The Rev. John Alford’s eyewitness identification of Lester Kearney, 37, of Littleton, as the suspect in a 2018 home invasion and fatal fire at Alford’s Lake Gaston home will be allowed as evidence at trial after Judge Henry W. Hight, Jr. ruled in Warren County Superior Court last week against a defense motion to suppress Alford’s identification of Kearney on three occasions in 2018.
Kearney is charged with first degree murder, among other charges, in the March 9, 2018, incident that severely injured Alford and resulted in the death of his wife, Nancy, at their Wildwood Point subdivision home.
The state is seeking the death penalty in the case.
The defense motion indicated that the identification of Kearney was tainted because Alford was shown only Kearney’s photograph rather than a photo lineup of multiple suspects and because the state held a press conference announcing Kearney’s arrest prior to approaching Alford with a photo lineup, which led to media coverage showing Kearney’s photo and interviews by news media, as well as social media postings.
Following witness and expert testimony focused mostly on Alford’s memory of events and description of the suspect, and law enforcement photo identification procedures, the state argued that it was up to the jury to determine the reliability of relevant testimony, that the accused had a right to confront an eyewitness, that the state did not orchestrate the identification procedure, and that at the press conference where the district attorney announced the arrest of Kearney and his co-defendant, it was clearly stated that both suspects were presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law.
The state also argued that Alford being in such close proximity to the intruder who had attacked him and was tying his hands got his attention and allowed him to get an accurate description with a high level of certainty.
The judge denied the defense motion to suppress the eyewitness testimony, including a request made during the hearing to suppress a new ID Alford made of Kearney from the witness stand last week.
Also in the Kearney case, the court heard a number of matters related to discovery. Among those, the defense requested surveillance videos, cell phone records, items seized in searches, and complete recordings of 911 calls made in the Alford case; law enforcement records in the Feb. 4, 2018, unsolved murder of a Keon Hicks of the Afton-Elberon community; and copies of any letters Kevin Munn, 34, of the Afton-Elberon community, had sent to the Alford family, including one he recently sent to Laura Alford Bell. Munn is Kearney’s co-defendant in the Alford case.
The defense has requested that some 600 hours of Munn’s prison phone calls be transcribed. The estimated cost is $45,000.
Right to confront Munn
Filed for last week’s hearing was a motion by the state on whether or not Kearney had forfeited his right to confront Munn in court because of threats made against Munn, his children and their mother if Munn testified against him.
Two witnesses, one who formerly worked at Raleigh’s Central Prison, where both Kearney and Munn have been held for safekeeping, and one who still works there, testified about multiple threatening letters Kearney had sent to Munn.
Alisha Norris, a security specialist with the state Department of Public Safety, said that she investigated the first letter Kearney tried to send to Munn, which was intercepted, and a second letter, which made it to Munn and was found in his cell.
“He’s like, ‘This happens all the time,’” she testified Munn had said.
Norris said that Kearney was placed in restrictive housing — 23 hours a day in his cell — because of his behavior, and that Munn was not afraid of the threats.
Amy LaFleur, program director at Central Prison, also testified about Kearney’s discipline issues and said he was a different person when he wanted to be. She said it was a difficult issue with both Kearney and Munn being at the same prison.
A ruling on this motion was delayed. If the judge rules in favor of the state, it could open the door for the state to introduce prior statements made by Munn against Kearney during the trial.
Jury selection, trial delayed
Jury selection for Kearney’s trial, which was scheduled to begin on Monday from a pool of 500 potential jurors over a four-week period, has been delayed until Jan. 24. The jury pool will remain the same as those previously called.
The trial, which was to have been in Warren County’s first 2022 trial session, has been delayed until later in the year, possibly in March.