The incarceration of a young, Black, illiterate, 16 year old in Lexington, North Carolina named Charles McNeair is testing the patience of those willing to take a stand against racism in North Carolina.
It seems in 1979 racism was stronger than justice in Lexington, but today denial has knocked them both off their feet. As the details of his case become public, a spotlight is shining on past racism left unchecked for decades in this small southern town.
Found with an older white woman, the young, illiterate juvenile was beaten, threatened, denied his rights, and provided ineffective counsel as he struggled to save his own life during his arrest in 1979.
First degree rape and breaking and entering charges were quickly levied against Charles McNeair, even though no real evidence was introduced to support the charges.
At the time, the young 16 year old vehemently stated his innocence and explained he was in a “relationship” with the older white woman who had pursued a romantic relationship with him despite their age difference.
All his denials and declarations of innocence were met with deaf ears by all those entrusted with the justice system.
The police subjected him to beatings and the district attorney, well known for his theatrics and dramatic wielding of power and opinion, moved forward with great speed and purpose to get young Charles sent away.
Journalist Phoebe Zerwick was assigned to Lexington as a reporter for the Winston Salem Journal in the mid 1980’s. According to her book Rage of Innocence, she says she:
“learned about southern justice from the district attorney H.W. ‘Butch’ Zimmerman, whose office was decorated with Confederate memorabilia. Defense attorneys would gather there on Friday afternoons while he read excerpts from his collection of slaveholder diaries, many about their sexual exploits with enslaved women, recited not as stories of rape but for the entertainment of the men in the room.”
This was the same district attorney that Charles McNeair faced, known for his masterful skills as an orator and desire to always win. He, successfully maneuvered the young juvenile into pleading guilty to 2nd degree rape by threatening him with two other 1st degree rape charges that had happened in Lexington two years before.
Even though the juvenile would have been a 14 year old middle school student, the additional charges successfully intimated him. Charles agreed to plead guilty to one 2nd degree charge in an effort to save his life.
He may have been unable to read what they were writing, but he knew he did not want to die in the electric chair for three rapes at the age of 16.
His childlike signature is at the bottom of the 2nd degree plea of guilt, even though someone had misspelled his name on the top of the form he signed.
Beaten, alone, scared — but alive, he was sentenced to life in prison for a charge that today would carry a maximum sentence of 10 to 12 years.
False promises from his attorney of an automatic appeal and shorter sentence never appeared so Charles made the best of a very excessive and punitive sentence. He has been met with nothing but injustice and disappointment throughout his prison time.
The justice system has failed this man for over 43 years.
Although discarded to save the reputation of a white woman in 1979, this Black youth has not quietly disappeared into oblivion. Instead he educated himself and turned to the faith of his youth as he grew into manhood.
He has acquired his GED, multiple college certifications in horticulture and culinary skills and managed to become a remarkable person. The sentence has denied him 43 years of his life but has not broken the spirit of the man.
He is a model honor grade inmate and demonstrates positive character traits to others wherever he is incarcerated. He has worked, taken a multitude of self-help classes and used his belief in a higher power to become a 60 year old man that I am proud to know and advocate for.
The legacy of worthlessness that the DA managed to instill in his prison file has failed to keep this man from finding a dedicated group willing to fight for what is right and the belief that this man deserves freedom.
Yet, racism from 1979 is still a reality in his daily life. The blind acceptance of systemic racism by those in power has allowed this man to suffer injustice for 43 years. All those involved in this case are now deceased except for Charles McNeair.
It is as though those long since passed away are still allowed to keep this man incarcerated.
A community advocacy group from Lexington is determined to help this man gain freedom and live the last quarter of his life as a free man.
Today, brutality and systemic racism seems to be constantly in front of us because of livestreams, social media, body cams and instant reporting.
We should not forget the cases of our past. These cases, such as Charles McNeair who were hidden away in our prison system to never be seen again.
The light of justice must also shine on these individuals.
Racism has been given free reign for too long in the life of Charles McNeair. Many young lives were sacrificed and people are still looking the other way.
A clemency petition has been filed on behalf of Charles McNeair by Attorney Jami Lau, Duke University Law School, Wrongful Conviction Clinic.
It currently sits in the office of Governor Cooper waiting for his review and signature since September, 2022. Meanwhile, those aware of the injustice are working in support of clemency or quietly turning their head away in denial.
When enough people choose to face the ugliness of past racism we can finally declare justice stronger. Meanwhile 1979 racism has taken the life of a juvenile who turned out to be a better man than those that suppressed his life because of the color of his skin.
He has survived 43 years without becoming bitter or racist. Well done Mr McNeair! We will continue to advocate for your release.
As North Carolina continues to express a desire to reform the prison system we will keep a watchful eye on this case. It is a perfect example of racism allowed to flourish for decades by those that know better.
When will those in power take a stand and say no to racism and free this man?
We ask that people email in support of clemency for Charles McNeair to email@example.com or call 919 324 1456. It’s never too late to do the right thing.