Suspicion grips a racially polarized community. Justice system in a North Carolina county questioned after murder

Suspicion runs thick these days in Robeson County. The murder of a prominent Indian legal activist last Saturday was only the latest in a long series of racially suspect incidents in Lumberton.

Such incidents drove two Indian men in February to seize 18 hostages at a local newspaper, demanding a forum for their charges of corrupt justice in the rural North Carolina county.

In the most recent case, authorities said Tuesday that the murder of Julian Pierce, a candidate for a superior court judgeship, stemmed from the personal problems of an Indian youth - and was not racially motivated.

But many Indians, blacks, and some whites - while offering no alternative theories - were skeptical that the whole story had been told.

``If you were from Robeson County, you'd understand,'' says Freeman Carter, a Lumbee Indian. ``The timing just wasn't right.''

On Tuesday a Lumbee Indian man was charged with first-degree murder in the case. A second Indian suspect was found dead in what County Sheriff Hubert Stone described as a suicide.

``I haven't heard anybody who believes it,'' says Anne Crain of the alleged suicide. Ms. Crain is project director at the Rural Assistance Fund in Lumberton. ``On the surface of it, it is so convenient for the justice system.''

Community groups are seeking a congressional investigation by the House Judiciary Committee.

The local justice system is the target of the suspicion. It is dominated by two men: Sheriff Stone and District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt, who has won more death penalty cases than any other American prosecutor.

They run a system that is increasingly under the eye of federal and state investigators. None of the allegations of corruption have been substantiated by official investigators.

Stone denies the allegations and cites good relations between his department and the Indian community in years' past. The allegations of corruption have not extended to Mr. Britt, but minority groups say his department is especially tough on black and Indian defendants.

Robeson is an unusual county. The population is split almost evenly among three races: white, black, and Indian.

One of the poorest counties in North Carolina, the sandy, pine-forested region is bisected by Interstate 95, the major north-south artery of the East Coast. The highway has fed a major drug problem there, both in trafficking and in use.

Long suspicion that drug trafficking had corrupted the sheriff's department - as well as agents of the state Bureau of Investigation - was behind the seizing of the Robesonian newspaper offices in February. Eddy Hatcher and Timothy Jacobs, the hostage-takers, sought a high-level investigation of their charges.

To resolve the hostage situation, Gov. James Martin (R) assigned a task force to channel Mr. Hatcher's information to the US attorney. Hatcher, however, canceled all meetings with the task force after the first one, at which he made no specific allegations, according to Jim Trotter, Governor Martin's general counsel, who was appointed to run the task force. Only one witness has been interviewed by the task force.

Meanwhile, a ``lawyer's bank'' was set up by the Christic Institute South, a public-interest group, to gather evidence of official drug corruption in Robeson. Bob Warren, Hatcher's attorney, says witnesses have indeed come forward and corroborated serious allegations of corruption.

The killing of an Indian drug dealer in 1986 by a sheriff's deputy further aroused local suspicion. Although several stories emerged of just how Mr. Cummings was shot, a coroner's jury ruled the shooting justifiable as an ``accident and/or self-defense.''

In this general atmosphere of fear and distrust, Julian Pierce represented hope to Indians in Robeson County.

A former lawyer for the Securities and Exchange Commission, he was running against Britt for a superior court judgeship. The success of a county school merger earlier this month was seen as a signal of minority voter strength here, and a sign that Pierce might win.

When he was shot last weekend, even local law enforcers saw it as a political murder. Now, the motive appears to be domestic. The young man who apparently killed himself had dated the daughter of Pierce's girlfriend, who barred the girl from seeing him. Two warrants had been recently issued for him after he trespassed and made threats against the mother.

Both state and federal investigators here accept this account. In the community, many want better assurance that other influences were not involved.

``If anything comes out of Julian Pierce's murder that would benefit the people, it would be the redistricting of that [superior court] district so that a minority can be elected,'' says James Hardin, the Lumbee tribal administrator.

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