Former death row inmate readies for new trial decades after Columbus County double murder

Former death row inmate gets new trial decades after double murder

WHITEVILLE, N.C. (WECT) - Thirty years after a gruesome double murder shook the Cape Fear region, attorneys are still arguing the case.

Norfolk Junior ‘Fuzzy’ Best was sentenced to die after being convicted of killing an elderly couple in 1993. Soon, he may have a new trial.

The bodies of Leslie Baldwin, 82, and Gertrude Baldwin, 79, were found in their Whiteville home in 1991. Twenty years later, important evidence in the case was found in the attic of Whiteville City Hall.

Before Christmas, a supreme court opinion showed Best was entitled to a new trial and on Monday, officials began laying the groundwork.

Harold ‘Butch’ Pope was on the team of lawyers representing Best nearly three decades ago. Monday was the first time he had seen the defendant in 27 years.

“The old adage is it’s better for a guilty man to go free then an innocent man to go to prison and—not saying Mr. Best is guilty—he’s pleading not guilty and he’s got a right to prove that. The first try wasn’t fair because he didn’t have all the evidence, all the information against him, which may be helpful exculpatory, so he’s got a right now to start all over fresh trial,” said Pope.

Fuzzy Best was brought in from death row in Central Prison over the weekend. The judge ordered the capital defender’s office assign him a lawyer and ruled he was not eligible for bond.

The appearance was relatively quick and Best didn’t speak much as the path forward was laid out for the court.

Next, Best’s legal team will file a motion for appropriate relief, which the judge said he will then sign, formally starting the process of bringing it to trial again.

When that happens, everything starts completely over for Best. He will be presumed innocent again and the burden will be on the state to prove his guilt.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys both will have to re-examine all of the evidence again and try and see which witnesses are still around 30 years later to testify.

“I think it’s very important that anyone who’s been convicted of a crime and sentenced to death to have a chance at a new trial. That’s the way our constitution works, that’s the way our system works. He’s innocent until proven guilty,” said Pope.

The district attorney’s office hasn’t decided whether or not to move forward with the death penalty this second go-round, but in court, the judge stated he still considered this a capital case.

Experts say the trial likely will not begin for another year between the heavy lifting both legal teams will have to do and the pandemic’s impact on court schedules. Columbus County hasn’t had a jury trial in months.

The District Attorney told the judge Monday he is confident the state will go forward with the same charges Best faced so many years ago.

District Attorney Jon David couldn’t comment on this case but in court he described the deadly stabbings as a crime that “shocked the conscience of the community.”

“What happened in 1991 was not lessened by the passage of time. Justice never sleeps,” said David in Court.

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