Justice Delayed

UPDATED 08/22/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/22/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

BY NOW, THE WAITRESSES AT Ryan's Steakhouse in Lumberton, N.C., have grown accustomed to directing outsiders to the patch of gravel outside town on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 74. For the past year visitors have been making pilgrimages to the spot where James Jordan, the 56-year-old father of basketball great Michael Jordan, was robbed and shot to death. It was Aug. 15, 1993—12 days after Jordan's body was found floating in a swamp—that police arrested Larry Demery and Daniel Green, both then 18, and charged them with the killing.

Like the O.J. Simpson case, the Jordan murder involved a famous name in American sports. But lacking the same elements of scandal and sensation, it held the media spotlight only briefly and was soon left to the ordinary run of the judicial mill. While Simpson's trial begins within 60 days of indictment, Demery and Green sit still. A year after their arrests the suspects have not even been brought to court to enter pleas to first-degree murder charges.

Housed at opposite ends of the Robeson County Jail, Demery and Green—friends since third grade—are permitted little contact with each other these days. For their own safety, they are segregated from the general jail population, lest another inmate try to make a name for himself as avenger of the superstar's father. Each is confined with several other inmates who have been carefully screened by Sheriff Hubert Stone. The two eat meals with their assigned groups, with whom they also exercise once a week for an hour.

Meanwhile, Demery's daughter Taylor Yvette, born to his girlfriend Angela McLean a month after his arrest, approaches her first birthday. McLean, 20, shows the little girl to her father every week through the visiting room's glass partition; visits where Demery can hold his daughter and meet with his mother, Virginia, are allowed once a month. "It's been a long time," says McLean. "I know Larry is ready to get out of there."

Law enforcement officials blame the long delay in part on a backlog of cases in rural Robeson County, where prosecutors have one of the worst records in the state for bringing a felony defendant to trial—an average of 251 days. They add that the notoriety of the Jordan case will do nothing to speed the process. "We have 12 other inmates who have been waiting even longer for their trials on first-degree murder charges," says incoming District Attorney Johnson Britt, who expects to try the case personally sometime in mid-1995. "I don't think the Jordan case should be given any kind of special treatment."

Progress has also been slowed thanks to 60 pretrial motions by the defense. Green's lawyers have even filed court papers suggesting that Jordan may have faked his own death in order to escape gambling debts—an allegation that investigators dismiss, citing what they say is a positive body identification from dental records and fingerprints taken from the corpse. The long wait for trial does not disturb one of Demery's lawyers, John W. Campbell. Delay "is not in the best interest of justice generally," he observes, "but it may not be prejudicial for this particular defendant." It is probably safe to say that the defendants were glad not to have superior court judge Joe Freeman Britt (a distant relative of prosecutor-elect Johnson Britt) assigned to the case. Judge Britt—now hearing trials in another county—was Robeson County prosecutor in the 1970s, during which time he made the Guinness Book of Records for sending more defendants to death row than any other prosecutor in the U.S.

When they do get their day in court, the suspects are expected to maintain their innocence. (At the time of the Jordan murder, Demery was awaiting trial on an assault charge, and Green had been paroled from a two-year prison stint for assault with a deadly weapon.) In an interview in March, Green called the Jordan charges "totally fabricated" and said he was stunned to find himself accused of "killing the father of the best person in the world." Demery, denying any involvement in the killing, told a reporter that he was waiting at his friend's home when Green drove up in a red Lexus with a body in the back seat. "I don't know how Daniel came upon this car," said Demery, who insisted that he didn't ask why there was a corpse in it, but climbed in and helped dump the body in a swamp.

When Demery and Green finally stand trial, one person will be conspicuously absent: Michael Jordan. Currently trying to build a baseball career with the minor-league Birmingham Barons, Jordan says he won't join other family members at the trial. "The damage has been done," he told the Chicago Tribune last month in his only public comment on the case. "Whatever they do to those guys is not enough, so I've blocked it off. My father died because of something stupid, and I won't let that hurt me by going through it again."

DAVID ELLIS
LINDA KRAMER and BRANT CLIFTON in Lumberton

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