October 11, 2015

Ernest Reid Coffey

Ernest* was a native of North Caroline, born on Christmas day in 1916.  He was the seventh of eight children and last of four sons born to John Wesley and Nancy Kizzie Ann Hatley Coffey.

Prior to his conviction for the murder of his uncle, James Hardy Coffey in 1936, Ernest was a suspect in a number of petty crimes.

James Hardy Coffey was a son of Thomas Avery and Louisa E. Gragg Coffey and brother to John Wesley Coffey.  He was married on Sep. 10, 1905 in Watauga Co., NC to Lillian Mae "Lillie" Gray, daughter of William and Delia A. Gray of Boone, Watauga Co., NC.  Together, they had seven children, the middle being a son born in 1912; the others all daughters.

James became a law enforcement officer and at the time of his death he was a deputy sheriff in Watauga Co.  In 1936, the year he was killed, a number of vacant summer homes and camps in the surrounding forests had been broken into and items stolen.  Through investigation James apparently began to suspect that his nephew Ernest, and others were involved.  News items of the day report that James was about to charge the nephew when he was killed.

He was killed on Apr. 5, 1936.  News items of the day draw a picture of him arriving home after a day on the job and being killed by a shotgun blast through a window while giving one of his daughters a violin lesson.  Other reports tell of him singing hymns while omitting the violin lesson.

Ernest was arrested after allegedly boasting to a friend that he had killed his uncle.  The trial did not last very long and he was convicted in July, 1936 of murder in the first degree.  The first degree conviction was the first in the history  of Avery County and, he was sentenced to death in the state's gas chamber.  The conviction was upheld in Oct., 1936 by the state supreme court.

Another news item - undated - reported that Ernest's execution was delayed by Gov. John C. B. Ehringhaus. In Aug., 1937, then Governor, Clyde Hoey commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. In 1940. As more evidence giving credence to Ernest constant denial of guilt began to emerge, Gov. Hoey again changed his sentence to "20 to 30 years."  In 1948 he was paroled!

James Thomas Rusher, in his book** entitled Until he is Dead, considerable space was given to the murder trial and subsequent efforts to free Ernest, called Reid in the book.

Ernest father never believed that his son was guilty and spent years pursuing his release.  Other family members also believed in his innocence and worked for his release.

After his release, he married Zula May Baker, believed to be of Robeson Co.  She was born c1917 and died on May 16, 1977.  Ernest died on Mar. 16, 1981 in Raleigh, Wake Co.  Both are buried at Brier Creek Memorial Gardens in Leesville, Wake Co.

*See also The Edward Coffey Project: James Hardy Coffey - http://bit.ly/1jWOS5d and, The Edward Coffey Project: Murder of James Hardy Coffey - http://bit.ly/1jWOQKQ

 ** Until He is Dead: Capital Punishment in the Western North Carolina History, Parkway Publishers, 2003, ISBN: 1887905731, 9781887905732, 246 pages

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