Justice Withheld Series

The News & Observer / North Carolina

Presented here as a public-educational service by

Bonnie M. Wells

DA Turned Blind Eye

To Evidence Snitch Lied

By Joseph Neff, Staff Writer

A Criminal Chimes In

A jailhouse informant took center stage in 1996 when Charles Munsey went on trial for his life, accused of beating a woman to death with a rifle butt in Wilkes County.

Munsey, 48, had a lengthy record of property crimes -- safecracking, breaking and entering, larceny -- but no history of violence. The case against him was thin: One witness said he had seen Munsey's car in the vicinity of the slaying. A month later, Munsey pawned a gun that had been taken from the scene.

The trial turned on Thursday, June 6, when Timothy Bryan Hall took the stand and swore to be truthful. Munsey turned to his lead lawyer, Brad Cameron.

"I've never seen the man before," Munsey told Cameron.

Hall's testimony was the prosecutor's entire case against Munsey. Hall's story was dramatic -- and utterly false.

A former inmate, Hall testified that he went to the hospital at Central Prison in late 1993 to be treated for stomach ulcers. Hall said he spoke with Munsey in the yard -- and that Munsey was sitting at a picnic table, wearing an orange jumpsuit.

As they stood a few feet apart, separated by a single chain-link fence, Munsey confessed, Hall said; he had surprised Shirley Walker in the house. She slapped him. Munsey crushed her head with a rifle butt.

"We just had a small 10- to 15-minute conversation," Hall said.

Hall testified he had no ulterior motive to testify against Munsey.

"I found God a few years ago, or a few months ago -- and I -- it's just the right thing to do. No matter, no matter what happens to me, I still feel like in my heart I've done the right thing."

Hall's testimony blindsided Munsey and his attorneys. They had seen Hall's name on the witness list but had no idea who he was.

On cross-examination, Cameron scrambled to pin Hall down. Over that weekend, Cameron and his co-counsel, John Gambill, sought more information. Had Hall ever been in Central Prison?

That Monday, District Attorney Randy Lyon received a fax from Dale Talbert, a special deputy attorney general, about Hall's prison records. The judge announced that Lyon had shared the records with Munsey and his lawyers.

Lyon had not. He did not hand over Talbert's memo or Hall's medical records.

Talbert's memo was telling: A search of Hall's prison records and a search of his medical records showed no sign of him having been at Central Prison.

"The med records section staff would testify it would be nearly impossible for Hall to have been at Central without there being written documentation of the fact," Talbert wrote. "However, as a former prosecutor, I would argue that the absence of written documentation does not preclude the possibility that Hall was at Central."

Lyon sat on these records. Munsey's lawyers poked some holes in Hall's testimony; Central Prison had no orange jumpsuits or picnic tables. The lawyers did not win over the jury. Munsey was sentenced to death.

Soon after, the real killer came forward. Oid Michael Hawkins, formerly a brother-in-law of Munsey, summoned two Wilkes County deputies to a prison where he was incarcerated and confessed. Two months later, after nothing happened, Hawkins wrote the Munsey family to say Munsey was not the killer -- Hawkins was.

Munsey's family told his appeals attorney. The case began to unravel. Hawkins confessed in a sworn affidavit.

On Jan. 5, 1998, a Monday, a trial judge ordered Lyon to turn over all his files and all police files. Six days later, after church services, he went home and hanged himself.

The files contained Talbert's memo and Hall's medical records from prison.

Ben Dowling-Sendor, Munsey's appeals attorney, said that Lyon's wrongdoing was greater than Talbert's.

"Randy Lyon sat on the medical records," Dowling-Sendor said. "He's hiding records. He's lying. Talbert counseled the prosecutor to make a factual argument -- that he knew was not true -- with virtual certainty."

Talbert Declined To Comment.

At a subsequent hearing, Hawkins testified how he bludgeoned Walker to death. Hall, the jailhouse informant, swore he could not remember his earlier testimony. When asked whether he had perjured himself, he refused to testify by invoking the Fifth Amendment.

Superior Court Judge Tom Ross tossed out Munsey's conviction and ordered a new trial.

While in prison, Munsey had started smoking -- up to six packs a day, said his son, Bobby. Four months after he won a new trial and while his lawyers were negotiating a deal to free him, Munsey died of lung cancer in a hospital in New Bern. He was still in custody.

Union Co. Prosecutor To Resign

By Joseph Neff, Staff Writer

Kenneth Honeycutt, one of the state's most prominent district attorneys, has announced he is resigning effective Oct. 31.

Honeycutt has served as a judge and prosecutor for 31 years in Union County and neighboring counties. He announced his resignation three weeks after being trounced in his bid for a state House seat -- and as the N.C. State Bar looks into allegations of Honeycutt's misconduct in a death row case.

A former president of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, Honeycutt is known as an alpha male among prosecutors for his aggressive prosecutions. The screensaver on the computer in his office reads like a motto for his courtroom demeanor:

"Attack, attack always attack!"

He has often worn a golden lapel pin shaped like a hangman's noose in court and hands out noose lapel pins to assistant prosecutors after they win death penalty cases. During his campaign, Hoffman defended them as "a morale booster" for staff.

In April, Honeycutt took an unusual step for a prosecutor: He requested a new trial for a death row inmate he prosecuted. Honeycutt agreed that Jonathan Hoffman should have been informed of a federal immunity deal given to the state's star witness against him. Honeycutt said he did not know about the agreement.

By agreeing to the new trial, Honeycutt avoided discussion of more serious allegations raised by Hoffman's lawyers. They submitted evidence in court filings that Honeycutt and Scott Brewer, then his assistant, knowingly used false evidence at trial and altered documents before submitting them to a judge for review. The Hoffman case was the subject of a lengthy News & Observer story in November.

Honeycutt labeled the allegations spurious, but the State Bar has opened an investigation into the case.

The State Bar does not discuss its investigations unless public charges are filed, but its investigators clearly have been at work.

The State Bar has requested the Hoffman file from his defense lawyers. One of his lawyers, Rob Hale of Raleigh, said he made copies of the entire file and delivered the documents to the bar. In addition, a State Bar investigator attended and took notes at the April hearing when Honeycutt agreed to a new trial for Hoffman.

Honeycutt did not return telephone calls to his office Tuesday.

Honeycutt has a strong reputation for his aggressive prosecution of domestic violence. He has vigorously prosecuted assaults on females, and he started a program that trains officers to collect evidence of domestic violence.

Honeycutt ran for a seat in the state House this year but lost by a wide margin in the Democratic primary to incumbent Pryor Gibson.

After the loss, Honeycutt told The Charlotte Observer that he planned to retire from the district attorney's office when his term ends in 2006.

"I don't feel like a beaten man," Honeycutt said in July. "I definitely would not rule out running again."

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


"If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts." --Albert Einstein


The simple inherit folly, but the prudent are crowned with knowledge. {Proverbs 14:18}

This series originally posted January 2006 by BMW:


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2008 // BMW