In the News

Judge frees man from death row, points to withheld evidence in Charlotte murder trial

BY MICHAEL GORDON AND

AMES ALEXANDER

JUNE 17, 2021 05:31 PM,
UPDATED JUNE 17, 2021 06:30 PM

Michael Wayne Sherrill was convicted of the 1984 rape and murder of Cindy Dotson of Charlotte and sentenced to death in Feb. 23, 2008. On Wednesday, a judge threw out his death sentence. Sherrill pleaded guilty to lesser charges and was released due to his years in prison. TODD SUMLIN THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

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.

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.

MISHANDLED EVIDENCE

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.