Just two years into a four- to six-year sentence for possession of methamphetamine and being a habitual felon, Lisa Henderson walked out of the women’s prison in Raleigh.
Henderson, of Benson, was freed last month after testing by the State Bureau of Investigation showed that the substance found during a search was not methamphetamine. A judge then vacated her sentence.
But not before Henderson spent two years in prison for a crime she says she didn’t commit. Her release was the result of an oversight by prosecutors and zealous efforts by her attorney, James Carter of Smithfield, to free his client.
Carter said Henderson’s case illustrates the bureaucratic obstacles hampering the fair administration of justice.
Henderson is no stranger to the criminal justice system. She’s has felony convictions for forgery and drug possession.
When she was picked up in April 2011 for violating probation, no one was surprised. What happened next is in dispute.
According to court records, an off-white substance that appeared to be meth fell out of her bra. Henderson claims she had nothing in her bra. She says an officer at the Johnston County Jail picked the substance up off the floor near her during a body search.
“I never saw nothing,” Henderson said. “I know for a fact there was nothing on me.”
In a preliminary field test, the sample tested positive for meth, but police sent the sample to the SBI’s crime lab in Raleigh for a more-detailed test.
Henderson faced 13 years in prison for drug possession and being a habitual felon. From jail, she wrote her court-appointed attorneys, James Levinson and J. Lee Levinson, who told her to take a plea bargain that would reduce her sentence to about four years.
With her record, James Levinson wrote, a four-year sentence was the best she could do. “I realize some of the charges are old … but when you get a record, it makes a difference,” he wrote.
Henderson said she reluctantly took the plea. Carter, the attorney who eventually got her released, said Henderson was like other convicted felons facing new charges: Even if innocent, they will plead guilty to avoid a lengthier prison sentence.
“Why would you risk twice as much time?” Carter said. “You won’t. Most people won’t.”
In signing the plea deal, Henderson essentially admitted she was guilty of possessing methamphetamines. After that, standard procedure called for the State Crime Lab to send the sample back to the Distrcit Attorney’s Office to be destroyed.
For some reason, said assistant prosecutor Greg Butler, that never happened. “Fortunately in this case, the staff person did not notify the SBI, nor did they send copies of the destruction (order),” he said.
While that oversight eventually helped free Henderson, it also prolonged her time in prison. First, the State Crime Lab didn’t get around to testing the sample until June 2012, about a year after receiving it.
Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the SBI, said the agency gets requests from across the state, so the process usually takes about nine to 12 months. “We are working to get additional analysts and other resources for the Drug Chemistry & Toxicology section of the Crime Lab from the General Assembly,” Talley said in an email.
It took another year for the Johnston County District Attorney’s Office to read the results. At the time, Butler said, the SBI posted these results on a secure server; legal assistants downloaded them and printed them out.
Butler said he thinks assistants might not have bothered to look at the results since Henderson was already in prison. “She pled guilty, and she stipulated it was meth,” he said. “There was no reason to believe otherwise.”
The SBI now sends test results to D.A. offices, and Butler said the legal assistants have been instructed to examine and print out all test results. “It should not (happen) in the current system,” he said. “These are issues that have been corrected.”
Henderson hired Carter from prison to look into the possibility of an appeal. Carter, who gets many such requests, said he was impressed with the consistency of her story. “I’ve become adamantly a believer that she didn’t have methamphetamine,” he said.
On June 10, Carter asked Butler to track down the test results. The next day, Henderson was in court, where a judge vacated her sentence. She was home before 5 p.m. that day, surprising her youngest daughter.
Henderson said she was sure of the outcome from the start. “In my heart, I knew I was going to come out,” she said.