front as lookout while Pakulski, Rowe and Chambers broke into the doctor's office. The security guard drove up and entered, and was hit with a paint can and then shot with his own gun. The four fled with Setzer's car, gun and wallet.

Chambers' testimony was the only evidence that placed Justice, Rowe and Pakulski at the crime scene. There were no fingerprints or other witnesses.

Buchanan gave Chambers total immunity and tried to arrest Justice, Rowe and Pakulski, who lived in Toledo, Ohio.

Justice and Rowe had roots in Haywood County. Their mother was from Waynesville, and they visited often. Justice lived in Canton, N.C., during her first marriage, then moved to Ohio with her two sons.

Justice, Rowe and Pakulski had an alibi for the night of the killing: They were in Toledo, celebrating the birthday of Everett Rowe, brother of Donna and Peppy. They fought the arrest warrant in Ohio courts.

After 14 people testified that the three were in Toledo the day of the slaying, an Ohio trial judge found beyond a reasonable doubt that they were not in North Carolina at the time. So did a federal judge. The case bounced between courts until March 1984, when a federal appeals court sent the three to North Carolina.

Buchanan put Justice on trial, still hoping she would cooperate. Nineteen alibi witnesses testified that she was in Toledo the day of the killing.

To counter the alibi witnesses, Buchanan called police officer John Holcombe, a former bar owner, who testified that he saw Justice and Pakulski the night before the murder. The Waynesville police hired Holcombe in 1978, days after he told investigators about seeing Justice and Pakulski in his nightclub. They hired him despite his felony record for larceny. Holcombe lied on his application; state law bars felons from becoming police officers.

Buchanan was obligated to tell Justice's attorney about Holcombe's record, but he didn't.

Buchanan also sat on evidence from Coleman Swanger, the assistant police chief, who repeatedly told colleagues that he drove by the doctor's office at the time of the crime. Swanger saw the security guard's car but saw no cars in the street, where Chambers had placed Justice acting as a lookout.

Swanger saw the pickup truck that Chambers said was the getaway car. Chambers testified they had driven all over the county that night before arriving at the doctor's office. But Swanger said the truck was covered with dew, a sign it was cold and had been parked all night.

The jury convicted Justice, and Superior Court Judge Robert Burroughs sentenced her to 150 to 300 years in prison. Still, Justice refused any deals to help prosecute Rowe and Pakulski.

Witness Wins A Pardon

Buchanan then tried Rowe and Pakulski. Without the knowledge of defense lawyers, Buchanan requested a gubernatorial pardon for John Holcombe, the police officer with the felony record. The criminal justice establishment of Haywood County joined in, including Burroughs, the trial judge.

Buchanan threatened to charge the 19 alibi witnesses for Justice with perjury if they returned from Toledo. Few returned to testify for Rowe and Pakulski.

The jury hung, eight for acquittal and four for conviction. A second trial in July 1984 ended in a second mistrial, nine for acquittal and three for conviction. At the third trial, Buchanan won a conviction for murder, armed robbery and breaking and entering. Pakulski and Rowe were sentenced to life in prison.

In 1985, Gov. Jim Martin pardoned Holcombe. David Chambers was released from a Kansas prison, where he had been serving time for check fraud. The SBI brought Chambers back to North Carolina, gave him a furnished trailer with two months of paid rent, a deposit for utilities, groceries, a job and $50 in cash.

In 1987, the N.C. Supreme Court threw out Rowe's and Pakulski's murder convictions because of faulty jury instructions. Prosecutors from the Attorney General's Office took over the case because the new district attorney had a conflict of interest.

At the 1988 trial, the jury deadlocked again, six to six.

Rather than try them a fifth time, William Hart of the Attorney General's Office executed a clever legal retreat: He persuaded the judge to sentence Rowe and Pakulski on the 1984 robbery and breaking and entering convictions, which the Supreme Court had not thrown out. They received 20 years.

Free, But At A Price

In 1997, Geraldine Coleman, a lawyer with N.C. Prisoner Legal Services, took Justice's case. A new clerk of court in Haywood County produced all the files.

She found evidence of Chambers' special treatment and Holcombe's personnel file, including his original application on which he lied about his felony record. In Raleigh, she obtained Holcombe's pardon file, including the letters from the prosecutor, judge and investigators.

None of this had been brought before a judge on Justice's behalf; it was her first chance to prove that North Carolina had robbed her of her right to a fair trial. Coleman filed an appeal. Similar appeals were filed for Pakulski and Rowe.

