Questions About Inmate’s Attorneys
Forty-six years in prison – it’s a long stretch for a crime that never happened.
If you believe Larry Allred, an inmate at the Caswell Correctional Center in Yanceyville, that’s exactly what he got when he was sentenced for armed robbery and kidnapping in February 1997.
And $30,000 is a lot of money for two incompetent lawyers, a con man and a couple bungled appeals. Carolyn Stover, Allred’s mother, paid every cent of it.
“I never owed anybody any money,” she said.
In 1997, Stover operated a daycare out of her home near Phillips Avenue.
“We were a four-star facility,” she said. “We need to do some more education to get our rating back up.”
She was proud of her accreditation and put a lot of faith in professional reputation. That’s why, when her son got in trouble in early 1996, she turned to Walter T. Johnson, a prominent African-American attorney who was one of the first two black students to integrate Duke University in 1961.
By the late 1990s, Johnson, a graduate of Duke University Law School, was an eminent member of the Guilford County Bar. He served on several committees, including the state parole board, and was married to Yvonne Johnson, an at-large Greensboro City Council member who was elected the city’s first black mayor last year.
“Everybody knows Walter Johnson,” Stover said.
What Stover didn’t know when she hired Johnson was that some of the attorney’s clients were unhappy with his work and that he would fail to file federal income taxes for the year in which he represented Allred in court.
All of that would come out later, long after the night of March 19, 1996, when Steven Edwards drove his friend Allred to a house on Avalon Road. Lawyers from both sides presented two competing versions of what happened inside that house during Allred’s 1997 trial.
Guilford County prosecutors said Allred and Edwards brandished handguns and robbed resident Alfred Alexander and several houseguests. Allred insisted he was caught up in a drug deal gone wrong, and that Alexander was a crack dealer known around town as “Pops.”
Whatever happened that night, it ended badly, with squealing tires and gunfire. Surgeons at Moses Cone pulled three .38 caliber bullets out of Allred’s body. Alexander shot him in the back, the butt and the head – right behind his ear. At trial, he said he fired into the dark as Allred and Edwards left with the loot.
“It wasn’t no robbery,” Stover said. “Anytime anyone gets shot running away from a house, it’s a crime.”
By the time Stover got to the hospital, police had handcuffed her injured son to the bed.
“They treated him like a dog,” she said.
Allred had a criminal record before his 1996 arrest. His rap sheet included several traffic tickets, gun charges and a handful of assault convictions. Ten days before he allegedly robbed Alexander, he broke into another house, according to Guilford County records.
Stover said she paid Johnson $15,000 to represent her son in court on the laundry list of charges stemming from the Alexander home invasion. She said the attorney promised to hire a private investigator to gather evidence that Alexander’s house was a crack house, which would bolster her son’s claim of a botched drug deal.
Johnson never called the private investigator to the stand, Stover said. Later she said she found out that Johnson had stopped paying him. The former attorney did not return phone calls seeking comment.
“My lawyers,…” said Allred. “I’ve had so many problems.”
Stover said she realized she had hired the wrong lawyer on the first day of the trial, when Johnson presented little evidence on behalf of her son.
“By that time I couldn’t do anything but let him represent my child,” she said. “After the trial, he and I had some words.”
Stover stopped speaking to Johnson after her son was sentenced to 46 years on charges of armed robbery, attempted robbery and kidnapping. The attorney assured the family he could appeal the conviction and win back all or part of Allred’s freedom.
Johnson did not suddenly throw himself into Allred’s appeal, according to records from the NC State Bar. Instead he assigned the task to a subordinate, Jacqueline Stanley, who filed the appeal 20 days after its deadline, without an extension request.
“We note initially that defendant’s appeal is fraught with procedural violations, which subject the appeal to dismissal,” wrote the appellate judges.
The judges noted that several of the facts in the appeal were unsupported or incorrectly cited. They accepted it anyway and overturned Allred’s convictions for kidnapping. The prosecutors had added kidnapping charges to the main armed robbery beef because Allred and Edwards had allegedly moved two of the victims from one room into another. The appeals court determined that prosecutors defined the offense too loosely, since the kidnapping happened during the commission of another crime.
The partial victory did not improve Allred’s situation. Since he was serving time for kidnapping concurrently with his armed robbery sentence, the appeals court decision did nothing to reduce his punishment.
In fact, Stover said the appeal may have hurt her son more than it helped. If the appeal had been filed correctly, it might have included some evidence supporting her son’s version of events, something that might have lightened his sentence.
Winston-Salem attorney J. Clark Fischer argued in an appeal to federal court that Allred’s ineffective representation – beginning with Johnson – doomed the inmate’s trial and appeals. If the family had hired a different attorney, he said, the outcome might have been more favorable for Allred.
“It’s certainly possible,” Clark said. “But I guess we’ll never know.”
Stover and Allred filed a complaint against Johnson at the NC State Bar, the organization that regulates attorneys. Theirs was the eighth out of 23 total client complaints that – along with evidence that Johnson dodged tax collectors – led to his disbarment in 2005.
In 2000, the state bar suspended Johnson’s law license for six months for, among other things, taking money from inmates seeking parole without informing them that their cases were practically unwinnable, and then failing to represent them properly. Bar officials stayed his suspension for a year.
In the first two months of 2004, the state bar held two more disciplinary hearings for Johnson. His former clients accused him of providing inadequate counsel and refusing to refund their money when he failed to file motions or appear at hearings.
This time the bar got serious. They noted a pattern of misconduct and suspended Johnson’s law license for three months, offering to stay all but one year of that suspension if Johnson sought psychiatric help and advice from business consultants.
One year later in January 2005, Johnson had his final run-in with regulators from the state bar. Instead of winding down his practice as instructed, the sanctioned attorney had taken complicated, expensive criminal cases that he couldn’t possibly complete before the beginning of his suspension. The attorney didn’t tell his new clients about the disciplinary actions against him, according to records from the bar.
On Feb. 18, 2005, the Disciplinary Hearing Committee stripped Johnson of his law license. They ordered him to refund his last four clients to the tune of $22,000 before he sought reinstatement.
“During the trial,” Stover said, “I told him it was a disgrace. He just said, ‘Don’t worry.'”
Johnson used up the first of Allred’s appeals. After that, Allred and Stover say they were taken in by a con man and another unscrupulous lawyer.
By the time Allred’s case got to Fischer, the Winston-Salem attorney,the inmate had exhausted many of his legal options. With the failure of a federal appeal petition last year, Allred’s last, best option might be executive clemency, Fischer said. The NC Innocence Inquiry Commission probably can’t provide relief in this case because Allred has admitted to being at Alexander’s house, which makes his claim of innocence more difficult to prove than an inmate with irrefutable DNA or alibi evidence.
His family is searching for something to support Allred’s claims, any piece of physical evidence or inconsistent testimony that might make state authorities take a second look at his case.
“[Johnson] used to be the man,” Stover said. “Back when all this happened, everyone would tell me he’s a good attorney. Well, he done me wrong.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at firstname.lastname@example.org.