LEXINGTON, N.C. (WGHP) — On Nov. 3, 1979, the Ku Klux Klan and members of the American Nazi Party clashed with members of the Workers Viewpoint Organization in Greensboro, resulting in people being shot and killed. Charles McNeair, of nearby Lexington, was 16 years old at the time.
“We [were] just getting integrated then, with whites and black going to school together,” said Charles’ brother, Harvey. “We weren’t allowed to look at white women, period. I don’t care if you [were] a kid, a grown man or whatever.”
Charles, who read and wrote at a second-grade level, had dropped out of school. He started going to a Lexington grocery store, where he would ask customers if he could carry their groceries to their vehicles in the hope of getting tips.
“This is where he met an older white woman that he thought was his friend. It turned out that this was not his friend,” said Wanda Cox.
On Nov. 26, the teen went to the woman’s home on Fairview Drive in Lexington.
“That particular night, in his mind, he had a date. He thought he was going to see his girlfriend,” Cox said. “She told him he needed to be gone by 12 or 1 o’clock because someone would be coming home. He theorizes that she probably panicked when she couldn’t get him awake.”
According to Cox, the woman – who was in her mid-50’s at the time, supplied Charles with alcohol and marijuana.
“He had alcohol and they had smoked a joint together that evening, and he had literally passed out,” Cox said. “So he awakened to a police officer sitting on him, beating him and trying to get him to come to.”
Charles was put into a patrol car and taken downtown.
“By that time, he realized he was being accused of rape,” Cox said.
A newspaper article from the next day says the woman told police she had woken up to Charles around 4 a.m., with the ordeal lasting about twenty minutes, including the time when Charles passed out and the woman was able to call 911. It also shows police were considering Charles as a suspect in previous rapes, including two which happened when he was 14 years old.
“They took him to two or three other places in town and would say, ‘You were here, weren’t you? You were here,’” Cox said.
Charles was told he could be charged with the previous rapes, according to Cox, which led him to believe he could receive the death penalty.
“None of my family members, never interviewed, never questioned about anything,” Harvey said.
Six months later, Charles pleaded guilty to felony breaking and entering and second-degree rape.
Cox said, “I ask him today, I say, ‘Charles why did you plead guilty if you didn’t do it?’ He said, ‘I wanted to live.’”
Charles was sentenced to life in prison.
“The sentence was so harsh that it literally shocked. It was like a wave of distress that swept through the courthouse,” Cox said.
“It was real hard. Real hard. She took that to her grave with her,” Harvey said, of his mother.
More than 43 years later, Charles continues to maintain his innocence. His supporters say he’s earned his GED, as well as some college credit while incarcerated. While his sentence drags on, there is a growing movement calling for Governor Roy Cooper to grant him clemency.
“I’m told by attorneys who have looked at this file with me that it should have carried 10 to 15 years, probably out in 10 to 12,” Cox claimed.
Those supporters say they filed a petition for his clemency last year shortly before Cooper commuted the sentences of six people, including four murderers.
“There may be individuals who are blocking Charles’ case from getting to the desk,” said Reverend Allen Suber, pastor of Faith-Forward Baptist Church, Advocates for Charles Mcneair Organization president and local NAACP vice president. “Someone is continuing this language of, ‘Charles McNeair…danger to this community, shouldn’t get out.’”
The group has also held demonstrations calling for his release, including in front of the governor’s mansion last month.
“I am often approached by guards who would come up to the picnic table where we were sitting and say, ‘That’s a fine man you’re visiting there. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen,’” Cox said, of her visits with Charles.
They argue, regardless of what happened on that November night, he’s served his time by today’s standards.
“If we do release him, we’re having to admit that we were wrong 43 years ago,” Suber said. “We’ve been told before, ‘Why dig up a horrible past? Why not let the past die?’ The reality is Charles can’t let it die because he’s living it.”
Last weekend, Charles was moved from Craggy Correctional Center in Asheville to Davidson Correctional Center, which is a minimum-security prison for men.
“All he wants to do is have the opportunity to fix his own meal and rock in his rocking chair on his own porch,” Suber said.
The prison is about five minutes away from the scene of the crimes Charles pleaded guilty to.
“My momma would get what she’s been looking for,” Harvey said, of their fight for clemency. “Her son to be free.”