James W. Hutchins

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James William Hutchins (March 26, 1929 – March 16, 1984) was convicted of the murders of three NC law enforcement officers. The incident was the largest one-day homicide of law enforcement officers in North Carolina history. The incident inspired a motion picture and also promoted changes in law enforcement protocols statewide for interagency reporting of officer murders, radio cross-communication between local agencies and the NC State Highway Patrol, which dispatches for most NC state law enforcement agencies and training protocols for response to domestic disturbance incidents. The murdered officers were: Rutherford County NC sheriff’s deputies Captain Roy Huskey and Deputy Owen Messersmith and NC State Highway Patrol Trooper Robert L. "Pete" Peterson. Hutchins was executed at the age of 54 by the State North Carolina at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina by lethal injection. He became the first person to be executed in North Carolina since 1977 when the death penalty was reinstated.

Personal life[edit]

Hutchins was born March 26, 1929 in Rutherford County, North Carolina. At the time of his publicized arrest in 1979, Hutchins was married to Geneva Hutchins and had three children, daughters Charlotte and Lisa and son James Jr.[1] While living in North Carolina, he worked at various occupations, including as a textile machinist and a woodcutter.[2] He was unemployed at the time of the 1979 murder of the three lawmen.

Hutchins had a reputation as a violent and dangerous man with a "short fuse" temper. He was reputed to assault others for little or no provocation and to routinely assault his wife and children.

First legal troubles; US Air Force[edit]

Hutchins served in the US Air Force during the Korean War era and was trained as a rifleman; a skill which he used in the 1979 incident. He was ultimately discharged for inappropriate conduct by the Air Force; for going AWOL and for being charged with a civilian charge of murder while he was AWOL in New Mexico. Though the murder charge was later dropped, he was separated from the US Air Force for AWOL under a bad conduct discharge.

First murder charge; New Mexico[edit]

In April 1954, Hutchins was arrested for first degree murder while AWOL from the US Air Force in New Mexico. That murder charge was dropped due to insufficient evidence and Hutchins was returned to military custody, where he was discharged for bad conduct.

Other legal troubles[edit]

Following the New Mexico arrest and his discharge from the Air Force, Hutchins also had several other serious brushes with the law, including his December 1966 NC charge of assault and battery with intent to kill after attacking the husband of his ex-wife.[3] Prior to May 31, 1979, Hutchins was also charged with shooting an unarmed man.

First imprisonment; the NC officer murders[edit]

On the night of May 31, 1979 James W. Hutchins gunned down Rutherford County NC deputy sheriffs Captain Roy Huskey, 42, brother of the Rutherford County Sheriff Damon Huskey, and Deputy Owen Messersmith, 58, when they arrived separately at the Hutchins residence in Rutherford County, located in the foothills-mountain region of Western North Carolina. The officers had responded to a domestic disturbance call involving Hutchins and his teenage daughter Charlotte, who had returned home to prepare for her high school graduation that evening and making an alcoholic drink for a party afterwards. [4]This caused Hutchins to become enraged and assaultive towards his daughter. When other family members tried to protect Charlotte, he became violent with the rest of his family.

Charlotte escaped and fled to a neighbor’s house where the sheriff's office was called. Hutchins shot Captain Huskey in the head with a high-powered rifle, ambush-style from within his home, as he exited his patrol car which was parked in the driveway in the front of the Hutchins' home. Deputy Messersmith was dispatched several minutes later to check on the captain who had not radioed or called in. Upon arriving, Messersmith apparently saw the captain lying beside his vehicle and realized that Huskey had been fatally shot. As he shifted into reverse and started to back away to cover, Messersmith too was shot in the head through the windshield of his patrol car. The vehicle drifted backwards across the street and came to rest in a ditch with Messersmiths' body slumped over the steering wheel, causing the horn to blow without stop.

A frantic neighbor called the sheriff's office to report that two deputies had been shot in the Hutchins driveway. Confusion ensued at the sheriff's office, as the radio dispatcher on duty fainted when told that the 2 officers had been shot. A jailer in the jail in the next room heard the radio, but became concerned that he did not hear the dispatcher. Upon entering the dispatch area, he realized the dispatcher was passed out and began to answer phones while calling an ambulance for the dispatcher. All available ambulances were speeding to the Hutchins residence at the time, adding to the chaos. The jailer did not know to notify state highway patrol regional headquarters in Asheville, so that troopers could be alerted of the situation to respond to assist and also to get a description of the shooter and his vehicle.

