Jeni Gray, Daniel Lee Bring Reality To Watauga
As residents of our peaceful mountains ponder the common occurrance
of deaths in larger cities,
we can consider the murder that for many brought the woes
of the world right onto our doorstep.
On September 26, 1989, Jeni Gray, age 27, a popular reporter
for the Appalachian State News Bureau, went out for a walk
in downtown Boone before planning to meet her dad to go to
She disappeared that day, and was not found until more than
two weeks later in the Triplett community of Watauga County
She had been raped and strangled with her own clothes.
September 29 another ASU student had come forward with a story
about a man who abducted her while jogging, a man who while
holding her had told another story of how he had raped and
murdered another student just a week before.
With Daniel Lee arrested and in custody, 1990 began with a
courtroom drama that revealed evil in its pure form.
Pretrial motions began in April, with Superior Court Judge
Charles Lamm hearing from defense attorneys Chester Whittle
and Jeff Hedrick. Lee was charged with one count of first-degree
murder, three counts of sexual assault, and kidnapping.
The murder charge was a capital offense, bringing the possibility
of the death penalty.
The Motion to Change Venue was granted, and trial scheduled
for April 16 in Avery County.
Jury selection began on April 13, and while the selection
process was underway Lee filed pleas of guilty to the kidnapping
and rape charges, a plea rejected by District Attorney Tom
Rusher who was trying the case for the state.
When Lee subsequently pleaded guilty to the murder, the state
accepted that plea and the jury was charged with a sentencing
recommendation; either life without parole or death by lethal
The surviving student testified during this phase, calmly
describing how Lee told her of murdering Gray, how "she
was hard to kill."
The defense presented family members and medical testimony
that Lee's violent behavior had begun with the diagnosis
of a brain aneurysm.
But descriptions of the brutality of the crime carried the
verdict, and on April 26 the six men and women deliberated
only seven hours before sentencing Lee to death.
The defendant showed no emotion.
He was also sentenced to four life terms for the rape and
kidnapping of Gray, and set for execution in June of 1990.
But North Carolina law brings automatic appeal of death sentence
cases, and Lee died in Raleigh Central Prison from his medical
condition before he could be brought to the state's final