BOONE, N.C. — A North Carolina judicial panel ruled Friday that a convicted killer who has already spent 21 years of a life sentence behind bars has failed to prove his innocence in a murder case, which an innocence commission determined needed a fresh look.
The three-judge panel ruled unanimously that lawyers for Robert Bragg, 64, didn’t show where was clear and convincing evidence he was innocent in the fatal beating of an elderly man for the fatal beating of an elderly man in December 1994. The panel could have determined he had been wrongfully imprisoned and should be released.
The judges heard evidence all week after Bragg’s case was reviewed by a state agency that is the only one of its kind in the country. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission’s duty is investigating and evaluating post-conviction claims of innocence.
Bragg has been serving a sentence of life in prison without parole for first-degree murder. Bragg had rejected a plea deal that carried a 15-year sentence.
“By upholding the jury’s verdict in this case, the court has confirmed that the original investigation and trial were fair and that the jury reached a just result back in 1996 when this case was originally tried,” said Seth Banks, the district attorney who argued for keeping Bragg behind bars.
Banks is the top prosecutor in Watauga County, where 76-year-old Coy Hartley was beaten in his mobile home. Bragg was convicted 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. His co-defendant, Kenneth Coffey, said Bragg was with him at the time Hartley was killed.
Coffey, who is described in court records as having a low IQ and being mentally ill, has made contradictory statements since the trial, including 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.
Evidence showed Bragg was in Mountain City, Tennessee, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the scene of the slaying in 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.
Other evidence showed that a mother and child who testified they witnessed Bragg and Coffey near Hartley’s mobile home on the day of the slaying 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.
Jeffrey Nelson, now 31, recently recanted his trial testimony about Bragg, saying he didn’t know him.
“I have wanted to come forward to tell someone about my untruthful testimony for years,” his affidavit last month stated.
Nelson also testified at the earlier hearing before the innocence commission that law enforcement officers coached him in what to say. People he didn’t know took him to an amusement park, a water park and a Charlotte Hornets basketball game after he testified, he said. He added that it felt like bribery.
His mother, Rene Nelson, told the innocence commission that she had called in a tip to Crimestoppers. That could have resulted in the Nelsons receiving $1,000 in reward money, said Chris Mumma, Bragg’s attorney.
Mumma said despite the judicial panel’s ruling, she will ask a Watauga County judge to look at the evidence and order a retrial.
“The fact is someone remains in prison with a life sentence without parole for a conviction that’s based on evidence that’s unclear,” Mumma said.