Charles Anthony McNeair believed he had no choices.
It was late May 1980, and the 17-year-old had already spent six months in jail awaiting trial for first-degree rape and burglary charges.
Lexington police alleged that on November 26, 1979, McNeair, who is Black, had broken into a 57-year-old white woman’s home, raped her while armed with a claw hammer and a screwdriver, and then fell asleep in her bed still clutching the weapons under the sheets. McNeair was arrested in the house within 20 minutes of the alleged crime, according to Lexington police.
Police later said he was a suspect in four other attacks—two rapes and two attempted rapes—on white women who all lived alone in the eastern part of the segregated city.
McNeair maintained his innocence, saying he had a consensual relationship with the woman, but his attorney gave him a stark choice: he could plead guilty to second-degree rape and breaking and entering and get life in prison. Or he could go to trial and risk a death sentence.
“He said we had to go to court the next day,” McNeair told The Assembly in a recent phone interview from prison. “The district attorney would only offer death or life.”
McNeair kept wondering why the death penalty was on the table—he certainly hadn’t murdered anyone.
But he was scared, so he agreed to take the plea deal. He’s still in prison. In that time, the 60-year-old has earned his GED and taken every class available to him. He has racked up only nine infractions, and none since 2009.
Still, his 28 parole requests since 1991 have all been turned down, including last year. In some of his rejection letters, the N.C. Post-Release and Parole Commission said his release would “unduly depreciate the seriousness of the crime or promote disrespect for the law.”
In many ways, his case is not unlike others in which Black men accused of raping white women have been dealt harsh, even deadly repercussions—even as evidence of their guilt is thin. In McNeair’s case, he was a teenager when the crime allegedly occurred. Even if he were sentenced for a similar crime today, he’d likely face a maximum of 10 years in prison.
And yet avenues for challenging McNeair’s conviction are particularly slim. He pleaded guilty. Police didn’t appear to have much physical evidence when they charged him, meaning there’s little that could be tested for DNA.
His only options for getting out of prison now are through the parole board or a clemency petition his lawyer has filed with the Juvenile Sentence Review Board. Since Gov. Roy Cooper established the review board in April 2021 via executive order, he has commuted the sentences of only five people, though more than 300 people could be eligible.
The case against Charles McNeair looks very different with the hindsight of 43 years—which is why the local NAACP and others in Lexington are now pushing for McNeair’s freedom.
“It’s a sad case,” said Charles “Pic” Clark, head of the Lexington NAACP. “He has what Black people call a stamped file—never to be released.”
Charles McNeair said he never broke into the woman’s house. The woman invited him over.
McNeair said he first met the woman in October 1979, outside the Winn-Dixie store where he hustled for tips in exchange for carrying customers’ groceries to their vehicles. McNeair had dropped out of school to help his family.
He was just 16. She was 57. But the two started talking. She told him about her estranged husband. Soon, they began hanging out, drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, and making out, McNeair said. Sometimes, McNeair would visit her house in the 800 block of Fairview Drive in east Lexington. Other times, the two would see each other in the parking lot of the old Lexington hospital across from the store where they first met.
They would meet only in the evenings. McNeair said he and the woman never had sex; they just made out. He only saw her when she invited him.
“She was trying to keep it on the down-low,” McNeair told The Assembly.
One time, he said, he made the mistake of coming to the front of her house. She told him he was only allowed to use the back door.
In 1979, Black and white people still lived separate lives in North Carolina, and many white people frowned on interracial relationships. The Ku Klux Klan was also active in Davidson County.
Just that summer in Lexington, the Klan had shown the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which depicts the white supremacist group as heroic defenders of white women against violent Black men. Klansmen got into a shouting match with protesters at the event, drawing 80 law enforcement officers to the scene.
On another day that summer, about 20 members of the Ku Klux Klan strolled through downtown Lexington, handing out pamphlets. One Klansman wore a white helmet, carried a nightstick on his hip and had a small rebel flag on his shirtsleeve. The Dispatch reported he looked “similar to a Chicago policeman of 1968.”
There was a city ordinance prohibiting distribution of handbills, but officials decided not to enforce it in this case, to keep the peace.