Immediately after he murdered the 2 deputies, Hutchins fled the scene in his own car, still armed with his high-powered rifle. NC State Highway Patrol Trooper Robert L. "Pete" Peterson, 37, was stopped at the McDowell-Rutherford County line, to the North of Rutherfordton, on US Highway 221, pulled alongside and talking to a fellow trooper assigned to neighboring McDowell County. Peterson suddenly heard garbled radio traffic on the Rutherford County Sheriff's frequency on his scanner. At that time, troopers often used personally-owned scanners in their patrol cars, to monitor local law enforcement radio calls, which were on differing high-band frequencies from the State Highway Patrol's low-band frequencies. Though Peterson could not make out what was happening, he suspected something was wrong and left toward Rutherfordton. In the pre-cell phone era, Peterson radioed the Troop "G" communications center at the Asheville SHP HQ and asked state highway patrol dispatchers to call the Rutherford County Sheriff's Office and find out what was happening and if anything was wrong. With the advent of in-vehicle computer terminals, and a decrease of radio usage, the NC SHP closed the Asheville communications center in 2014 and moved operations to Newton, near Hickory NC, leaving just the administrative Troop G Headquarters command and vehicle repair garage in Asheville. But in 1979, as was the case with many rural NC counties, the Rutherford County Sheriff's communications center dispatched for all emergency and law enforcement agencies in the county except for state officers.

State highway patrol dispatchers called the Rutherford County Sheriff's Office repeatedly, but were not able to get through due to the chaos. They were also unable to get a computer reply either, because the jailer attending the phones did not know how to use the then-new North Carolina statewide Police Information Network computer system (PIN/later changed to the Division of Criminal Information [DCI]), the NC link of the FBI's nationwide National Crime Information Center (NCIC). Having used the PIN computer system would have enabled fast communications between the agencies in lieu of the overloaded phone lines. The chaotic situation and unlikely series of unfortunate events prevented troopers in the region from getting an immediate situation report on the incident. Troopers were thus unaware that two Rutherford County officers had been murdered and that the suspect was at large in his car. Had the SHP dispatch center been alerted, they could have located vehicle registration records on Hutchin's vehicle and issued a description to regional troopers.

As Trooper Peterson entered the Rutherfordton city limits on US 221, Hutchins sped past the him. Peterson turned and pursued, apparently thinking he was simply pursuing a speeder, unaware that the suspect had just murdered 2 sheriff's deputies. Peterson's last radio transmission to Highway Patrol HQ in Asheville was to give his location and to say the suspect had fled on foot, that he was running to the tree line. Troopers from across the region were made aware of the 2 Rutherford deputies having been murdered and that the suspect was still at large, just as radio contact was lost with Peterson. Troopers who were rushing to assist Rutherford County officers at the murder scene realized that Peterson may have unknowingly encountered the killer of the deputies. Slews of on and off-duty troopers began to speed to his location when he did not check in again. Responding troopers arrived to find Peterson's patrol car with the blue light on the roof flashing and the driver's door open. It was stopped on the northbound shoulder of a sharp curve on US 221 north of Rutherfordton, a distance behind Hutchins' car which was stopped near the tree line. Trooper Peterson was slumped by the driver's side of his patrol car mortally wounded, suffering from a gunshot wound to the head. His revolver was drawn and had been fired one time. It was never definitively determined if he had the time to have fired at Hutchins and it was not possible to recover a spent projectile, if any, from Peterson's pistol in an open area of the foothills. Fellow Troopers noted that Peterson often would shoot rattlesnakes he might encounter on the highway, though he was also known to immediately reload his .357 revolver so he would have a "full cylinder" in the event that he was forced to engage in a gunfight. His body position was consistent with his having apparently used his vehicle engine block for cover, a standard tactic for troopers.

Peterson legacy with NCSHP[edit]

Trooper Robert L. "Pete" Peterson was affectionately known as "super trooper" by other officers and troopers. He had transferred to Rutherford County two years prior to his murder. He was a former US Marine and Vietnam veteran who had joined the SHP in 1970. Peterson was a revered and almost mythical figure in NC Highway Patrol history. He had served as the longest-assigned physical training (PT) instructor in the history of the NC Highway Patrol Training Center, and according to legends, he was the toughest. He trained close to ten trooper cadet classes, first at the Institute of Government at UNC Chapel Hill (now the School of Government) and lastly at the present-day training center in Raleigh.

Peterson was known as a physical "machine" with untiring stamina and endurance: he would lead grueling runs of 3–5 miles with the trooper cadets for scheduled morning PT, 5 days a week, pushing even the most fit cadets to sheer exhaustion, as he prepared them for the rigors of trooper life. After morning PT, in lieu of breakfast, he would then run over a mile to the municipal public golf course with his golf clubs on his back and play 18 fast holes of golf, then run back to the training center and conduct daily training, then lead remedial PT runs with cadets who were not keeping up physically and were on remediation in the evenings. Troopers who he trained over the years jokingly would say with fond reverence that someone as tough as Pete Peterson was eternally keeping troopers who had passed on or been killed in the line of duty in shape as the PT trainer in Heaven.

In 2016, the NC Highway Patrol named and dedicated the physical training field and running track at the Training Center in Raleigh "Peterson Field' in honor of Trooper RL "Pete" Peterson.

