RALEIGH, N.C. — A mother and child who testified in a murder trial more than 20 years ago that led to a man’s life sentence may have received $1,000 in reward money, some trips to a theme park and basketball games for the son, according to court filings in the case.
A three-judge panel is set to open a hearing Monday for Robert Bragg as part of North Carolina’s unique innocence process. The 64-year-old inmate is serving a sentence of life in prison without parole in connection with the fatal beating of an elderly man in December 1994. Bragg has maintained innocence throughout his 21 years behind bars, even rejecting a plea deal that carried a 15-year sentence.
The hearing will be held in Watauga County, where 76-year-old Coy Hartley was beaten in his mobile home. Bragg was convicted of first-degree murder under the felony murder rule in which someone who participated in a crime where a death occurred can be held culpable even if they didn’t cause the death.
According to court records, witness testimony placed Bragg at the scene: His co-defendant, Kenneth Coffey, said Bragg was with him at the time Hartley was killed. Rene Nelson testified that she saw Bragg with Coffey near Hartley’s mobile home on the day of the slaying; and her son, Jeffrey, who was 10 at the time, testified that he saw Coffey and Bragg enter Hartley’s trailer.
Of those three, only Rene Nelson has stood by the gist of her original testimony, though she changed details of her account in testimony last year before the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency established to investigate and evaluate post-conviction innocence claims. The commission — the only one of its kind in the country — recommended that the three-judge panel determine whether Bragg is innocent.
Jeffrey Nelson, now 31, recently recanted his trial testimony, saying he didn’t even know Robert Bragg.
“I do not know anything about Coy Hartley’s murder, and I never have,” his affidavit from earlier this month reads. “I have wanted to come forward to tell someone about my untruthful testimony for years.”
Nelson also testified at the innocence commission hearing that law enforcement officers coached him in what to say. People he didn’t know took him to the Carowinds amusement park, a water park and a Charlotte Hornets game after he testified, he said. He added that it felt like bribery.
In addition, there’s evidence that the Nelsons received $1,000 in reward money, said Chris Mumma, Bragg’s attorney. Rene Nelson told the innocence commission that she had called in a tip to Crimestoppers, confirming that for the first time.
Coffey, who is described in court records as having a low IQ and being mentally ill, has issued contradictory statements since the trial including several saying that Bragg was not with him when Hartley was killed. Coffey was convicted of first-degree murder and also sentenced to life in prison without parole.
And other evidence showed Bragg was in Mountain City, Tennessee, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Boone, on the day before, the day of and the day after Hartley was killed. A Tennessee judge encouraged Bragg to fight extradition, but he refused because he was certain he could return home and clear things up.
Bragg, who has acknowledged he was a homeless drunk at that time, is a different man now, Mumma said. He’s active in a prison church and doesn’t drink even though illicit alcohol is available behind bars, she said.
“Although he’s a changed person, he was never a person who would commit murder,” she said.
Watauga County District Attorney Seth Banks, who will argue for keeping Bragg behind bars, declined to comment on the specifics of the case.
“We’re committed to seeing this process through to its conclusion,” he said. “As a career prosecutor, I’m a firm believer in the jury system. Verdicts are designed to speak through time.”
Still, it’s “important to have a process like this to go back and review the work of those who have come before,” he said.
The victim’s nephew, Jerry Hartley, testified at the commission hearing that he didn’t know what to believe after hearing the testimony from “very questionable individuals.”
“I think the original jury probably had a better idea than we can come up with now as to whether he was guilty or not,” Hartley testified.
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