On the evening of November 25, 1979, Charles McNeair wore striped khakis, a thin brown dress shirt, and tassel loafers to the woman’s house. He said he knocked on the back door. The woman let him in, taking him through the kitchen and into her bedroom. McNeair said he walked by the bathroom, where he remembers she always had a pile of clothes outside the door.
The woman told him he had to leave before 12:30 a.m. because someone was coming over; she never said who.
He said she offered him alcohol and marijuana. He was already tipsy from drinking alcohol earlier in the day. He said he undressed and started kissing the woman on the bed. At some point, he passed out. He doesn’t recall having sex with the woman.
He awoke to a Lexington police officer, Roy Owens, beating him about the head—which continued for as long as 10 minutes. McNeair said he was disoriented.
“I was like, ‘What’s going on? What’s going on? What’s happening?’” McNeair said. “He was cussing. ‘You’re going downtown. You’re going downtown.’”
McNeair remembers there was also a Black police officer in the bedroom, but he didn’t intervene.
Officers wrapped him in a blanket, and he was taken to the Lexington Police Department, where McNeair said officers continued to assault him while demanding he confess to raping the woman. He tried to tell the officers he didn’t do anything, but they wouldn’t believe him, McNeair said. He saw officers writing things down, but McNeair was illiterate and didn’t know what their notes said.
“I felt like they were going to try to hang me,” he said.
Lexington police and the local paper told an entirely different story.
The day after McNeair’s arrest, The Dispatch ran the front-page story “Teen Charged with Rape; May Be Linked to Others.”
The paper reported that Lexington police had arrested McNeair in the Fairview Drive house “of a middle-aged woman he had allegedly raped minutes earlier.”
Lexington police officials released few details to the public about the incident the next day, including no mention of how McNeair could have raped the woman while holding a hammer and a screwdriver, whether the police seized the two weapons and sent them to the State Crime Lab for testing, or whether they collected a rape kit, which might have provided physical evidence of sexual trauma.
Police also never said how McNeair allegedly broke into the house or whether investigators found any damage to suggest forced entry, such as a broken window or door.
More than 40 years later, many of those questions remain unanswered. The Assembly has tried to piece together the case against him, but much of the information is missing, lacks detail, or suggests a confusing set of different allegations against McNeair.
Because criminal investigative files are not considered public records under state law, we filed a motion asking a judge to direct the Lexington Police Department to release the file from the November 1979 incident. But the department later said they could not find that file.
We were briefly led to believe that the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency that investigates wrongful conviction claims, had a copy of the file. The commission looked at McNeair’s case but closed its inquiry in 2022. The commission said it would mail the copy of the criminal investigative file to the Lexington Police Department so that a judge could review it and consider releasing it, but it turned out not to be the file in question.
The judge has released the criminal investigative file in another alleged rape, in August 1979, in which the police publicly named McNeair as a possible suspect after his arrest that November, but never charged him.
That file includes a handwritten statement in which McNeair appears to admit that he broke into the woman’s house through an unlocked back door, demanded money and attempted to rape her.
The statement, taken four days after his arrest, is written in cursive, but McNeair signed his name in print. McNeair was illiterate at the time, and it’s not clear who wrote the statement for him. McNeair also signed his name in print on a form waiving his rights to remain silent, to consult with an attorney and to have an attorney present.
There is no transcript or recording of his interview with law enforcement, and the file doesn’t say what led police to question him about the August 1979 attack.
The accompanying police report said McNeair admitted to another attack and “a couple more attempts,” and told investigators he would be willing to “show us all the places he could remember.”
McNeair told The Assembly that Lexington police officers drove him to different locations and tried to force him to admit to other attacks.
The file also contained statements the woman in the August 1979 case gave police. She said her attacker repeatedly told her he had just broken out of prison – a description that would not fit McNeair. She also told police her bedroom was too dark for her to see her attacker’s face or clothes, and that she believed he was Black based solely on his voice and his hair.
The file notes that a doctor examined the woman at Lexington Memorial Hospital and found evidence of sexual trauma, and that police seized physical evidence, including fingerprints. But none of those were ever used to link McNeair to the crime.