Charles Hipps, the new district attorney, struck a deal that had the backing of Buchanan, retired and in failing health: The state would dismiss all charges if Justice, Rowe and Pakulski would plead "no contest" to one count of breaking and entering into the doctor's office. The maximum penalty was five years less than what each had already served. They would be free that day.

Rowe wanted to reject the deal. He relented after his sister got on her knees and begged him.

"They offered that, dangling candy in front of a baby's face," Justice said. "Babies reach for it because they want it. I wanted out of prison."

On April 6, 1998, they pleaded no contest and walked out of court free, 20 years after they were charged with murder. Buchanan died in 2000. Hipps died this year.

'It's Crazy'

Justice was a model inmate -- one infraction in 14 years -- and had earned a college degree. But her life outside crumbled.

When she was arrested in Toledo, Justice left behind a husband, Kimis Porietis, and Brandy, then 5 months old. At trial, Porietis was a wreck; he dropped from 170 pounds to 135. He spent his savings on legal fees.

He moved with Brandy to Raleigh, worked as a contractor and reared his daughter alone. They trekked to Women's Prison each weekend and had 10-minute collect phone calls during the week.

"It sucked, waiting in long lines. It was a cage," Brandy Porietis said. "My dad, he was so depressed. ... He was always tired, always worrying about my mom."

Justice's husband struggled. He believed in his wife's innocence, but in 1990, he lost hope, divorced her and remarried.

Brandy Porietis said her stepmother shaped her view of Donna Justice. "I know my dad thought she was innocent, but I've seriously hated my mom my whole life," said Porietis, who lives in Cary. "How could she go out and commit that crime when she had a little baby?"

Only recently has Porietis, 20, learned that her mother spent years in prison because of prosecutorial misconduct.

"If she was never convicted, we might have been a happy family," Porietis said recently, searching for words. "Everybody wants a mom and dad to grow up with, but I had to grow up too fast, because they convicted my mom of something she didn't do."

Porietis blames her mother's absence for her chaotic teen years filled with marijuana, depression and insomnia. "My dad -- I hit 13 and he gets confused -- he had no idea," she said. "Thirteen to 18, it was total chaos."

Brandy shunned contact with her mom. She is reconsidering as she learns details of the case.

"Everything is so wrong," she said. "It's crazy."

Things fall apart

Justice's father, Elliott "Buzz" Rowe II, breaks into tears when talking about the case.

"It has just ruined a lot of people," the elder Rowe said by phone from Indiana. "I've been through hell on this. My son can't get a job. My daughter can't get a job."

Justice moved back to Haywood County. She remarried her first husband, Benny Justice, a disabled furniture worker. She has reunited with her sons. She regrets the no-contest plea that got her out of prison. The felony brings job applications to a stop.

She attempted suicide and has spent years on antidepressants. She works at a convenience store for minimum wage and no benefits. But mostly Justice keeps to herself. She gardens, paints, plays with her three dogs, cat and mynah bird, and sings country music.

"I've made a cocoon of my animals and my guitar so the outside world can't touch me."


Truth, Love Trump Injustice

Daughter Makes New Connection With Mother Falsely Convicted Of Murder

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Brandy Porietis, laughs with her parents, Donna Justice and Kimis Porietis, as Kimis and Brandy see Donna for the first time in years. Donna Justice served 15 years in prison for a murder she did not commit. [ps: photos not included on this page]

CARY -- Within their first hour together in 12 years, Brandy Porietis and Donna Justice realized Thursday night that the bonds they share are stronger than the lies that tore them apart.

They both draw and paint and write poetry. They both aspire to style hair. Both have picked up the guitar in the past two years and are quirky enough to consider a mother-and-daughter tattoo.

All this outweighed a cheating prosecutor, a lying witness and Justice's 15 years behind bars for a murder she didn't commit. It carried more meaning than Porietis' memory of her mother in prison blues, behind fences and barbed wire.

So in her Cary apartment, one of the first things Porietis asked for was a music lesson.

"Maybe I was supposed to learn from you a long time ago, but the state interfered," she said.

For most of her 20 years, Porietis thought her mother was a killer. She was 5 months old when the state of North Carolina locked up her mother following a trial rife with official misconduct. The prosecutor withheld evidence of Justice's innocence and hid damning information about his star witnesses, a snitch who couldn't keep his story straight and a police officer hiding a felony record.

