Innocence And Experience - Jeni Gray, Daniel Lee Bring Reality To Watauga County

As residents of our peaceful mountains ponder the common occurrance of deaths in larger cities, we can consider the murder that for many brought the woes of the world right onto our doorstep.Jeni Gray.

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On September 26, 1989, Jeni Gray, age 27, a popular reporter for the Appalachian State News Bureau, went out for a walk in downtown Boone before planning to meet her dad to go to church. She disappeared that day, and was not found until more than two weeks later in the Triplett community of Watauga County October 9.

She had been raped and strangled with her own clothes. September 29 another ASU student had come forward with a story about a man who abducted her while jogging, a man who while holding her had told another story of how he had raped and murdered another student just a week before.

With Daniel Lee arrested and in custody, 1990 began with a courtroom drama that revealed evil in its pure form. Pretrial motions began in April, with Superior Court Judge Charles Lamm hearing from defense attorneys Chester Whittle and Jeff Hedrick. Lee was charged with one count of first-degree murder, three counts of sexual assault, and kidnapping.

The murder charge was a capital offense, bringing the possibility of the death penalty. The Motion to Change Venue was granted, and trial scheduled for April 16 in Avery County.

Jury selection began on April 13, and while the selection process was underway Lee filed pleas of guilty to the kidnapping and rape charges, a plea rejected by District Attorney Tom Rusher who was trying the case for the state.

When Lee subsequently pleaded guilty to the murder, the state accepted that plea and the jury was charged with a sentencing recommendation; either life without parole or death by lethal injection.

The surviving student testified during this phase, calmly describing how Lee told her of murdering Gray, how "she was hard to kill." The defense presented family members and medical testimony that Lee's violent behavior had begun with the diagnosis of a brain aneurysm.

But descriptions of the brutality of the crime carried the verdict, and on April 26 the six men and women deliberated only seven hours before sentencing Lee to death. The defendant showed no emotion. He was also sentenced to four life terms for the rape and kidnapping of Gray, and set for execution in June of 1990.

But North Carolina law brings automatic appeal of death sentence cases, and Lee died in Raleigh Central Prison from his medical condition before he could be brought to the state's final justice.

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