This case was one of four unsolved attacks on white women between 1977 and 1979 – two rapes and two attempted rapes – that Lexington police officials were investigating at the time McNeair was arrested. Lt. Harold Caudle told The Dispatch that McNeair was a possible suspect in those cases as well, but did not say publicly how exactly the five attacks were connected.
He said the suspect was a young Black male but gave no other description. Caudle also said the victims were all white women who lived alone in the same area of Lexington. In two of the attacks, the women reported they woke up to a man standing beside their bed and that man raped them.
The Dispatch reported the day after McNeair’s arrest that police were going to conduct tests to determine whether McNeair should be charged in the other attacks. The paper did not provide any information about what those tests would be, and there was no follow-up reporting about whether tests had been conducted or what they might have found.
In February 1980, McNeair was also charged with first-degree burglary and assault with intent to commit rape in one of the four unsolved attacks, on April 29, 1979. That case actually went to trial in September 1980.
A 27-year-old woman said McNeair broke into her home and attacked her. She said she and McNeair struggled for 15 minutes before she escaped, The Dispatch reported.
She identified McNeair as her attacker in court, but McNeair’s attorney said the woman had failed to identify McNeair when shown a photograph of him. He also said the woman had initially told authorities that her attacker was taller and heavier than McNeair. The jury acquitted McNeair of all charges in that case.
At McNeair’s sentencing hearing in May 1980, the public heard from the alleged victim through a statement Caudle read. It was the most detailed accounting of what police alleged McNeair did: “I was asleep when I was awakened by someone patting me,” the statement said, according to The Dispatch.
It was 4 a.m., the woman said, and McNeair was nude and standing beside her bed, holding a claw hammer and a screwdriver. She said she could recognize McNeair “clearly, under the illumination of a streetlight.”
McNeair raped her, she said, and then fell asleep in her bed; she slipped out of her house, went to a neighbor’s, and called the police.
(The woman, whom The Assembly is not naming, died in 1992 at the age of 69. She had three children, two of whom are still alive; efforts to contact her surviving children were unsuccessful.)
McNeair said he felt like his fate was sealed from the moment he was arrested. He’d spent his life in a city where racism marked his entire existence.
“Sometimes, I could be walking uptown, you could hear the word n*****,” McNeair said. “All kinds of stuff.”
His brother, Harvey McNeair, remembered their mother always keeping a tight rein on her children to keep them out of what she considered was Davidson County’s racist criminal justice system.
“We learned not to get into any trouble,” he said.
Clark, president of the Lexington NAACP, remembers warnings about Davidson County’s district attorney at the time, Butch Zimmerman. Irascible, colorful, scathing in cross-examinations, Zimmerman had a reputation for both law and order and racism. He went on to become a superior court judge and died in April 2011.
The N.C. Supreme Court criticized Zimmerman in two separate cases: a murder case in which he allegedly tapped a yardstick and pestered a defense witness so much that the witness attempted to grab it out of his hands, and another murder case in which he was sanctioned for bullying defense witnesses, reducing one defense attorney to tears and verbally assaulting two others.
He was also known for his collection of Confederate memorabilia in his office, which he’d show off to defense attorneys and read from slave masters’ journals about their “sexual exploits” with enslaved Black women, journalist Phoebe Zerwick writes in her book, Beyond Innocence: The Life Sentence of Darryl Hunt.
Charles McNeair met Butch Zimmerman for the first time two years before he was arrested.
McNeair said he was in downtown Lexington when he encountered a group of white men who called him the N-word and chased him. He ran through someone’s front yard as he tried to get away. That someone, he learned, was Zimmerman.
McNeair said Zimmerman pulled out a gun and held him there until police arrived. McNeair said he was convicted of trespassing and sent to Swannanoa Valley Youth Development Center in Buncombe County for about a year. He was discharged in May 1978.
That Zimmerman and McNeair had a history does not appear to have come up when the teen was arrested the following year, though a postconviction motion McNeair filed in October 1986 with Davidson Superior Court accused Zimmerman of having a conflict of interest “since I had formerly been charged with breaking into his house.”
