CHARLES WAKEFIELD FULL CASE SUMMARY

On January 31, 1975, Lt. Frank Looper and his father, Rufus Looper, were shot behind the ear and killed in the Looper Garage in Greenville, S.C. Several young African American men from the neighborhood were picked up, questioned, and given polygraph and/or sodium thiopental tests with regard to their possible involvement in the crime. Charles Wakefield was one of these people and he was then released without charges. Thirteen months later, based on testimony by Wyatt Earp Harper, an 18 year old who was arrested for another crime, stating that he was the lookout for the Looper robbery/ murder, and Mae McIntyre, a Salvation Army worker who claimed to have been at the crime scene and to have seen the perpetrator leaving the crime scene, Charles Wakefield was convicted and sentenced to death. Coincidentally, Mr. Harper received a diminished sentence and Mrs. McIntyre’s son in law, who had alerted the police that his mother in law had information on the Looper murder, nine months after the shooting, and after he had a long, pending prison sentence, also received a short sentence. Both were released.

In 1977, South Carolina was not conforming to death penalty laws after the U.S. The Supreme Court had found the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972 and had required that states reform their laws. All death row prisoners in the state were given the opportunity to accept Life sentences. Mr. Wakefield, fearful that he might once again get a death sentence for a crime he did not commit, accepted a Life sentence. Mr. Wakefield has maintained his innocence for over 32 years. He knew this fact might substantially undermine his chances for parole but he could not accept responsibility for a crime he did not commit, even if it meant spending the rest of his life in prison. He has, however, always acknowledged the horrible loss the Looper family has had to endure for 32 years and for the pain they continue to live with each and every day. In October of this year, he came before the Parole Board, accompanied by his long time pro bono attorney, Eric Gottlieb, his pro bono investigator, Claudia Whitman, his 85 year old parents, and members of the Looper family, all there to support his request for parole. Julia McAuley, sister of Rufus Looper, stated that the family felt he had done his prison time with an unblemished record and that the family wished him to be paroled so that they could move forward with their lives.

In 2005, Mr. Wakefield was granted a hearing on new testimony by Wyatt Earp Harper. A judge from another county was brought in to hear the case. Mr. Harper testified that he was offered a deal to say he was a lookout, that he did not know Charles Wakefield and had not participated in any way in the murder. The judge informed him at the time that he could be returned to jail for perjury, since there is no statute of limitations in a murder case, but he maintained his denial of involvement and insisted that he was ready to suffer the consequences in order to set the record straight. Wyatt Earp Harper, who had been a credible witness in the original trial was not deemed not credible and the judge ruled against Mr. Wakefield.

Despite his unprecedented flawless record for 32 years without a single infraction, his 12 years in a county jail where he worked outside the prison and could have walked away any time, his several years of successful furloughs, his dedication to self improvement through education, which included obtaining his GED and completing 2 years of college courses until education funding was cut, becoming a master gardener, being prisoner of the year, supporting himself largely through his skills in crafts and painting, Charles Wakefield was denied parole one more time. The Parole Board had been clear that they were not there to re-try the case but, rather, to examine his record while incarcerated. Twice before, in 1997 and 2001, they had granted him parole but then a former police chief who had initially worked on the case, came forward and gave inflammatory statements and the parole was rescinded before Mr. Wakefield could leave prison. In 2005, the vote was 4 to 3 in favor of parole but state law requires 5 votes in favor. This time, although this retired police chief did not attend the hearing and even know that the victims’ family had asked for his release, he gave a statement that Charles Wakefield had been on death row and continues to be a threat to society, and this precipitated the ongoing denial. Police Chief Bridges did, in essence, re-try the case. The denial states, “After careful consideration of your record before and after imprisonment, the Parole Board has rejected you for Parole.” Despite his unprecedented flawless record for 32 years without a single infraction, his 12 years in a county jail where he worked outside the prison and could have walked away any time, his several years of successful furloughs, his dedication to self improvement through education, which included obtaining his GED and completing 2 years of college courses until education funding was cut, becoming a master gardener, being prisoner of the year, supporting himself largely through his skills in crafts and painting, Charles Wakefield was denied parole one more time. The Parole Board had been clear that they were not there to re-try the case but, rather, to examine his record while incarcerated. Twice before, in 1997 and 2001, they had granted him parole but then a former police chief who had initially worked on the case, came forward and gave inflammatory statements and the parole was rescinded before Mr. Wakefield could leave prison. In 2005, the vote was 4 to 3 in favor of parole but state law requires 5 votes in favor. This time, although this retired police chief did not attend the hearing and even know that the victims’ family had asked for his release, he gave a statement that Charles Wakefield had been on death row and continues to be a threat to society, and this precipitated the ongoing denial. Police Chief Bridges did, in essence, re-try the case. The denial states, “After careful consideration of your record before and after imprisonment, the Parole Board has rejected you for Parole.”

 

STATEMENT BY CLAUDIA WHITMAN

Charles Wakefield first contacted me in the late 90’s with a request that I investigate his case. I take on innocence cases for investigation on a pro bono basis, generally in conjunction with a lawyer who is also working on the case. Mr. Wakefield sent me information on the case and would periodically call or write me asking me to come down to Greenville to find witnesses. His case was compelling but because he did not have a lawyer, I was hesitant to get involved, since there would be no way to move things forward without legal filings. Once Eric Gottlieb got involved, and we began to correspond by e-mail and talk by phone, we decided we could expedite matters by joining forces. Since 2001, we have stayed in close contact and shared information. I represented Mr. Wakefield for housing and job at his parole hearing in 2005 and worked out a plan for his most recent hearing in October. I was with him and his 85 year old parents when he was denied parole, despite the presence of the victims’ family who wanted him released. I have met with Wyatt Earp Harper, the witness who recanted, several times. He has always been clear that he did not know Mr. Wakefield and that he was a frightened 18 year old who wanted to get out of jail and was offered this opportunity by saying he was a lookout for the murder. Claudia Whitman Director, National Death Row Assistance Network of CURE/ National Capital Crime Assistance Network.

CHARLES WAKEFIELD CASE SUMMARY II

On the afternoon of January 31, 1975, the chief narcotics officer with the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office, Lt. Frank Looper, and his father were each shot once in the head on the property of the Looper family home. Given the culture of corruption within Greenville County law enforcement at the time – twelve officers were indicted in 1975 alone – many at the time speculated that the murders were a narcotics related assassination.

A total of five eye witnesses interviewed by police saw what appeared to be two different young black males fleeing the scene. Numerous young black men from the surrounding neighborhood were picked up and interrogated by police in the days following the murders. One of those men, Charles Wakefield, Jr., was questioned but released after he “passed” a polygraph examination.

The case lay cold for nine months until the primary suspect was cleared. Within weeks, investigators began actively building a case against Charles Wakefield, Jr. A new purported eye-witness surfaced and claimed to have seen the murderer. This older white woman identified Charles Wakefield in a line up and, on that basis alone, investigators secured an indictment for capital murder.

One month after indictment, Wyatt Earp Harper, a purported accomplice surfaced and implicated Wakefield as the murderer in a botched robbery attempt in which he was a “look-out.” Counsel was assigned and the matter proceeded to trial three weeks later when Wakefield rejected a plea offer that would have spared him the death penalty.

The prosecution founded its case upon testimony from the older white woman and the alleged accomplice; no physical evidence whatsoever was introduced. Wakefield presented an elaborate alibi defense corroborated primarily by black witnesses. Of the five original witnesses interviewed by police immediately after the murders, only one testified at trial – the wife and mother of the respective victims, Vera Looper, who refused to identify Wakefield as the killer on account of Wakefield’s uniquely large “afro” hair style. The all white jury rejected Wakefield’s alibi and found him guilty. The death sentence for murder of a policeman was automatic at the time.

Wakefield’s sentence was commuted to life with parole in 1977. He began to focus his efforts on bettering himself while incarcerated, taking advantage of educational opportunities given him to obtain his GED and complete two years of college until the program ceased operations in 1982. In 1988, he was named “Inmate of the Year” by the SC Department of Corrections.

Wakefield’s pristine disciplinary record earned him progressively lower custody status until he ultimately earned “AA” status in 1994 and eligibility for transfer to a local county jail in sleepy Winnsboro, SC. There, he was able to work in the community during business days and become more deeply involved in the Baptist faith he adopted in 1981. Wakefield also continued to fight to overturn his convictions, pursuing the limited legal avenues available to him to no avail. He continued to assert his innocence of the murders.

During Mr. Wakefield’s 1997 parole hearing, one board member asked for an adjournment so that the board could learn more about the circumstances of the violent offenses for which the model inmate had been convicted. Two months later, the hearing resumed. An administrator to the board reported she was unable to get any information about Mr. Wakefield’s convictions from the board’s local agent stationed in Greenville beyond a cryptic statement that authorities “had to have somebody,” so they prosecuted Wakefield. The board went on to parole Wakefield on account of his pristine record as an inmate.

 

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