In a shocking miscarriage of justice, a federal judge abused his authority and sentenced two men to life in prison following their murder acquittals. How did this happen?

Harsh Sentencing

Ferrone Claiborne and Terence Richardson were tried in federal court for murder and conspiracy to sell crack-cocaine in 2001. The jury found them guilty of conspiracy to sell crack cocaine, but not of murder.  How was the judge able to hand out life sentences? He did it by cross sentencing them for a murder charge that had already been settled at the state level.

In 1999 both men accepted plea deals in connection to the murder. Richardson pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and Claiborne pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact, a misdemeanor. The deals were offered because the State had a very weak case against them.

So, with a legal loophole that is now prohibited, the federal judge used the murder charge to enhance their drug sentence to a life-term, even though there was never a conviction. Jurors were recently shocked to learn that the judge imposed this sentence, since they had not found them guilty of murder.

Innocence

Both men maintain their innocence but at the time they believed the plea deals were their best option. One of them was given a light sentence, the other served no time. They believed that was the end of it, so how did they end up being tried for the murder in federal court?

 Background

On April 25, 1998, Waverly police officer Allen Gibson sustained a gunshot wound to his abdomen behind the Waverly Village Apartments. The gun was found near his body. Gibson was weak, but was able to provide information about what happened. He told State Trooper Williams that he got into a skirmish with two black males and they were wrestling with his gun and it “just went off.” He described one with a pony tail, the other with dreadlocks. Gibson died at the hospital later that afternoon.

Other witnesses reported seeing a man with dreadlocks around the time of the shooting in the vicinity of the apartment complex. A few witnesses contacted police and named a possible suspect who had cut off his dreadlocks the day after the officer’s shooting. Police claimed the person had an alibi, though that remains unclear because inconsistent locations are referenced in the case files. Note that neither Claiborne or Richardson had dreadlocks.

Police continued to question people in the neighborhood. They interviewed Shawn Wooden. Initially Wooden denied having knowledge of the shooting, but later changed his story and began implicating Claiborne and Richardson. He told police that Claiborne and Richardson were planning to meet a guy in the woods behind the Waverly apartments to buy crack cocaine. Wooden stated that he was the lookout. He said that he saw the police officer enter the area and shortly after that heard a gunshot and fled the area on his bicycle.

The problem with Wooden’s story is that Claiborne and Richardson didn’t ever use, handle or deal crack cocaine. Wooden made it up. Police Chief, Warren Sturrup confirms that the two men were never on his radar for drug dealing. In fact, they had no criminal records whatsoever. Plus, Wooden had a felony record and a pending felony charge. Was he coerced into implicating these men in exchange for a lighter sentence? It’s very possible.

The Drug Charge and a Federal Case

Now that the officer’s shooting was linked to a possible drug deal, the FBI got involved. Investigators went back to all known acquaintances of Claiborne and Richardson and pieced together a drug case, making deals with several people in exchange for their testimony. What resulted was a parade of informants with unsubstantiated claims that depicted the men as drug kingpins. It didn’t matter that police never found drugs in their possession, or any large transactions or cash deposits or that neither had any history of drug dealing.

Wooden’s drug “story” was enough to haul these men into federal court. A way to get “justice” for the slain officer, even though they had no evidence linking them to the shooting. Forensic testing was done following Gibson’s death and no physical evidence tied them to the skirmish with the officer. There were no fingerprints on the gun and no hairs, fibers, or DNA placed them at the scene. Gunshot residue tests were negative. The only “evidence” was Wooden’s testimony.

Current sentencing guidelines prohibit an enhancement if a conviction is not present, but it is still a challenge to get their harsh and unjust sentence reversed. If they were sentenced under current guidelines, they would have already been released.

Hope

Their best hope for freedom is to prove they were not involved in Gibson’s shooting death. I don’t refer to it as a murder, because the officer stated that the gun just went off. There was never a claim that anyone purposely shot to kill him. And in fact, it’s possible that the wound was self-inflicted. Gibson was wearing a bulletproof vest. Is it possible he attempted to shoot himself in the vest location and it accidentally went through his abdomen, just below the vest?

Gibson wasn’t even supposed to be working that day. He had swapped his shift with Chief Sturrup so that he could go to the beach that weekend with his girlfriend. Oddly, Gibson showed up at the police station that day and told Sturrup he had an argument with his girlfriend and wanted to work after all. Sturrup told him that he had it covered and he was not needed. Even stranger, Gibson left but came back an hour later in his uniform, insistent on working that day. Why would he do that?

Is it possible he wanted attention from his girlfriend so he staged a shooting? One of the last things he said to Trooper Williams before he lost consciousness was “Call Summer. Tell her I’ve been hurt.” And the investigators estimate that the gun was between three and twelve inches from his body when he was shot. So, it is possible it was self-inflicted.

The case needs to be investigated and legal avenues need to be pursued. The men currently have legal representation, Attorney Jarrett Adams, but funding is necessary to free them. Please consider donating to their defense. A Go Fund Me link will be added to this page shortly.

I will be covering this case here, so please check back for more details about this case or subscribe to this blog.

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