Monday, 12 September 2011 17:56

Old man of death row dies at 83

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BY JOSH SHAFFER - Staff Writer

RALEIGH -- John Henry Fleming was nearing 70 when he arrived at Central Prison, a house-builder and former church deacon who strangled his girlfriend's father.

Fleming had never learned to read or write. He'd never made it past the fourth grade. He spent his final 14 years in the state's most notorious cell block, the oldest man on death row.

But on Sunday, Fleming beat the executioner's needle, dying of natural causes at 83.

In one way, Fleming's aging body accomplished what North Carolina could not. The state hasn't put a prisoner to death since 2006, and execution remains in limbo here, stalled by legal challenges.

But in another way, Fleming's death demonstrates the molasses pace of carrying out a lethal injection.

It happens often

Natural death on death row is fairly common. Three men died there in 2008: George Page, LeRoy McNeil and Gary Greene. Two more passed in 2006: George Kelly and Norris Taylor.

To date, 157 inmates remain on death row. Surrounded by other convicted killers, mingling with them in the day room, Fleming had plenty of time to contemplate his end.

Fleming came from Northampton County, a rural outpost two hours northeast of Raleigh. He built houses, and sometimes churches, for a living. At his trial in 1997, family members told of him putting up their homes for free.

He married a preacher named Louise and built her church by hand, serving as deacon there and mowing the grass until she died.

With a second wife, Pauline, Fleming tried again to start a family. But their son was stillborn, and a second pregnancy ended in miscarriage. The couple later separated.

"I still love him," she said at his trial.

By 1996, Fleming had met and was living with Eugenia Pelham, a college-educated woman roughly 30 years his junior, trial transcripts said. She had gone to prison for writing bad checks on her father's account, court records said, and often got blank checks from him to help with food and medicine. She also had a bad crack cocaine habit, according to trial transcripts.

Argument, violence

Genie Pelham was about 65 at the time, court records said, and he didn't approve of his daughter's relationship with Fleming. He wanted payment for the checks, and he threatened to testify about Fleming's involvement.

In May of 1996, sheriff's deputies found him beaten and strangled, struck 12 to 15 times with a blunt object, choked hard enough that a bone in his lower mouth was broken. Investigators found a bloody footprint that matched Fleming's shoe, court records said, along with a watch Fleming was known to carry.

"How bad can it be," asked District Attorney David Beard, "to have someone attack you with a hammer, again and again and again? And then to have your life squeezed out of you while the person is over the top of you, looking down on you?"

After Fleming's conviction, his sister Dina testified that murder was completely out of character for the 70-year-old man who once ran a day care and regularly attended church.

"I tell him he shouldn't open his doors up for the crackheads," she testified.

Fleming had nothing to say after being sentenced to death in 1997. North Carolina Department of Correction spokesman Keith Acree said he didn't think Fleming ever had a date set for his execution. Many inmates spend more than a decade without a date being set.

Reached Wednesday, Eugenia Pelham had no comment on Fleming's death.

But his sister in Roanoke Rapids was startled to hear he had died. She said she had seen him a few months ago, and he appeared fine.

"Why didn't they call me when my brother got sick?" she asked Wednesday from her home in Roanoke Rapids. "He was sick with infection all over his body and they took him to Rex Hospital to die. He was going to come home. God told me my brother was coming home alive."

Acree said that the sister's diagnosis is misinformed and that an autopsy will be performed.

With Fleming dead, Blanche Taylor Moore is now the oldest death row inmate. The convicted poisoner is 78.

Staff researcher Peggy Neal contributed to this report.
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