Judge Henry W. Hight, Jr. on Tuesday denied a motion to allow Kevin Burton Munn, 32, of Warrenton, to withdraw his previous guilty plea in connection with a deadly home invasion and fire at the Lake Gaston home of John and Nancy Alford in 2018.
He and co-defendant Lester Henry Kearney, 35, of Littleton, were charged with crimes that include first-degree murder in connection with the case.
Munn and Kearney are accused of breaking into the Alfords’ Wildwood Point Subdivison home on March 9, 2018. According to law enforcement reports, Mrs. Alford was kidnapped by one of the men and forced to withdraw money from a bank before driving the suspect back to her home. There, the couple were beaten and bound, and left to die after their home was set on fire. Mrs. Alford died at the scene. Her husband managed to escape and was hospitalized. According to law enforcement reports, after Munn and Kearney were arrested, Mrs. Alford’s 2011 Mercedes Benz was found abandoned and burned in Haywood County in the western part of the state.
Previous court sessions
In April 2018, Munn pled guilty to first-degree murder in connection with the deaths of Mrs. Alford and of Vance County businessman Tommy Ellington in 2017. Munn made the guilty plea in exchange for serving a life sentence instead of facing the death penalty, and testifying in other matters related to the case.
In October, Munn requested to withdraw his plea and have his case move to trial. At that time, his attorney, Mary Darrow of Raleigh, asked Hight to allow Munn to withdraw his plea on the grounds that he felt pressured by his previous attorney, Boyd Sturges of Louisburg, to make a guilty plea in order to avoid the death penalty and did not fully understand the court process.
Munn claimed innocence when the case resumed in November. He said that Kearney brought Mrs. Alford’s car to him and told him to get rid of it. Munn said that was when he took the car to the mountains and, ultimately set it on fire.
Also in October, Sturges testified that he advised Munn to accept a plea agreement after reviewing available evidence, including Munn’s statements to the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation and DNA evidence, and because a private investigator was not able to confirm the alibi that Munn had presented.
Tuesday’s court session
During Tuesday’s session in Warren County Superior Court, Darrow told Hight that she had not encountered a time in which a client wanted to withdraw a previous guilty plea. She said that she believed that the plea withdrawal request would not have been necessary if there had been more time between Munn’s arrest and his guilty plea.
She said that Munn needed to see all of the evidence against him and to absorb everything happening in connection with the case before considering a plea agreement. Darrow also suggested that drug use had an impact on Munn’s plea. The attorney added that on the day Munn entered his plea, he wanted to change his attorney and did not want to make a plea at that time.
District Attorney Mike Waters told Hight that Munn did not make a statement about innocence until after he requested to withdraw his plea. He added that Munn’s decision to flee to the mountains with Mrs. Alford’s car further suggested his guilt, as did possessing Mrs. Alford’s jewelry and Mr. Alford’s gun at the time of his arrest.
Waters said that on the day that Munn made his guilty plea, he was competent, chose the best option for him, testified that he had not been coerced into making the plea and knew the consequences he could face if the case went to trial.
Darrow said that Munn’s possession of Mrs. Alford’s car did not mean that he had been inside the Alford’s home at the time they were attacked or when the house was set on fire. She added that being in possession of the car, jewelry and gun belonging to the Alfords suggested a charge of possession of stolen property or accessory after the fact.
Darrow further said that fleeing from law enforcement, especially if drugs are in one’s system, is common and can be related to possession of stolen goods. She said that jurors would be faced with the task of deciding if Munn participated in murder or as an accessory after the fact, and that prosecutors would be charged with proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Waters said that Sturges had access to all evidence that the state had at the time of the plea agreement. Waters told Hight that prosecutorial evidence points to Munn’s guilt. He added that when Munn gave his plea in court, he admitted guilt. Waters said that the court granted Munn’s request to be spared from going in front of a jury who would have to decide if he should be sent to death row.
Darrow contended that Munn’s request was not granted, saying that both he and his mother asked to know when he might become eligible to be released from prison if he accepted a plea agreement.
Before Hight announced his decision, he stated conclusions that Munn understood the consequences of making his plea and that he entered his guilty plea voluntarily.
When the judge denied the motion to withdraw the plea, Darrow voiced an objection, noting an intention to appeal. Hight replied that appeals would be heard after the sentencing phase in the case.
After court, Waters explained that Munn’s status remains that he has pled guilty to first-degree murder and is awaiting sentencing. The next step in the case will involve determining whether Munn abided by the terms of his plea agreements, Waters added.
The case is expected to return to court in January. That is also when a status update in Kearney’s case is expected because both of his defense attorneys have withdrawn from representing him. Kearney has maintained his innocence throughout the proceedings, recently stating in court that he was stuck in a ditch at the time that the Alfords were attacked.