NC innocence case hinges on mentally ill man's confession

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A three-judge panel that will consider whether a convicted killer is actually innocent will hear arguments about the credibility of the man's confession, during which he wore a Superman-like cape and compared himself to Dracula.

The hearing for James Blackmon begins Tuesday in a courtroom in Raleigh, where his attorneys will argue that the judges should declare their client innocent in the stabbing of Helena Payton in September 1979 at what's now St. Augustine's University. She went into a coma after surgery and died about a month after she was stabbed in the neck in a dormitory bathroom.

The case went cold until 1983, when police received information from a confidential informant. In 1988, Blackmon entered an Alford plea to a second-degree murder charge. The plea allows a defendant, without admitting guilt, to acknowledge prosecutors have enough evidence to win conviction. He was sentenced to life in prison.

In November, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission found sufficient evidence of Blackmon's innocence to send his case to the three-judge panel for review. The hearing is the final step in North Carolina's innocence process, where the state-funded commission staff investigates claims of innocence and then forwards them to the commission members.

The commission recommends the cases that it finds credible to a judicial panel.

Officers who interviewed Blackmon say "he was wearing a cape like Superman," according to a filing earlier this month by his attorneys, Jonathan Broun and Beth McNeill. During the interrogations, most of which were recorded, Blackmon "talks about causing earthquakes and hurricanes. He compares himself to Dracula and says he has the ability to control people's minds. Sometimes he starts singing and at other points starts speaking in what is described in the verbatim transcript as a foreign language or 'mumbo jumbo,'" the filing says.

The attorneys say Blackmon is "a severely mentally ill man" who suffers from schizoaffective disorder, which combines the conditions of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

No physical evidence links Blackmon to Payton's murder. The dashiki shirt the killer wore and the knife used in the attack have disappeared from evidence, leaving only Blackmon's confession as evidence against him. Changes in fingerprint testing allowed prints from the crime scene to be retested in 2013. The only identified fingerprints didn't match Blackmon.

In her court filing, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said the state agrees that Blackmon has mental health and cognitive issues. She points to findings in 1984 and 1987 from doctors who evaluated him that Blackmon was competent to stand trial.

The state's position is that a trial court judge and the state Court of Appeals determined the issue of competency already, Freeman wrote.

The hearing is expected to take four days. Judge John Craig is the panel's chief judge; other members are judges Julia Gullett and James Hardin.

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Follow Martha Waggoner on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc .