The dismissals for Keyon West, Matthew Simms, and Dontavious Cotton were based on the recantation of a previous statement made by defendant James Powell concerning the August 2017 murders of James and Janice Harris and James and Peggy Whitley. The four were shot and killed as they played a friendly game of cards at the Harris residence in the Glenview community of the Enfield area.
In the affidavit which contains his recantation, Powell wrote, “I made a statement shortly thereafter when I was interviewed by detectives from Halifax County of specific circumstances that I in fact had no personal knowledge of, simultaneously (implicating) Cotton and West in the those murder cases which was a false accusation.”
Powell said in the affidavit he had no knowledge of those defendants being involved in any murder. “I was not present when those murders were actually committed and I cannot truthfully give an eye-witness testimony because of these facts.”
At the time when he made the statements implicating Cotton and West, Powell wrote he was facing other serious charges and “was coerced by detectives interviewing me to cooperate in exchange for (leniency) at prosecution, even after advising detectives on more than one occasion that I had no knowledge of an actual murder.”
The affidavit said that at the time of his original statement on January 7, 2018, he was at the former Halifax Regional Medical Center in a hospital bed and under the influence of several mind-altering substances. “In addition, the court should question the conduct of police in creating pressure, overbearing the will of the interviewer, the capacity I lacked to resist the detective's pressure and the location of the questioning as well as the timing.”
Powell said in the affidavit that “evidence shows that these statements were illegally obtained because I was already under arrest, was in custody, did not initiate the contact with the detectives for the interview and was not advised of my Miranda Rights which is a violation of my constitutional rights.”
In the signed and notarized statement of August 26, 2021, Powell said it was made of his own free will and no one forced or influenced him in any manner.
This morning in Halifax County Superior Court before Judge Cy A. Grant of Hertford County, District Attorney Valerie M. Asbell appeared on what initially was to be a bond hearing for West. “The state is going to take an action today that will no longer require a bond hearing in the matter of West,” she said.
Asbell told the judge that West, along with his co-defendants were charged with first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of the Whitely’s and the Harris’s on August 20 of 2017.
Powell was arrested in an unrelated murder in January of 2018. “After being arrested on other charges, James Powell made several statements to law enforcement implicating the defendant before the court,” Asbell said of West. The statements also implicated Cotton and Simms, she said.
Last week, Asbell said her office received an email from West’s attorney which contained a motion for an unsecured bond. “Contained within that motion was a copy of a sworn affidavit written by co-defendant James Powell that our office had not had the benefit of seeing before being served with it last week.”
Asbell told Grant that the affidavit by Powell recanted his prior statements and is inconsistent with all of his prior statements regarding the murders of James and Peggy Whitley and James and Janice Harris.”
After receiving the affidavit, Asbell said her office contacted and spoke to prison notary Luke Hunt who confirmed orally and in writing that he notarized the statement August of last year.
“Prior to January 26, the state proceeded with this case believing Powell to be a credible witness in the case of the co-defendants,” Asbell said. “James Powell’s recantation of his prior statements made to law enforcement implicating the co-defendants in the homicides of James and Peggy Whitley and James and Janice Harris provide a substantial change in the evidence of this case. Evidence-based prosecution requires that we follow the evidence in our pursuit to prosecute cases on behalf of the state of North Carolina.”
Asbell said her staff has spoken at length with the families of the victims “and they understand what has transpired in the past week and the effect James Powell’s recantation has on how we proceed with these cases.”
Asbell said with a substantial change in evidence based on the sworn affidavit served on her office last week, “The state is now dismissing the charges related to this offense against Matthew Simms, Dontavious Cotton and Keon West.”
Halifax County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Scott Hall, who had been in the courtroom this morning, declined comment.
Sheriff Wes Tripp said, “There were four defendants in the case. Defendant James Powell recanted his statement in implicating the other three and in his original statement it discusses his involvement and based on that we have physical evidence that corroborates his involvement.”
Asked what happens with Powell in the case, Asbell said, “The state of North Carolina versus James Powell is still pending and in a trial posture.”
Jay Ferguson, one of the defense attorneys in the case, said, “I’m very grateful for the end result. I’m sorry it took so long.”
Outside the courthouse West’s mother, Latisha Whitaker said, “I’m 100 percent relieved while at the same time there is some anger still. My son has been incarcerated for over four years for a crime he did not commit. His name has been smeared everywhere. His picture has been posted in all these different places.”
Whitaker said she found it strange that, “When this case first started there was media everywhere. Where is everybody right now for the vindication? Halifax County — they’ve got to do better. I’m ecstatic that my son is coming home and I still sympathize with the family because they’re victims and I understand that. My heart goes out to them.”
Over the last few years Whitaker said she felt as if the authorities were trying to take away her child. “There was never any evidence. There was nothing that tied my son to this case except for the word of a murderer.”
Asked what the family does next, Whitaker said, “Hold people accountable. The first thing I’m going to do for my son is take him to his son. My grandson is one of the biggest victims in this case. That’s almost four or five years without his father but they want to say Black men don’t want to take care of their kids. I feel like there’s an apology owed to all of us. We’ve all been going through this. We’ve all been victims.”
Whitaker said there has been a personal toll on her throughout the ordeal. “Mentally, physically, emotionally, and financially I’m worn out. I have been admitted to the hospital. Just panic and anxiety.”
Asked what happens from this point, she said, “All I want to say right now is I’m happy that my son is home.”
She said she was also happy that the charges against Cotton and Simms have been dismissed. “It’s been a long time coming. We just want to make sure they’re mentally OK.”