Charles McNeair and supporters. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

Charles McNeair was 16 when police in Lexington arrested him on November 26, 1979, and charged him with breaking into the home of a 57-year-old white woman and raping her while armed with a claw hammer and a screwdriver.

He was found asleep in her bed, still clutching the weapons under the sheets. Police later said he was a suspect in four other attacks—two rapes and two attempted rapes—on white women in the eastern part of the segregated city.

McNeair says he never broke into the woman’s house; she invited him over. The two had met at the Winn-Dixie store where the teenager hustled for tips in exchange for carrying customers’ groceries. She would talk to him about her estranged husband. Soon, they began hanging out, drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, and making out. 

But accused of rape and told—falsely—that he could face the death penalty, McNeair took a plea deal six months after his arrest. He was sentenced to life in prison, where he remains 43 years later.

Four decades later, his case looks a lot different. Many people have long since forgotten that rape was ever considered a capital crime. Both science and the law have come a long way in changing how we think about punishing juveniles. 

And, perhaps most saliently, the plea deal McNeair took would likely get him a 10-year maximum sentence today.

The avenues for challenging McNeair’s conviction are slim, however. He pleaded guilty. There’s little physical evidence that could be tested for DNA, which could help exonerate him. 

His only options for getting out of prison are through the parole board or a clemency petition his lawyer has filed with the Juvenile Sentence Review Board, which Gov. Roy Cooper established in April 2021 via executive order to revisit the cases of people who were tried and sentenced in adult criminal court for acts committed before they turned 18.

The board makes recommendations to the governor for clemency and commutation. But so far, it’s led to the release of only five people—while more than 300 could be eligible. 

Reporter Michael Hewlett took a deep look at McNeair’s case, his advocates’ pleas for a new look, and the atmosphere in Lexington at the time he was sent away. 

A Black Teen. A White Woman. A Life Sentence. 

Charles McNeair was 16 when a white woman accused him of rape. He accepted a plea deal because he thought his life was on the line. Now, his advocates say the case deserves another look.

“It’s a sad case,” said Charles Clark, head of the Lexington NAACP. “He has what Black people call a stamped file—never to be released.”

The Paper Chase

All of the people who played a significant role in Charles McNeair’s conviction are dead. 

But the answers to the many outstanding questions in McNeair’s case could be in the investigative file that Lexington detectives compiled in 1979. We could find out what steps police took in their investigation, including whether they collected a rape kit or other evidence from the scene. We could find out if there was anything to back up the claim that McNeair had broken into his alleged victim’s house rather than been invited, as he says he was.

But criminal investigative files are not public under state law, so The Assembly filed a motion asking a Davidson County judge to release the file. 

It led to a notable problem: Lexington police couldn’t find the file. At a hearing on May 15, an attorney representing the city of Lexington said they’d done an exhaustive search but came up empty. Lexington police said they would continue looking.

At a hearing on May 19, the attorney said the police still couldn’t locate the file. Instead, they found the criminal investigative file for an alleged rape in August 1979—one in which police named McNeair as a possible suspect but never charged him. 

We finally received the August 1979 file late in the afternoon last Friday, just before the holiday weekend. Documents in the file noted that investigators interviewed McNeair about that alleged rape four days after he was arrested in November. In a handwritten statement, McNeair said he entered the home through an unlocked backdoor, attempted to rape the 58-year-old woman and left with about $7. 

But it’s not clear who wrote the statement; at the time, McNeair was illiterate. The statement was written in cursive, but McNeair’s signature is printed, as is his name on an accompanying form waiving his rights to remain silent and to have an attorney. And McNeair was never charged with anything in connection to that case.

We’re still waiting on the November 1979 criminal investigative file—the one for the case in which he was actually charged and sentenced. We eventually learned that the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission has a copy of the file, but it can’t release it to us because all commission files are confidential. The commission said it would have to mail that copy to the Lexington Police Department, and a judge would have to review the file before considering whether to release it. 

In yet another twist just this morning, we learned that it appears that Lexington police never sent the commission the November 1979 file; it sent the August 1979 file instead, the city’s attorney said in an email.

The latest update raises more questions than it answers: Does anyone have the original file? And without it, how did the commission evaluate McNeair’s case?

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On Our Radar

Bob Hall, the former director of Democracy North Carolina, filed a complaint with the State Board of Elections on Tuesday alleging that video poker operators had skirted campaign finance regulations to secure lawmakers’ support. 

Hall’s complaint to SBE director Karen Brinson Bell stated that between 2019 and 2022, the industry pumped $885,000 into legislators’ coffers—a “record amount” that “exceeds the combined total of all the contributions that the PACs of Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and the N.C. Automobile Dealers Association” made during the same period. 

But firms and individuals affiliated with the N.C. Coin Operators Association did not form a political action committee, and thus avoided the contribution limits the state imposes on PACs. Instead, industry officials bundled donations from video poker operators across the state and “delivered the contributions as a package to legislators,” Hall wrote. “Each bundle totaled well over the $5,600 contribution limit that a PAC could give to a legislative candidate.”

Many bundles were delivered in late October and early November 2022, after the cutoff for the election’s final campaign finance reports, Hall said. Industry members donated more than $235,000 on October 25, 2022, alone, but none of those donations was disclosed until January. 

On November 7, 2022—the day before the election—six industry members collectively donated $7,000 to House Speaker Tim Moore, Hall wrote. Two days after the election, 10 industry members collectively donated $7,400 to Rep. John Bell, the Republican majority leader. On December 12, 2022, 10 industry members collectively gave Senate leader Phil Berger more than $10,000. 

The donations coincide “with the industry’s beefed-up effort to gain legitimacy through unsuccessful N.C. legislation in 2021 and the current, controversial HB 512,” Hall alleged. 

Rep. Harry Warren, a Rowan County Republican, introduced legislation last week to legalize video poker, arguing that regulating the industry will “rein it in from the Wild West that it is now.” (According to a spreadsheet Hall attached to his complaint, Warren—the sole sponsor of HB 512—did not receive money from the video gambling industry between 2019 and 2022.) 

Hall told Brinson Bell that it was “fanciful” to believe that legalization would “end [the industry’s] entanglement in political and social corruption.” He noted that he filed a similar complaint in 2004 against former Democratic House Speaker Jim Black, who had received more than $100,000 from the video gambling industry. Black eventually served time in federal prison on corruption charges related to illegal donations he accepted from chiropractors

General Assembly analysts predicted that Warren’s video poker bill would generate more than $400 million in annual taxes by 2027; that money would mostly be split among educational institutions. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper also proposed legalizing video poker in his budget recommendation, and the Republican-led House has already passed a bill to legalize mobile sports betting

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The ‘Prophet’ and the Backlash

UNC-Chapel Hill law professor Gene Nichol regularly scorches the state’s Republican leadership—but it’s come at a price to the university. Even some who agree with him wish he’d tone it down.

Durham’s New Model for Public Safety

The city launched its unarmed emergency response team amid a fierce debate over policing. Now the program is poised to expand.

The Weight of Words

How Davidson College struck a balance between free expression and making sure marginalized voices aren’t drowned out.

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