In that same motion, McNeair also accused his attorney, Michael Lea, of ineffective assistance of counsel. The motion, which was seeking a transcript of his hearing, did not detail his issues with Lea. But The Dispatch reported that at his sentencing hearing, Lea argued McNeair had been drinking and that he was in a state of “anger and confusion after being beaten by his mother.”
“I’m convinced that in his head, somehow, there was some sort of consent,” Lea told the judge. “There were things going on in his mind that made [the rape] justified.”
Judge Julius Rousseau told Lea he had “a vivid imagination.”
McNeair said Lea kept telling him he could face the death penalty if it went to trial—which wasn’t true. The N.C. General Assembly had formally removed the death penalty for rape from state law in May 1979, following a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court ruling against its use.
Zimmerman said publicly that he agreed to reduce the charges because the woman did not want to testify at trial.
Still, he said in the sentencing hearing that he wished he could put McNeair to death.
“I felt like I could put him in the gas chamber and that’s where he ought to be,” he told the judge. “I feel like the only way we can be free of the kind of things Mr. McNeair does is to remove him, to have him removed from the living.”
In the four decades since Charles McNeair was first arrested, everyone else involved in his case—the woman, Zimmerman, the Lexington police officers who arrested and interrogated him, his attorney, the judge who gave him a life sentence—have all died.
Two of McNeair’s three sisters and his parents, Martha and Harvey Sr., are also gone.
But his brothers, Jeff, Harvey Jr., and Terry, are still alive, as is his sister Sandra and numerous aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. They’ve been fighting to free Charles McNeair for years.
Sandra McNeair was in the courtroom the day her brother was sentenced. She was about 15 at the time. The Dispatch reported that she cried as deputies led him out of the courtroom and started “clutching at her brother.”
“Her mother and stepfather tried to subdue her, but deputies were forced to bar the jail door as she battered the window and called out for her brother,” the paper reported.
Sandra McNeair says now she remembers hollering out in grief, and that Zimmerman threatened to charge the family with contempt of court.
“We were too upset,” she said.
She didn’t understand why her brother was going to prison. “Why would y’all lock him up and he ain’t nothing but a kid,” she told The Assembly. “I knew my brother wouldn’t do no mess like that.”
Her mother didn’t know much about the criminal justice system but tried everything to get her son out. The family learned, and they got others involved.
One of those people was Wanda Cox, a former showroom and interior designer, who has emerged as one of Charles McNeair’s fiercest advocates.
Wanda Cox grew up in High Point and left at age 16. She came back years later and became a volunteer mentor to juvenile offenders and students in local schools.
She retired and moved to Lexington in 2009, where she continued her work with young people and became a guardian ad litem—a trained volunteer appointed by the court to advocate for abused and neglected children.
She learned about McNeair’s case in 2020, and her experience working with troubled youth drew her in.
“It was the voice of a 16-year-old juvenile not being heard,” Cox said. “He clearly stated his illiteracy. He clearly stated his innocence and his desire for his parents. All those statements were overlooked, ignored, and not heard.”
One March afternoon, Cox pulled out a large wicker basket filled with annotated folders containing the notes, court records, and newspaper clippings she had collected over the last three years.
She has a three-page, typed timeline that includes things like the names of the investigating officers and other court officials as well as notes she took from court documents.
Another folder contains the rejection letters McNeair has received from the N.C. Post-Release and Parole Commission over the last three decades. Yet another brims with the printed obituaries for everyone involved in McNeair’s case.
Advocating for McNeair’s freedom has become her mission in life. She visits him frequently and communicates with him nearly every day. He has become a part of her family.
“I did not plan on getting close to him,” she said. “I just wanted to help the man. But he’s going to be a part of my life when he gets out.”
Later that afternoon, she joined more than 20 other people at St. Stephens United Methodist Church, on the corner of First and Salisbury streets in Lexington.
The church houses Davidson County’s oldest African American congregation and served as a meeting place for civil rights organizers in the 1960s. It was also the site of a deadly race riot in 1963 that started when young Black organizers tried to integrate downtown Lexington businesses. One white man was killed and another, a photographer for The Dispatch, was injured.
