L.C. Underwood may get new trial
By Jessie Burchette - SalisburyPost.com
Friday, January 15, 2010
A federal court has vacated the 13-year-old murder
conviction of a former Salisbury policeman.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, based in
Richmond, Va., has ordered L.C. Underwood be granted a new trial or be
released from jail in 180 days.
The Fourth Circuit Court ruled that Underwood had
ineffective counsel, questioned the defense's trial strategy and
concluded it was unsound.
Lamont Claxton Underwood, known as "L.C.," was
convicted in 1997 in Watauga County Superior Court for the 1993
kidnapping and murder of Viktor Gunnarsson, a 40-year-old Swedish
citizen who was a resident of Lakewood Apartments off Statesville
The trial drew international attention since
Gunnersson had been accused and cleared in the 1986 assassination of
Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. The Discovery Channel aired a
documentary on the investigation after Underwood was convicted.
Underwood, now 58, is serving a life sentence plus 40
years. He is currently in the Marion Correctional Center.
Prosecutors contended that Underwood was jealous of
Gunnarsson, seeing him as a romantic rival for Kay Weden, Underwood's
former fiance. Prosecutors contended that Underwood stalked, spied on
and harassed Weden, eventual kidnapping Gunnarsson from his home and
taking him to a secluded area along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Watauga
County before shooting and killing him.
The state also contended that three days later
Underwood shot and killed Weden's mother, Catherine Miller, at her
Westcliffe home, off U.S. 70. Underwood was never tried for Miller's
The Fourth Circuit Court opinion rendered on Dec. 23,
2009, cited mishandling of several issues, noting that "the defense (attorneys)
essentially inflicted a fatal wound to the credibility of their own
Underwood was represented by Boone attorneys Bruce
Kaplan and Chester Whittle.
In the 27-page opinion, the court repeatedly cited
the defense attorney's opening remarks to the jury promising:
- that they had a confession from someone else who
claimed to have killed Gunnersson;
- that another witness (Terry Osborne, then Rowan
County Clerk of Court) saw someone else outside of Miller's house at the
time of the murder and a composite sketch had been made that didn't look
- that an eyewitness saw someone near where
Gunnarsson's body was found in Deep Gap, and that when the witness saw
Underwood in a lineup with six other men, he told investigators the
person he saw was not in the lineup.
When the state rested its case, the defense declined
to put on any evidence.
The court noted the initial closing argument "quite
interestingly, included a monologue on the origins and development of
our Nation's jury system."
A prosecutor then went through the list of promises
made by the defense, asking where were the promised witnesses and the
The court wrote, "It could not have been sound trial
strategy for defense counsel to have created such high, unattainable
expectations in the jury by promising to present exculpating evidence.
To be sure, defense counsel gained no tactical advantages by making the
"Thus, counsel's whetting of the jury's appetite with
the promise of a confession with eye witness testimony which counsel
knew or should have known was not exculpating, at the very least was
irresponsible. By taking the approach which they used here, defense
counsel actually enabled the state to strengthen its circumstantial case
The court continues over several pages to cite the
defense's failures, concluding, the court "would find it quite difficult
to imagine a more illogical, unreasonable strategy than to promise a
jury exculpatory evidence of this nature and then fail both to present
it and to effectively explain its omission. … Defense counsels' conduct
was deficient and prejudicial …"
The state Supreme Court upheld Underwood's conviction
in October of 2000.
In 2001, Underwood filed a motion in Watauga County
Superior Court seeking appropriate relief, contending he was subjected
to ineffective assistance by shortcomings of his counsel, which included
failing to call key witnesses.
On Aug. 30, 2004, the state Court of Appeals denied
the petition. Underwood then appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit.
August 17, 1999
RALEIGH -- The N.C. Court of
Appeals has upheld the murder conviction of a former Salisbury
A spokesman for the court said this morning that
the court found no error in a review of the 1997 Watauga County
trial of L.C. Underwood.
Underwood, 47, a Lake Drive, Salisbury resident, was
found guilty of kidnapping and murdering Viktor Gunnarsson. He was
sentenced to life imprisonment.
Prosecutors contended that Underwood killed
Gunnarsson, a 40-year-old Swedish citizen, because he started dating
Underwood's former fiancee.
Gunnarsson's nude body was found near the Blue Ridge
Parkway on Jan. 7, 1994. He had been shot in the head and neck.
Gunnarsson had been accused and later cleared in the
1986 assassination of the Swedish prime minister.
The trial set a benchmark in trial history with the
judge allowing witnesses to testify about mitochrondrial DNA, which is
DNA found outside the nucleus of a cell. The DNA test was crucial to
prosecutors in linking hair found in Underwood's trunk with Gunnarsson's
Underwood can appeal the findings to the N.C. Supreme
Victor Gunnarsson (1953 Ė between 3 and 4
December 1993) was a Swedish right-wing extremist, who was a suspect in
the 1986 Olof Palme assassination. He was later in turn murdered in 1993
in North Carolina by former police officer Lamont C. Underwood.
of Olof Palme
Gunnarsson (labeled in the media 33-Śringen, "the 33-year
old") was arrested on February 28, 1986, in Stockholm, Sweden, for the
assassination of Olof Palme, but quickly released after a dispute
between the police and prosecuting attorneys. Gunnarsson had connections
to various extremist groups and was a member of the European Workers
Party, the Swedish branch of the LaRouche movement, for a year before
being kicked out in 1985.
The extent of his connection to the latter group was
having signed a petition they were circulating on the streets of
Stockholm. Also, pamphlets hostile to Palme from the party were found in
his home outside Stockholm.
Gunnarsson's nearly naked body was found in a wooded
area called Deep Gap about 86 miles from his apartment in Salisbury,
North Carolina. He was shot twice in the head with a .22 caliber firearm.
The time of death is placed between December 3 and December 4, 1993.
Former policeman Lamont C. Underwood was convicted of
Gunnarsson's murder in 1997 and sentenced to life imprisonment plus 40
years, however, in an opinion rendered on Dec. 23, 2009, the Fourth
Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, Va., ordered that he be
granted a new trial or be released from jail in 180 days. Underwood is
currently incarcerated in Marion Correctional Institution in North
Gunnarsson's murder was featured on the Court TV series Forensic
Files and the Discovery Channel series The New Detectives.
Viktor Gunnarsson's nude body was found near the
Blue Ridge Parkway on Jan. 7, 1994.
He had been shot in the head and
Gunnarsson had been accused and later cleared in the
of the Swedish prime minister.