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A Denney for Your Thoughts – Law and judgement merit memories (March 2, 2016 issue)

By Connie Denney

In the early 1980s two law partners were appointed to defend one of two black men accused of first-degree murder in North Carolina. The state was seeking the death penalty.  One of 12 jurors was black.  Evidence clearly indicated the other defendant was guilty.

As one of the partners walked into court with his client, he heard the other defendant, seated nearby, ask his lawyers, “Who is this guy?”  This was confirmation of his client’s innocence, along with an earlier test that indicated he was innocent.  But, information from the test could not be admitted as evidence.

A plot for a television drama?  Could be.  But, this one is from real life. One of the important players has roots in Erwin. Readers met him in this space last month—many, of course, already knew Erwin Spainhour, who grew up here and went on to practice law and become a Superior Court Judge in North Carolina.

“My partner and I realized that we absolutely had to win that case, and this resulted in little sleep, and no appetite, for the entire three weeks of the trial. Our client was found not guilty, and the other defendant was sentenced to death,” Spainhour says.

After 27 years practicing law, he served as judge for almost 17 years (though retired, he still serves as an emergency judge).  Spainhour recalled another first-degree murder case as among the most interesting criminal cases he tried as a judge.

It took four weeks to try and attracted national attention, as CBS filmed it for the program 48 Hours, which has shown the film several times over the years.  “The defendant was a wealthy dentist who had killed his wife with a pocket knife as she tried to kill him with a spear,” Spainhour explained, adding that the husband was acquitted because he acted in self-defense.

Another case that stands out in his memory was a civil case involving collapse of a pedestrian walkway bridge.  After the big race in May 2000 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which is located within the city limits of Concord, N.C., where the Spainhours live, the bridge over U.S. Highway 29 fell into the roadway.  Of 107 people on it at the time, many “suffered egregious injuries” and all injured sued for damages.  Litigation lasted several years.

“About 45 separate civil cases were filed, with some of the plaintiffs’ claims being consolidated in the same suit.  Lawyers from all over the country were involved.  All 45 cases were assigned to me and were transferred to Charlotte for trial.  The first case that went to trial lasted about nine weeks and resulted in a verdict of several million dollars, and all but one of the other cases eventually were settled or dismissed.  Meanwhile, there had been several appeals from various orders that I had entered in many of the cases.  All of the orders were affirmed on appeal.”

Judge Spainhour’s fond memories of growing up in Erwin include his Uncle Dennis Erwin, someone “I always admired.”  He was a lawyer, as are Erwin and Jane Spainhour’s daughter, two sons and two daughters-in-law.  The tradition continues.