LETTER: Justice for Thomas Weatherford and Paul Callahan

To the editor:

During the early morning hours of Aug. 23, 1991, John Lee Conaway, a career criminal, was prowling the streets of Hamlet with three acquaintances, looking to steal a car in order to drive to the Washington, D.C. area. Conaway left the group and entered an all-night convenience store staffed by one clerk, Thomas Weatherford. Weatherford’s roommate, Paul Callahan, had driven Weatherford to work, and stayed to keep him company. Conaway used a handgun to rob the store of $78, and to kidnap Weatherford and Callahan, forcing them into Callahan’s car. Conaway then picked up his acquaintances, who got into the back of the car. They drove into rural Richmond County, stopping the car along a wooded area on Highway 74. Weatherford and Callahan were led out of the car by Conaway, and walked at gunpoint 87 feet into the woods. Conaway’s acquaintances, now legally co-conspirators, stayed in the car and heard two gunshots several seconds apart.

Conaway and his co-conspirators drove to the Washington, D.C. area, staying several days. On Aug. 30, 1991, Conaway’s co-conspirators returned to Hamlet where they confessed their roles in the above crimes. They all identified Conaway as the killer of Weatherford and Callahan. When arrested in Maryland, Conaway had in his possession a .25-caliber handgun and .25-caliber ammo, and the key to Paul Callahan’s apartment. While being held at the Richmond County Jail, Conaway confessed his role in the killings to another inmate. At Conaway’s trial in October 1992, the evidence firmly implicated Conaway as the killer, and he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Conaway was granted a second trial in 2010, after it was determined that a cousin of one of the testifying co-conspirators lied about his blood relationship to the co-conspirator during jury selection, likely in order to be seated on the jury. During his re-trial, Conaway accepted a plea agreement in which he plead guilty to one of the above murders, and accepted a sentence of life in prison.

As horrific as the facts are in this case, equally damaging to the families of Thomas Weatherford and Paul Callahan are the actions of a prominent Chapel Hill writer. This writer has funded dozens of motions and appeals on John Lee Conaway’s behalf over the years, and even went through a sham process to “adopt” the 50-year-old Conaway. John Lee Conaway has become a cause celebre among a small delusional group of Chapel Hill residents who are noted for their deep pockets, their unguided ballistic social conscience, and for having no regard for the working-class friends and family of the murder victims in this case. The above Chapel Hill-based author has mocked and brought further pain to the Weatherford and Callahan families by posting gruesome crime-scene photographs on her personal website, photographs likely provided to her by her high-priced attorneys and which she has refused to take down.

John Lee Conaway, like many in the penal system, is alleged to have suffered a dismal childhood, marked by poverty, mental illness, and substance abuse. Rather than continuing to line the pockets of Conaway’s appellate attorneys for the production of legal motions that almost certainly will be refused by the courts, would it not be a better choice to donate that money to any one of a number of national, state, and regional charities devoted to the reduction of poverty, mental illness, and substance abuse in the U.S. and North Carolina? The answer to that should be obvious, even to the most misguided of leftist writers.

Tom Williams

West Lafayette, Indiana