Hutchins' final arrest[edit]

James Hutchins was captured in a dense thicket in Rutherford County on June 1, 1979 after a 12-hour search conducted by over 200 local, state and federal law enforcement officers from across Western North Carolina and Upstate South Carolina. This event was later recounted in a feature film, Damon's Law by a local film producer near Rutherford County. Due to the widespread anger of local residents in Rutherford County against Hutchins for having murdered three respected and well-liked area lawmen, Hutchins was jailed the next day in Shelby Cleveland County, North Carolina for his own safety. He was later transferred to the more-secure Buncombe County jail for safekeeping in Asheville, North Carolina. Trooper Peterson was one of 14 NC troopers killed in the western mountains of NC Highway Patrol Troop "G", which is nearly 1/4 of all troopers to die in the line of duty statewide in North Carolina since the Highway Patrol was established in 1929, making Troop "G" referred to as the walking dead in some NC law enforcement circles[2]

Hutchin's triple murder trial[edit]

On June 12, 1979, Hutchins' oldest daughter, Charlotte, testified in Rutherford County that on the day of the murders her father beat her and other members of their family.[2] The disagreement was over the amount of vodka the daughter had poured into a punch for a high school graduation party.[1] As the trial opened on September 17, 1979, Hutchins pleaded not guilty following the prosecutor's demand that he receive the death penalty. Days later, the jury found Hutchins guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder. The same jury ruled that Hutchins should die in the state's gas chamber. Presiding Judge Donald Smith set October 12, 1979 as Hutchins' execution date, also referring to Hutchins as “the most dangerous man I’ve ever seen.” Appeals brought an automatic delay.[2] Superior Court Judge Lacy Thornburg, who would later serve as NC Attorney General and as a Federal Judge, later set October 15, 1981 as the date of execution. However, further appeals pushed the date to January 22, 1982. Prior to this scheduled execution date, the NC State Supreme Court granted a stay so further appeals could be pursued. A new date was set for October 15, 1982; however, this was also delayed by further appeals.[2]

Aftermath[edit]

The State Highway Patrol made a concerted effort to have better and timelier communications with local law enforcement agencies after the Rutherford County tragedy, which was the worst one-day felonious loss of life of peace officer life in NC law enforcement history. A previous and similar incident occurred in 1975, when a NC Highway Patrolman was similarly killed (the title of "Trooper" was changed in 1977 when women were admitted to the ranks). In that incident, NC Highway Patrolman G.T. Davis of Troop "A" was shot to death in downtown Williamston (Martin County) in Eastern NC, when he too stopped a car that was wanted. In his case, he stopped a car for running a red light at the US 64 and US 17 intersection, but he was unaware that minutes earlier, the 3 suspects had just robbed a bank in Jamesville, 10 miles to the east. Martin County officials had failed to report the robbery and suspects' description to the Highway Patrol. Law enforcement personnel across North Carolina continue to this day to chronicle the Rutherford County tragedy, to emphasize the dangers of domestic disputes to law enforcement officers. Response to domestic violence calls, related tactics and training protocols were changed and standardized for all NC peace officers in both basic and in-service training by the NC Criminal Justice Training and Standanrd Commission as a result of this incident, in order to emphasize and enhance officer safety.

Hutchins' execution[edit]

On September 8, 1983, a new execution date was set for January 13, 1984. On January 6, leading up to his execution, James Hutchins chose lethal injection as his means of execution. Hutchins was ultimately executed in North Carolina on March 16, 1984.

Charges of political overtones in the execution[edit]

Leading up to Hutchin's execution on March 16, 1984, the then-NC Governor, James B. Hunt, a popular 2-term moderate Democrat was locked in a bitter US Senate election bid against the conservative icon; Republican 2-term US NC Senator Jesse Helms, the famous incumbent. Some charged that Hunt used his position and influence as governor to expedite Hutchins' execution to occur prior to the fall election, in order to project himself as a hard-on-crime/pro-police, law-and-order conservative democrat, to offset charges from Helms that he was too liberal for North Carolina. Because Hutchins had killed 3 lawmen and was poor and white, some argued he was the perfect political "poster-boy" to execute, arguing that if he was black, public outcry from the traditionally liberal and democratic black electorate would have possibly prevented Hunt politically from allowing his execution. Hunt did not commute the death sentence and it was carried out at Central Prison in Raleigh. Public opinion polls just prior indicated there was overwhelming support across all political and racial lines in North Carolina for the execution of Hutchins. Though the execution did occur prior to the 1984 fall election, Governor Hunt still lost the senate race to Senator Helms by a substantial margin, in the same year that Ronald Reagan won a landslide reelection as President over former Vice President Walter Mondale. Jesse Helms went on to serve 2 more terms in a 24-year senate career, the longest in modern NC history and a first for a Republican. Jim Hunt, who was said by many political pundits to be politically finished after his stunning loss to Helms, would again run for governor and be reelected as governor in 1992 and again in 1996 for 2 more terms, a total of 4 terms/16 years as North Carolina's Governor, also a state record. Hunt would later comment that his role in executing Hutchins was a proud moment of his political legacy and that it was the "right thing to do".[2]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Gordon, Jean. “Deadly Shootings 30 years ago”. The Sunday Courier. 31 May 2009
  2. ^ a b c d e f Chronology of Key events in James Hutchins story” The Associated Press. Print. DOC Public Affairs
  3. ^ http://www.prodeathpenalty.com/pending/1980s.htm
  4. ^ I lived through this in 1979 Susan Carol Wells

Sources[edit]