Center on Wrongful Convictions

BRIAN BALDWIN

Brian Baldwin went to his death in the Alabama electric chair for a murder his co-defendant claimed to have committed alone

Brian Keith Baldwin, a 40-year-old African American, died in the Alabama electric chair in 1999 for the murder 22 years earlier of a white teenager, Naomi Rolon — a crime that Baldwin’s co-defendant, Edward Dean Horsley, claimed to have committed without Baldwin’s knowledge. Baldwin’s conviction and death sentence rested on a confession that he claimed had been extracted by torture — beating and electroshock. The confession was incorrect about material details, including how Rolon died and the instrument with which she had been bludgeoned. At the time of their arrest, there was blood on Horsley’s clothes, but not on Baldwin’s. Forensic evidence developed after Baldwin’s trial indicated that Rolon had been beaten by a left-handed person — which Horsley was and Baldwin was not.

The crime, the trials, and the death sentences

On March 12, 1977, Baldwin, then 18, and Horsley, 17, also an African American, escaped from a North Carolina juvenile detention center. Baldwin had been sent there for stealing a car, Horsley for armed robbery. Within hours of their escape, they came upon Rolon, 16, who was en route from her home in Hudson, North Carolina, to visit her father in a hospital across town.

Baldwin and Horsley abducted Rolon, allegedly commandeered in her car, robbed her, and drove for more than 40 hours through North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. Rolon was slain on March 14 in Monroe County, Alabama, where her body and her car were found on March 15. Baldwin and Horsley were arrested later that day after a high-speed chase in a pickup truck stolen in nearby Wilcox County, Alabama.

Both gave statements at the Wilcox County Jail and were then indicted in Monroe County for aggravated robbery and murder. Within months they were convicted and sentenced to death following separate trials before all-white juries from which prosecutors excluded all prospective African American jurors — a practice then lawful.

Although there was no question that Baldwin had been involved in Rolon’s abduction and robbery, the only evidence linking him to the murder was his purported confession, which he testified he had given after being beaten and shocked with a cattle prod by Wilcox County Sheriff Moody Maness and two deputies. “They told me [if] I didn’t tell them where the car was, they was going to hang me, shoot me, beat me up,” Baldwin testified. “Then they took handcuffs and handcuffed me to a bar and took an electric stick, the thing you stick cows with, and poked me with that.”

The trial lasted only two days — August 8 and 9, 1977. Baldwin’s court-appointed attorneys conducted no investigation and presented no witnesses other than Baldwin himself, even though Baldwin had identified potential witnesses who might have corroborated his torture claim.

In addition, jurors did not learn that Rolon apparently had been beaten and stabbed by a left-handed person and that Baldwin was right-handed, that there was blood on Horsley’s — but not on Baldwin’s — clothes, or that Baldwin’s purported confession was wrong about important facts. The trial judge, Robert E. Lee Key, called Baldwin a “boy” during the trial, and the prosecution called him “a savage.”

Baldwin’s state appeals

The only issue raised on direct appeal was whether Alabama had jurisdiction to try Baldwin for robbery, given that the robbery apparently occurred in North Carolina; robbery had been the sole aggravating circumstance cited by the prosecution to qualify Rolon’s murder as a capital offense. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and Alabama Supreme Court rejected the jurisdictional challenge, Baldwin v. State, 372 So.2d 26 (Ala. Cr. App. 1978) and Baldwin v. State, 372 So.2d 32 (Ala. 1979).

However, the U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case for further state proceedings in light of its decision in an unrelated case, Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625 (1980), holding that Alabama juries had to be given the option of finding defendants in capital cases guilty of a lesser-included non-capital offense when the facts would support such a finding, Baldwin v. Alabama, 448 U.S. 903 (1980). In light of that action, the Alabama Supreme Court remanded the case to the Court of Criminal Appeals, Baldwin v. State, 405 So.2d 698 (1981), and that court in turn summarily reversed the conviction, Baldwin v. State, 405 So.2d 699 (1981).

Soon thereafter, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified its Beck finding in Hooper v. Evans, 456 U.S. 605 (1982). In view of the Hooper decision, the Court of Criminal Appeals granted a rehearing in Baldwin’s case and reinstated his death sentence, holding that the evidence supported no verdict other than death, Baldwin v. State, 456 So.2d 117 (1983) — a decision that was affirmed both by the Alabama Supreme Court, Ex Parte Baldwin, 456 So.2d 129 (1984), and U.S. Supreme Court, Baldwin v. Alabama, 472 U.S. 372 (1985).