For McNeair’s advocates, the fight for his freedom is an extension of the same civil rights movement.
Cox is now co-chair of a nonprofit, The Advocacy for Charles McNeair. The group has also traveled to Raleigh to protest for McNeair’s release in front of the Executive Mansion.
Tonya Lanier, a former Lexington City Council member, is the group’s treasurer.
Lanier was a student at Lexington Senior High School in 1979 but said she didn’t learn many details about McNeair’s case and had no idea he was still incarcerated until she met Cox.
“I really thought it would not have carried on this long,” she said.
But it was also Davidson County, she said, the reality of which she knew well as a Black woman.
“Our African American males had a rough time then and now,” she said. “Moms prayed every time they walked out of the door.”
On that March evening, the tenor inside St. Stephens felt like a revival. The church’s sanctuary, with stained-glass windows on either side, swelled with the sounds of acappella gospel songs, punctuated with handclaps, and a rousing sermon from Rev. Alan Suber of Faith-Forward Baptist Church.
Suber exhorted them to confront the city’s racist past and free McNeair.
“God expects us to see the wrong in our city,” he said. “God expects us to see the wrongs of the racial history of our city and not cover it up as if it didn’t happen. … We’re not here to be quiet anymore. We’ve been quiet for 43 years.”
If Charles McNeair were charged with first-degree rape today, he wouldn’t face a life sentence.
And he wouldn’t spend anywhere near 43 years in prison if he took a similar plea deal.
Ben Finholt, director of the Just Sentencing Project at Duke University School of Law, said there are multiple reasons his case deserves another look.
“He took a plea when there was no reason to take a plea. He was sentenced to life at a time when parole was a regular part of the criminal justice system. He has not been able to get parole, despite remaining infraction-free for more than a decade and doing the things you’re supposed to do to get released,” he said. “To me, it’s really a multipronged failure of the system and it is impacting a young Black man who was part of a group of young Black men who got left behind.”
McNeair’s case exemplifies the racial disparities in the system. Seventy-five percent of the 325 people who are either eligible now or could be eligible for consideration by the Juvenile Sentence Review Board are Black, Finholt said.
Jamie Lau, McNeair’s attorney, is a professor at Duke University School of Law and has long fought to release people who were wrongfully convicted. He represented Ronnie Long, who was falsely accused of raping a white woman and spent 44 years in prison before Cooper pardoned him in 2020.
Lau also represented Anthony Willis, a Fayetteville man accused at 16 of murdering a shopkeeper. Willis was the first person whose sentence Cooper commuted through the Juvenile Sentence Review Board. Lau and Finholt have worked together to identify others who might qualify for review.
What stood out about McNeair is that he has served more than 40 years in prison for a conviction that would likely get a 10-year maximum sentence today, Lau said. The racial dynamics in Lexington were also a factor, Lau said.
McNeair is hopeful that Cooper will grant his clemency petition before he leaves office.
But neither the clemency petition nor the Juvenile Sentence Review Board’s process is public. Lau said he doesn’t know whether the review board has looked at McNeair’s petition or when the governor might decide.
Cox and her group want it to happen sooner rather than later, and are lobbying legislators and members of the Lexington City Council to join the cause.
Cooper’s office declined to comment on McNeair’s case specifically but said Cooper carefully reviews all clemency applications. “The Governor has also commuted eight sentences and issued nine pardons of innocence and four pardons of forgiveness,” press secretary Sam Chan said in a statement. “The Board continues to review petitions and make recommendations to the Governor.”
McNeair has been relocated several times in the last few months: from Dan River Prison Work Farm, to Craggy Correctional Center, to Davidson Correctional Center. Four days out of the week, he travels to Raleigh to work as part of a paint crew at Central Prison.
He said he loves getting to see the outside world a bit. It keeps him occupied until he finds out if he gets clemency.
McNeair knows the first thing he’ll do if he walks out of the prison doors.
“I would kiss the ground first, really,” he said. “And then probably just go home and sit down and get myself together and then find work.”
Michael Hewlett is a staff reporter at The Assembly. He was previously the legal affairs reporter at the Winston-Salem Journal. You can reach him at email@example.com.