A state judge, appalled by the misconduct, freed Justice in 1998. By then, Porietis' father had divorced Justice and remarried. Porietis said her stepmother had hammered into her head that her mother was a murderer, and Porietis had not seen her mother since 1991.

Only in the past few months, as Porietis read her mother's court papers and a News & Observer account of the case, did she begin to reconsider.

On Wednesday, she picked up the telephone. She found her mother in Angola, Ind., where Justice went to spend a few months with her dying father. They spoke several times that day, crying as much as talking.

On Thursday at 5 a.m., Justice, her mother and a brother started driving. They pulled up to Porietis' apartment at 8 p.m.

Justice climbed out of the car and stood, hesitating. Porietis ran from the porch and wrapped herself around her mother.

"When you called yesterday, I almost passed out," Justice said. "I was worried if you were going to like me."

On the surface, mother and daughter are from different worlds, a country mother and a city daughter. Porietis slings espresso in a coffee house and sports a pierced tongue and tattoos. Her politics tend toward anarchism, her short hair evidence that she had shaved her head smooth just months ago.

Justice lives on a remote mountainside in Haywood County and sings country music. She looks the part, wearing a black leather skirt and her long hair piled up.

But within minutes, they were cataloguing their similarities, whether it was a favorite color (black) or ways to cope with anxiety (clean and organize the house).

To catch up on their years apart, they quickly turned to serious matters. Justice talked about how she wrestled with whether to have her daughter or an abortion.

Porietis laid out all her high school mistakes; how, for example, she hid her conviction for marijuana possession from her father. She laughed nervously as she related how she and a friend were busted for stealing $12 worth of canned whipped cream, so they could get high inhaling the nitrous oxide.

"We did it in the bathroom of the store I was stealing from. It was so stupid; I'm so embarrassed."

Justice's bright eyes dimmed as she listened to this story. "I feel so sad, you had such a crappy start."

They piled in a car and went nearby to see Porietis' father, Kimis Porietis, who had divorced Justice while she was in prison. He hugged his former mother-in-law, his former brother-in-law and his daughter but avoided his ex-wife's eyes. The room was tense until, with all eyes on him, Kimis Porietis finally looked at Justice and hugged her: "It's good to see you, Donna."

The room relaxed, and for a few hours there were glimpses of a family that might have been. He talked about the difficulties rearing his daughter as a single parent, and how Justice's father moved down to help him with work and his daughter. Brandy Porietis told stories of her grandfather's practical jokes and the time when she was 3 years old and she and a playmate struck off for downtown Raleigh in a battery-powered car.

But the conversation kept swinging back to more painful places.

Mother and daughter slipped to the kitchen to cook spaghetti. The travelers hadn't eaten since lunch 10 hours before.

The two women stirred a boiling pot of pasta, nibbling on the noodles to see whether they were done.

"I keep imagining how frigging horrible you must have felt in prison," Porietis said, "how sick your stomach must have felt."

Why, Porietis asked, why did the state's star witness get up on the stand and lie? How could prosecutors and police keep putting him on the stand when his story changed each time he told it?

Justice told her that the witness lied to win immunity and to avoid being charged with murder. They also had pressured her to testify against her then-boyfriend, Mitch Pakulski, also charged in the murder.

Justice lifted a long noodle out of the pot and cut it in two. She told Porietis that she could have avoided prison entirely if she had testified against Pakulski. Mother and daughter chewed pensively: not done.

"What kind of person would I be if I lied on Mitch?" Justice asked. "I could have lied for my freedom, and then I would have really been a murderer. They would have given Mitch the death penalty. I couldn't even do it for you -- you were 6 months old, Brandy. I had to give you up."

Staff writer Joseph Neff can be reached at 829-4516 or

jneff@newsobserver.com


Comments By

Bonnie M. Wells

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There's not much I can say about the case of Donna Justice, except to apologize from afar, but even that has to be a personal thing because there have been cases right here in my own area that are just as bad.

One such case comes readily to my mind, and although I will not mention names at this time, I will say that if anyone on earth took a good look at the case, they would quickly see that an injustice had been perpetrated against a man who did not do the crime.

It involved the murder of a woman who was well known in several counties and two states as a hooker.

Two people believed they saw this woman in the presence of a man who has been "in the neighborhood" of a dozen or more murders. Some believe he is a serial killer, operating with the full knowledge of the authorities.

Those people who saw the woman with the man were never permitted to testify in court. They weren't even permitted to see a picture of the woman so that they might say for certain that it was her - or for that matter, that it wasn't her.

