Raleigh, N.C. — It’s a holiday classic – the Bing Crosby line – ‘I’ll be home for Christmas, but only in my dreams.’ But this year, those dreams were reality for two men who spent nearly three decades behind bars for a crime they said they didn’t commit.
Leroy Spruill, 63, said he spent Christmas morning with “true friends” by taking pictures of the sunrise and opening gifts.
“It’s so good to sit right here and watch TV … I am so grateful to a lot of people and I am blessed,” said Spruill.
Spruill and 49-year-old Brandon Jones were released in November after 26 years for a murder they said they didn’t commit. Jones and Spruill entered Alford pleas to second-degree murder and were sentenced to time served. An Alford plea allows someone to maintain his or her innocence while acknowledging there’s enough evidence to convict them.
“I thank God I am free today. I can come outside. I can come outside at night and do whatever I want to do … it’s a feeling of ‘wow’ everyday I wake up. I don’t sleep much. I just haven’t got it down to where I am sleeping good. My every day is like, ‘Wow, you are really out man,'” said Jones.
“It’s kind of been a whirlwind,” said Spruill. “It was so long in there of doing something the same way and telling me what to do, when to get up and when to go to bed. It’s so different. It’s a big shock … you are so used to the noise in there and trying to sleep with noise and then when you come out here, just sitting so quiet at night with just the TV on is a big difference.”
The men credit attorney Chris Mumma and the Actual Innocence Project for their freedom this holiday weekend.
“I am glad to be out for Christmas … it’s weird but every day is a little bit of a growing process [by] stepping out a little bit more and doing a little bit more. I am doing the best I can,” said Jones.
“Trying to catch up is hard. It’s hard to do, but I am trying to a little bit at a time,” he added.
There have been new discoveries for Spruill and Jones this since being released — including figuring out smartphones.
“The prices and the phones … when I left, cell phones weren’t really around. I am trying to learn a little bit about that … I can’t believe the stuff, like Facebook, and you can just hit a few things and someone can text you right back. That’s amazing to me,” said Spruill, adding that he hasn’t gotten his own cellphone yet.
But, the men have also experienced losses during their time away.
“I wish it would have been three years ago, so my momma would have still been alive. I came home, and my momma is dead, my dad is dead, my sister is dead and all my grandparents are dead,” said Jones.
“I lost my mom. I lost my dad. [It’s been] really tough,” said Spruill. “I know people experience losing their parents but to be in there where you can’t be with family is really tough.”
Despite their newfound freedom, the men said there’s always the worry about getting in trouble again.
“You are always really weary. I tell everyone I get in the truck or car with, ‘You are not doing no speeding or nothing. I am not going down for nothing.’ Everyday it’s getting a little bit better [by] going to work every day and doing the right thing,” said Jones.
While Spruill and Jones are free, this Christmas, they said justice is a gift they’re still waiting for.
“Everybody needs justice and that’s not a big things to ask. Run the DNA through the database and go get the people who did this — not just for me but for everyone involved,” said Jones.
The two men were convicted for the 1995 murder of Frank Swain, who was beaten, stabbed and had his throat cut in what appeared to be a robbery. The men maintained they were together at a bar that night and never wavered, despite plea deals promising much less prison time if either flipped on the other.
“From day one, I told the same story I told to the law back then, and I will probably go to my grave with the same story. It never changed. I never had to change it because I knew it was the truth,” said Spruill.
A tire iron found at the scene didn’t have any fingerprints on it, according to court records. It had DNA from three people, but none from the accused, records show.
“[I’m] just trying to do the right thing for the right reasons. For the rest of my life, that’s what I am going to do,” said Jones.
By dropping their claims of innocence, Spruill and Jones forwent the possibility of a pardon and the $750,000 payment they’d be eligible for if proven innocent. But, Jones reiterated that for him, it’s not about the money but about justice.
“My main thing is making them do the right thing,” he said. “That’s all I want. Do the right thing for everybody involved. That’s what I am praying they do.”