A three-judge panel will hear in May a Winston-Salem man’s claim that he had no role in a 1985 murder.

Merritt Drayton Williams, 61, is serving two life sentences, plus 10 years in three different homicides. But in June, the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission ruled after a four-day hearing that Williams might be innocent of one of those homicides — the 1985 death of Blanche Bryson. Bryson, a 65-year-old retiree, was found strangled to death in her Winston-Salem home on Dec. 10, 1985. Her house was ransacked and a lamp chord was wrapped around her neck. Police found her car less than a mile away on 21st and Ivy streets.

A hearing in Williams’ case is now scheduled to start May 11, 2020 in Forsyth Superior Court. A panel of three superior court judges will hear evidence of Williams’ claims of innocence and determine whether Williams should be exonerated. Those judges are Forrest Donald Bridges of Cleveland and Lincoln counties, Carla N. Archie of Mecklenburg County and Keith Gregory of Wake County.

Chief Justice Cheri Beasley of the N.C. Supreme Court selected the judges on July 23, according to a court order that she signed.

The May hearing will likely last two to three days or possibly longer, depending on the number of witnesses and the amount of evidence.

Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill and Assistant District Attorney Ben White will argue that the conviction should be upheld. Attorney Julie Boyer represents Williams.

O’Neill could not be reached for comment Wednesday but has previously criticized the commission’s work on the case, calling it a waste of taxpayer’s dollars.

Boyer declined to comment on Wednesday.

Winston-Salem police never arrested anyone in Bryson’s death until Williams confessed to his role in a number of statements in which he named different accomplices. Police didn’t arrest anyone else until a year after Williams was convicted in a jury trial when another person, Robbin Carmichael, confessed to his role in the home invasion that led to Bryson’s death. Carmichael, however, did not mention Williams but said he was with another man, who was arrested this summer for Bryson’s murder due to new DNA evidence that came out of the Innocence Commission’s work.

That man is Darren Leak Johnson, who is charged with first-degree murder. His case is pending in Forsyth District Court. Johnson also confessed to investigators with the Innocence Commission that he strangled Bryson to death and that Williams was not with him when he committed the crime, according to a transcript of an interview he did with the commission.

In June, the commission considered not only the case of Bryson but also the case of Arthur Wilson, who was killed in 1983 after leaving an illegal drink house. Williams was also convicted of killing Mary Smith by pushing her down a flight of stairs in 1986. Williams has never contested his conviction in Smith’s murder.

Police and prosecutors believed that Williams was among three men who beat Wilson to death. Williams told police that Darryl Hunt, who was famously exonerated in another murder, and Sammy Mitchell as the other two men who beat Wilson. Hunt was later acquitted in a second trial in Wilson’s death.

The commission concluded that there was not enough evidence of factual innocence in the Wilson case to move forward. But in both cases, Williams gave inconsistent statements to police that contradicted statements from other eyewitnesses. Williams told the Innocence Commission that he made up most of what he told police based on what he read in newspaper articles and gossip.

And there’s no clear-cut evidence that Wilson died from a beating. Medical examiners told investigators with the Innocence Commission that it is possible that Wilson was too drunk and simply fell and hit his head, causing his death. Wilson had a blood-alcohol level of 0.29 percent. The legal limit is 0.08 percent.

Forsyth County prosecutors have argued that Williams is guilty in both crimes, saying that he made sworn statements in court hearings of his involvement. Prosecutors also argue that Johnson was high on drugs and possibly did not remember that Williams was present.

They also allege that Williams only named “The Lieutenant” as the person who strangled Bryson to death.

That contradicts police reports and other court documents in which Williams initially implicated several people, including Sammy Mitchell, as the people who murdered Bryson. Police did not uncover any evidence, such as fingerprints, that placed them at the scene.

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mhewlett@wsjournal.com

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@mhewlettWSJ

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