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FERRIER FILES: Is Nashville man serving a life sentence innocent?

Photo obtained by FOX 17 News

A Nashville man serving life in prison for murder may be innocent. A two-year investigation that includes new evidence and new witnesses has been sent to the Nashville District Attorney.

The investigation leads to a trouble question: Is Joseph Webster in jail for a murder he did not commit?

It's November 1998. Leroy Owens is running near downtown Nashville in broad daylight until a white station wagon pulls up, a man jumps out and tackles him, then beats him to death with a cinder block. The crime caving his head in with his blood covering the ground like paint, according to a witness.

But the one witness, convicted drug addict and prostitute Tammy Nelson, reportedly did not see a face. Nelson looked at a photo lineup and picked out Joseph Webster as the man responsible for the killing.

But police did not arrest Webster until 2005. Without any new evidence, Webster is placed behind bars based on Nelson's testimony and the fact that a white station wagon was spotted outside of Webster's girlfriend's grandmother's house the evening before the crime.

Now, defense attorney Daniel Horwitz is working to overturn his client's conviction.

“Everything in this case has fallen apart since Mr. Webster's conviction. If we know what we know now, Mr. Webster would have never been arrested,” said Webster’s attorney Daniel Horwitz.

Nelson has recanted her testimony three times.

First in a handwritten note that said, "I was mistaken."

Second in a sworn statement, "Taking advantage of my addiction and desire to get out of jail, district attorney Pamela Anderson offered me a deal to testy against Mr. Webster and help to secure his conviction."

Third in a special hearing, "I just broke down crying because I thought of all the years. And I know now that it wasn't -- it wasn't Joseph."

Even at the time of the arrest, Nelson said she did not notice Webster had a gold grill, 12 gold teeth that family members say a person could notice from 30 yards away. When she identified Webster, she admitted she did not see gold.

“She made the claim that the person she saw in broad daylight multiple times did not have gold teeth and that she would sure remember gold,” Horwitz said.

Webster's mother, Marie Burns, said the case is more complicated.

Burns has another son named Kenny Neal. Neal and Webster are half brothers, and Marie will tell you her son is not the killer. She believes her son Neal killed Leroy Owens.

“Because my child came to me. Kenny and I were on the porch at least three times, he kept saying they can't say Joseph is me, but they did,” said Marie Burns.

And remember the white station wagon in the case in front of Webster's girlfriend's grandmother's house? Shawna Norman said she was there at the time when she was dating Neal.

“One night he came down to my grandmother's house and he told me he had to beat the [expletive] out a guy with a brick. The dude owed him money for some drugs he had given him up front," Norman explained. "He was driving the white station wagon. He left the white station wagon at the house."

Norman said Neal told her exactly how the murder went down.

“He said Tammy Nelson paged Kenny and told him Leroy Owens was at her house," Norman said. "Kenny told me he had to chase him down and beat the [expletive] out of him with a brick."

Nelson's recanted testimony also states, "I was mistaken in identified Joseph Webster as his brother Kenny Neal in court and it's been weighing heavy on my heart to where I've been put on medication for stress and having terrible dreams."

Marie Burns said she also has terrible dreams. She loves both of her sons. But to her, it's simple. She believes one son is in prison for a crime he did not commit, and her other son is a murderer.

“I can't go through it no more. I can't take it no more. I want the truth to come out. I’m tired of being hurt, tired of being sick. I just want the truth to come out,” said Marie Burns.

The evidence was apparently so compelling that The Innocence Project agreed to have the murder weapon tested for DNA. Learn the results Wednesday on FOX 17 News at 9 p.m.




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