Next Baldwin filed a petition for writ of error coram nobis in the trial court, raising several issues — most significantly ineffective assistance of counsel and racial discrimination in jury selection. After a two-day hearing, Judge Key denied the ineffective assistance claim on the merits and held that Baldwin’s additional claims were procedurally barred because they could have been, but had not been, asserted on direct appeal. Key was affirmed by the Court of Criminal Appeals, Baldwin v. State, 539 So.2d 1103 (1988). The Alabama Supreme Court adopted that opinion as its own, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the holding, Baldwin v. Alabama, 493 U.S. 874 (1989).

In 1991, Baldwin sought a federal writ of habeas corpus, based on essentially the same grounds asserted in his coram nobis petition. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Vollmer, Jr., of Southern District of Alabama, denied the writ with a 177-page order, holding that the Alabama courts had fully and fairly considered the ineffective assistance claim and that the other issues were procedurally barred from consideration.

Horsley’s belated attempt to save Baldwin’s life

As Baldwin appealed Vollmer’s decision, Horsley wrote a statement in 1994 asserting that he alone had killed Rolon. According to Horsely, Baldwin had been unaware that Rolon was dead at the time of their arrest.

After Horsely exhausted his appeals and went to his death in the Alabama electric chair on February 16, 1996, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed Vollmer’s denial of Baldwin’s petition for habeas corpus, Baldwin v. Johnson, 152 F.3d 1304 (1998). The U.S. Supreme Court again declined to hear the case, Baldwin v. Johnson, 526 U.S. 1047 (1999).

Additional exculpatory evidence developed

As Baldwin’s execution approached, his lawyers video-taped a deposition with a former Wilcox County deputy sheriff, Nathaniel Manzie, who stated that Baldwin was beaten during interrogation and that a cattle prod was present in the jail at the time, although Manzie did not see it used on Baldwin. In addition, Manzie admitted signing a statement falsely stating that Baldwin had waived his right to counsel. It was at this point that Baldwin’s lawyers also obtained the forensic report indicating that Rolon’s wounds had been inflicted by a left-handed person.

By now, however, Baldwin’s appeals had been exhausted. At no point during the 22-year appellate process had a court considered the merits of his innocence claim. His last hope was clemency from Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, who met privately with Manzie. During the meeting, Manzie, inexplicably recanted his previous sworn statements indicating Baldwin’s confession had been coerced. Despite last-minute pleas from, among others, former President Jimmy Carter, Coretta Scott King, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Siegelman allowed the execution to proceed on June 18, 1999. Witnesses said Baldwin’s last words were inaudible.

The foregoing summary was prepared by Center on Wrongful Convictions Executive Director Rob Warden with research assistance from CWC Researcher Matt Lewis. The summary may be reprinted, quoted, or posted on other web sites with appropriate attribution.

Case data:

Jurisdiction: Monroe County, Alabama
Date of birth: July 16, 1958
Date of crime: March 14, 1977
Age at time of crime: 18
Date of arrest: March 15, 1977
Gender: Male
Race: African American
Trial counsel: Windell C. Owens
Convicted of: Capital murder
Prior adult felony conviction record: None; when the crime occurred, Baldwin was an escapee from juvenile detention center when he had been sent for auto theft
Trial judge: Robert E. Lee
Key Prosecutor(s): Theodore Pearson
No. of victims: 1
Age of victim: 16
Gender of victim: Female
Race of victim: Caucasian
Relationship of victim to defendant: None; she apparently had picked up Baldwin as a hitchhiker
Evidence used to obtain conviction: Alleged confession, fingerprints in victim’s car.
Major issues on appeal: Coerced confessions. Ineffective assistance of counsel. Racial discrimination in jury selection. Prosecutorial misconduct.
Evidence suggesting innocence: Coerced confessions. No fingerprints on murder weapon. No blood on Baldwin’s clothes or shoes. Wounds inflicted by left-handed person; Baldwin right handed. Co-defendant admitted the crime.
Date of execution: June 18, 1999
Time lapse arrest to execution: 287 months
Final appellate counsel(s): Jack Martin and Michael McIntyre