RALEIGH, North Carolina — Lee Wayne Hunt died a prisoner, officially deemed guilty of a double murder — even though a co-defendant absolved him in a conversation with a lawyer that remained secret for decades.
Attorney Staples Hughes said a client who also was convicted in the case told him not long after the 1984 slayings of a Fayetteville couple that Hunt wasn't involved. Hughes risked disbarment when he told a judge in 2007 about the confession, after the client, Jerry Cashwell, had died.
"If you believe what my client told me, and I believe my client, that Mr. Hunt didn't do this, then it just becomes so terrible and so sad," Hughes told The Associated Press.
Hunt, 59, died alone Feb. 13 at Rex Hospital in Raleigh, where he had been taken about a week earlier for treatment of heart problems, his daughter, Heather Allen, told the AP. Prison officials didn't tell Hunt's relatives that he'd been moved from Maury Correctional Institution to the hospital until the family got word he had died, Allen said. He'd spent more than half his life in state prisons.
The AP received a tip that Hunt had died and is the only news organization to interview members of the families of both Hunt and the Matthews' couple since his death.
Hunt, Cashwell and a third man were convicted in the deaths of Roland and Lisa Matthews, who were shot and stabbed in their home in Fayetteville. Their 2-year-old daughter was found in a bedroom, physically unharmed.
Prosecutors said the couple was killed because Roland Matthews stole marijuana from Hunt, who ran a drug ring.
The only physical evidence tying Hunt to the crimes was a lead-content comparison of bullets that Hunt owned to bullets found at the crime scene — a comparison technique the FBI abandoned in 2005 after the method faced scientific criticism. Other evidence included testimony from an associate who received immunity and from a prison informant.
That's not to say Hunt had no criminal history.
In November 1985, Hunt was sentenced for felony drug possession and other charges. He was released in September 1986. Less than a month later, on Oct. 17, 1986, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Hunt's supporters were certain the lack of physical evidence, along with Cashwell's posthumously released confession, would eventually free him in the murder case.
But it didn't. Judges repeatedly ruled against him. North Carolina's unique Innocence Inquiry Commission couldn't take his case because there was no new evidence, said Chris Mumma, executive director of the nonprofit N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, which handled Hunt's case at one point.
Yet Hunt believed until the end that he would be exonerated, his daughter said. "He never let go of hope," Allen said.
He told her "If they don't find out while I'm here, hopefully the truth will come out when I'm not here," she said. "... He always talked about the Lord and he always believed things would come to a light one day."
Hughes, now 67, kept Cashwell's confession secret because of attorney-client privilege until after Cashwell died by suicide in prison in 2002. Hughes signed an affidavit for Hunt's attorneys in 2004. When Hughes came forward at a hearing for Hunt in 2007, the judge admonished him and reported him to the State Bar, which declined to take action against him.
Last fall, Hughes visited Hunt for the first time in prison. They talked for more than two hours.
"He completely understood the situation I was in," Hughes said. "He bore me no ill will."
But in his last few phone calls with his daughter, Hunt shared his worries about his health and the lack of care he believed he received behind bars, Allen said. When Allen received his personal belongings from prison officials, she found complaints about his medical care.
Correction Department spokesman John Bull said laws prohibit him from discussing a prisoner's health record. He said he'd share the Hunt family's concerns with prison medical officials.
The victims' family, meanwhile, is certain of Hunt's guilt and relieved he's finally gone.
Roland Matthews' sister, Paula Holland of Hope Mills, believes Hughes lied about Cashwell's confession. When asked what trial evidence convinced her of Hunt's guilt, Holland responded: "Because of who he is. Because of who he was. Because of his reputation."
Holland said her niece, Crystal Mayfield, was 22 months old when her parents were killed. She was found sitting on her bed, with her dog.
And when an exonerated ex-prisoner commented in a public Facebook post that Hunt died an innocent man, Mayfield responded: "I am very relieved that justice has finally been served and my family can have some peace now."
Mayfield didn't reply to a Facebook message from the AP. Her relatives said she didn't want to be interviewed.
It's not uncommon for prisoners who have evidence of innocence to die in custody. Responding to an email query, lawyers nationwide listed cases in multiple states where prisoners with strong evidence, including DNA, have died awaiting a chance to prove their innocence.
At least 21 people have been exonerated posthumously, with about half dying in prison, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Hunt, who learned to read and write in prison, was a woodworker. He enjoyed reading about log cabins and talked about the one he'd build when free, his family said. He used plastic knives and wood from pallets to carve animal figures, then dyed them with coffee grounds and decorated them with pastel crayons, Allen said.
The victims' family thinks Allen is lucky to have those memories.
"Lee Wayne Hunt was very fortunate," Holland said. "His family could go to prison and visit him. The only joy we had left was putting flowers on my brother's grave. I hate it for them, but I hate it for us, too ... We didn't take his life. ... We just had to wait and bide our time."
Hunt's supporters believe time did him no favors.
"Everything I knew about this case makes me believe he didn't do this," Hughes said. "And that's pretty terrible. I had hoped this would turn out different. And it didn't. It just turned out overwhelmingly sadly."
Associated Press reporter Allen G. Breed contributed to this story.