"After ordeal, 'carrying on with my life'" - James Eli Shiffer, News & Observer (August 12, 1995)
A day after a jury acquitted him of three murder counts, Leroy Lyons was back at his job, doing what makes him happiest and trying not to dwell on his 20 months in jail when he feared he'd die in the gas chamber.
Lyons' attorney, Mark Edwards, said Friday that his client has plenty to hold a grudge about: a shoddy investigation that included lost statements clearing Lyons and a court backlog that kept Lyons behind bars for 20 months awaiting trial.
The arrests were based on two women's claims four years after the fact that Lyons set the 1989 blaze.
District Attorney Jim Hardin Jr. insisted detectives charged the right person and said the investigation is closed, meaning that no one will be punished for the deaths of James "Shorty" Wright, George Louis Caldwell and Waddell Wiley Smith Jr.
Meanwhile, four statements by witnesses who named someone other than Lyons as the culprit were sitting in the files of lead investigator Milton Smith, who disregarded the affidavits and drew up warrants against Lyons.
Lyons, who could not remember his exact whereabouts that Friday morning four years earlier, was jailed without bond and later shipped to Central Prison, because the Durham County Jail was overcrowded with defendants awaiting trial.
Lyons recalled his 1 1/2 years at Central Prison as the most difficult part of the ordeal. Although he was still considered innocent in the eyes of the law, he was forced to scrub the windows on the guard tower and often feared threats and attacks from the other inmates.
But he said he never considered agreeing to a plea bargain that might spare him the death penalty, which prosecutors originally announced they would pursue.
"I said I'm going to fight it out to the end," Lyons said. "I'm not going to go against my belief."
The prosecution's case, which had already taken more than five years to compile, began to crumble last September, when Smith revealed he had found the four additional statements from witnesses in his files.
Judge Milton Read immediately freed Lyons, saying the defense should have been provided with that information months before.
In the trial earlier this week, prosecutors claimed the fire resulted from a drug deal gone awry. ... Prosecutors never introduced evidence during the weeklong case that Lyons dealt in drugs.
After parking his last crate full of cauliflower Friday afternoon, Lyons recalled sitting with "my heart in my lap" as he waited for the verdicts to be read.
It took a jury four hours to acquit him off all charges.
"I was cold, and shaking," he said. "Then it was just a weird feeling. I was a free man then. I was a free man."