Instead, they were shunned as if they were the lying criminals, and others who had a history of lying, cheating, stealing and arrest for various petty crimes were brought in and held up as fine, upstanding citizens. Their word was "good as gold," even though their testimony changed time and time again while on the witness stand:

Example: Witness A testified that - he was not present at the time of the woman's murder, and that he did not take part in the so called "rape" that supposedly caused her murder when she [a hooker, now mind you] threatened to "go to the cops."

Witness A then decided that he was present and that he saw the accused choke the victim to death and then stab her in the throat [four times after death.]

Still not happy with his performance in the court room, witness A then decided the victim was alive when he got to the apartment in which the crime "supposedly" occured [although there was never any evidence found in the apartment!] He then testified that he and the accused took the victim to the area in which she was found, and killed her there.

It gets better folks - Witness A also testified that the victim was dead when he arrived at the apartment, and he saw "scratches" all over her - even though he testified that she was wrapped in a sheet and "ready to go," when he arrived to assist the killer in getting her dead body out of his apartment.

The state coroner testified that there were no "scratches, cuts, abrasions, etc." on the victim. Guess no one heard him though. No one wanted to hear him. They were on a roll, - no butter was required!

Witness A verified that they had used the accused's vehicle to transport the victim to the dump site - but - the tire tracks discovered at the dump site didn't match those of the accused's vehicle!!! No further search was conducted, even though the two people who believed they had seen another man with the victim sent word to the local police that as soon as word was released that tire tracks had been found and the police were trying to locate the vehicle that matched, the man pulled his winter tires off his vehicle and put a set of tred-bare [ totally illegal] tires on his vehicle! No one questioned him. And no cop or prosecuting attorney or even the defense attorney wanted to hear anything from the two people who might have been able to show reasonable doubt to the jury!

According to Witness A, the victim was murdered right after the accused raped her and she told him [a man whom she had lived with off and on for several years, and who knew she was a hooker] that she was going to report the rape to the police! Only problem was - the coroner testified that the woman had had sex some twelve hours "before" she was murdered!!!

The real kicker to the case was the fact that the woman was pregnant - 4 and 1/2 months pregnant when she was murdered. When counted up on a calander, it had been precisely 4 and 1/2 months since the two people had seen the other man in the presence of a woman they believed was the victim. Didn't matter. No one wanted to hear the truth, and so it was never told.

It didn't even matter that the DNA evidence [semen] did not match the accused, or Witness A, or even Witness B for that matter! Witness B was the drunken son of the accused and was cut a pretty good deal [as was Witness A] for his testimony. And so the story goes all across our great nation - meanwhile the real killer continues to walk our streets, continues to kill at will, and no one cares.

Perhaps they think he will never get to them or their child - perhaps they are right. I wouldn't put any money on the bet though, but that's just the opinion of a very determined, very dedicated woman who continues to believe that the man who murdered the woman in this story has killed several before her, and several more since her. He will not stop, and more innocent people will go to prison [if] the cases are ever [solved.]

But, there is one thing about all this, there is not a cop, a prosecuting attorney, or even a defense attorney within this case or any other that I'm aware of that has not been given the information. They will never be able to claim ignorance. They will never be able to say - "Had we known, things could have been different" - because I have made absolutely certain each and every one has known - before they perpetrated their own crime - before they chose to convict an innocent person - they were made aware of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The consequences are upon their heads, not mine.

2006 Update: It's been ten years since the murder of the hooker. Her boyfriend continues to sit in prison. He has a second grade education, is a drug addict [as was she], an alcoholic, and can neither read nor write. Wonder what his chances are for any "Innocence Project" to look into his case? Next to nonexistant, I'd venture to guess.

Meanwhile, one of the people who saw the woman with the other man, that some continue to believe was the actual killer, refused to get involved in the case, stating that they had an important job [a title, you know!] and could not become involved in a murder case because it might cost them their important job. The other witness had no titles, no important job, and would have been willing to lay them on the line even if they had existed. That person is doing quite well today. The other is dying of cancer. Once that fine individual is gone, I don't suppose the word of the other individual would matter any more than it ever has, even though that individual has never, ever been involved in any kind of criminal activities, never had a speeding ticket, a parking ticket, or ever done anything illegal.

So be it .....


"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius -- and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction." -- Albert Einstein


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Bonnie M. Wells

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This series posted January 2006 by BMW: