The lead prosecutor in the controversial 1990 murder trial of Blanche Taylor Moore died Saturday when she stepped into traffic on Interstate 485 in Charlotte, authorities said.
Authorities have ruled Janet H. Downing’s death a suicide. Those who knew her are saying it was a tragic end for a troubled woman.
Downing, better known to Forsyth County folks as Janet Branch when she was a prosecutor here, died about 7:30 a.m. Oct. 10, after her car wrecked in the median of I-485, the N.C. Highway Patrol said.
Trooper John Burgin said the night before the accident Downing had gone to a neighbor’s house in Charlotte and asked for a gun or razor blades, giving the neighbor information about how to get in touch with kin and telling him that “she had hit rock bottom.”
“The next morning, it appears that she ran off the road to the left,” Burgin said. Her car stopped in the median, Burgin said, and had only slight damage from striking cables meant to stop cars from crossing through the median.
Burgin said it doesn’t appear that Downing wrecked intentionally and that she may have fallen asleep. Downing got out of her car and went into the center lane of the freeway, Burgin said. A motorist whose car was moving from the right lane to the center lane struck and killed Downing, whose body was struck by two other cars following the first one.
The patrol said that the medical examiner ruled Downing’s death a suicide because of her behavior the night before and in stepping into the freeway.
Pete Clary, Downing’s ex-husband, said that in 2011 he became the sole guardian of the couple’s disabled daughter, “Petesie” Clary, after Downing had an emotional breakdown. Downing continued to work as an attorney until the time of her death, living in Charlotte with an office in Fayetteville.
“In the last four or five years, Janet was a troubled soul,” said Clary, who was in frequent touch with Downing in the years since their marriage ended in 1998. The couple’s daughter, now a young woman, has Rett syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes young girls to stop developing and regress.
Downing, who was 62, was born in Rural Hall and grew up in Wallburg.
She went to work in 1987 as assistant prosecutor for Forsyth County District Attorney Warren Sparrow, and continued under Tom Keith until 1991.
Downing rose to prominence as the chief prosecutor in the case of Moore, who went on trial here in 1990 for murder in the 1986 arsenic poisoning death of her former boyfriend, Raymond C. Reid of Kernersville.
Moore was convicted of killing Reid, but authorities said he wasn’t the only victim: An exhumation revealed that Moore’s first husband had died from arsenic poisoning, and that her father, who died in the 1960s, had had symptoms of arsenic poisoning.
Moore was also charged with attempting to poison her second husband, who survived a potentially fatal ingestion of arsenic. Tried only in the death of Reid, Moore remains on death row.
Downing’s own conduct became controversial during Moore’s trial: At one point Moore’s attorney said he would call for a mistrial after Downing teared up while questioning Moore’s estranged husband.
In 1993, Downing was reprimanded by the N.C. State Bar after allegations surfaced that Downing had negotiated a possible movie deal about the case before the trial ended. The bar found no evidence of impropriety, but said that the prosecutor had put herself in a compromising position.
Vince Rabil, an attorney in the N.C. Office of the Capital Defender here, was a young assistant prosecutor in Forsyth County when he worked under Downing on the Moore murder case.
“I learned so much during that case and it carried on forward for the next 15 years,” Rabil said. “She had a lot of energy. She had a photographic memory. She was very dramatic and had a flair for courtroom drama. She was from the great old school of Southern legal oratory.”
Downing left the district attorney’s office here in 1991 and went into private practice, doing work in worker’s compensation law statewide. Rabil called Downing “an amazing attorney” who had a “natural instinct for argument and cross-examination.”
“She was highly motivated and wanted to see that justice was done, but she did have her own personal demons that she wrestled with,” Rabil said. “Those continued to follow her the rest of her life, I think.”