Teen with IQ of 66 went to jail for murder in 1997. New evidence means he’ll get a new trial.

Utaris Reid
Utaris Reid

In 1996, police interviewed a 14-year-old boy with an IQ estimated at 66, questioning him about a cab driver beaten to death in the Sanford streets.

Utaris Reid had no parent or lawyer present, court records said, and a police detective prepared a statement for him to sign. That piece of paper became the key piece of evidence that sent Reid to prison for life, convicted of first-degree murder.

But after 22 years behind bars, Reid will soon get a new trial. Superior Court Judge C. Winston Gilchrist gave the order on Nov. 30 after work on Reid’s behalf by N.C. Prisoner Legal Services.

New evidence suggests a different set of Sanford youths attacked the victim, records said, offering testimony that might have cleared Reid at the time.

The victim, John Graham, was attacked in his cab in October of 1995, and he radioed for help. When Sanford police responded, officers collected no weapons, blood or fingerprint evidence at the scene, court records said.

Paramedics noted he had a head injury and could only open his eyes in response to his name, according to court documents. In the emergency room, records said, he told police that two teens age 16 to 19 assaulted him in the cab. Two months later, Graham died from the head injury combined with pneumonia.

Reid would have been functioning at a fourth-grade level when interviewed by police, a neuropsychologist hired by the defense later testified. The doctor also believed Reid could not understand his rights or the statement he signed, which said he and three other teens beat the cab driver with sticks they found on the ground.

Reid was convicted and sentenced to life after his first trial ended in a hung jury. Police interviewed the other three teens named in Reid’s statement, records said, but none confessed and none were charged.

In 2011, a man interviewed by the defendant’s investigator said three other Sanford youths told him about robbing and beating Graham shortly after the crime occurred. They tried to grab the driver’s money bag and jump out of the cab, records said, then assaulted him when he grabbed one of his attackers by the necklace.

William McCormick, the new witness, did not provide the information at the time because he followed a “street code” of silence, records said, but he now lives a different life.“The newly discovered evidence is probably true,” Gilchrist wrote.

The state has appealed the decision to give Reid a new trial. Lauren Miler with Prisoner Legal Service called the state’s move “unconscionable ... in light of what we have learned about false confessions in the 20-plus years since Mr. Reid’s trial.”

A hearing later this week will decide whether Reid can be released on bond pending the appeal.

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Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.