By Rachel Baldauf
On a warm June night in 2013, a group gathered to play basketball at a park on Peachtree Street in Lumberton. As a white car drove past the park, gunshots rang out, scattering the crowd.
Joshua Floyd Council, 22, was fatally shot in the torso as he tried to run away. Others were wounded.
Four years later, in 2017, a Robeson County jury deliberated for six hours before finding Clarence W. Roberts of Fayetteville guilty of second-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon. He was sentenced to serve up to 31 years in prison.
Now Roberts, who has said all along he was not the shooter, is getting a second chance in court. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency in charge of investigating potential wrongful convictions, voted 6-2 last week to refer Roberts’ case for a hearing before a three-judge panel.
The new hearing will ultimately determine whether Roberts, who is being held at the Franklin Correctional Center, will be exonerated.
“It’s been a long time coming for him,” said Roberts’ attorney, Reid Cater of Piedmont Defenders, a nonprofit based in Chapel Hill.
Johnson Britt, who served as the Robeson County District Attorney during Roberts’ trial, said at the time that the case was “circumstantial,” The Robesonian reported. A witness reportedly told Lumberton police that Roberts had left in a car identified as the one involved in the shooting.
Later that night, Roberts was charged with driving while intoxicated after steering his car off the road, The Robesonian reported.
Cater said Roberts, now 48, refused a plea deal that would have greatly reduced his sentence in advance of his 2017 trial.
“He asserts then as he does now that he’s innocent,” Cater said.
Lindsey Guice Smith, executive director of the Innocence Inquiry Commission, said the hearing last week was a “neutral inquisitorial process,” meaning lawyers were not assigned to argue for or against Roberts.
In a news release, the commission said it determined there was “sufficient evidence of factual innocence to merit judicial review.”
Paul Newby, chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, will appoint three Superior Court judges to serve on a panel for a hearing in Robeson County. The hearing has not yet been scheduled.
Robeson County District Attorney Matt Scott, whose office will handle the case, declined to comment for this story.
Unlike a typical criminal trial where the burden of proof lies on the prosecution to prove that the defendant is guilty, this hearing will require Roberts’ attorney to provide “clear and convincing” evidence of Roberts’ innocence.
To exonerate Roberts, the three-judge panel would have to come to a unanimous decision. That decision cannot be appealed.
The process is unique to North Carolina, the only state in the nation to have an agency like the Innocence Inquiry Commission. Since the organization was established by the General Assembly in 2006, it has held 19 hearings that have resulted in the exoneration of 15 people.