Keeping the Faith

Pastor’s sons maintain father’s innocence years after gristly murder

By David Anderson Jr.
Published August 2, 2009

Five years after 40-year-old Marnita Bynum was found dead in the trunk of her car on a back road in Richmond County, the impact her death had on the community she worked in lingers on.

THE CRIME: Marnita Bynum, a substitute teacher who worked at middle schools in Lee County, was strangled and stuffed into the trunk of her car before it was abandoned on a rural road in Richmond County where a sheriff’s deputy found it Aug. 2, 2004.

THE SENTENCE: Melvin Bynum, a Sanford pastor and Marnita Bynum’s husband, was sentenced to 64 to 86 months in prison after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter as part of a deal reached with prosecutors Jan. 3, 2007.

THE RELEASE: Melvin Bynum could be released as early as Dec. 15. His sons Brock and Marquail have maintained a relationship with their father throughout his incarceration and plan to celebrate his return after living without any parents for five years.

The neglected grounds of the church that still bears her husband’s name serves to remind some of the shock they still feel when thinking about her death. The joyful laughs of her two grandchildren, who only know of their grandmother through the memories their fathers have passed on, are testimony to the fact that although her memory is not forgotten, those her were affected most by Bynum’s death are picking up the pieces and moving on with their lives.

“My mom was a very nice lady. She was very caring. I guess that’s where I get it from,” said Brock Bynum, Marnita Bynum’s youngest son. “I feel like God took my mom, but at the same time, he’s given me the strength to be successful in life, and that’s the way that I’m going.”

In the early morning hours of Aug. 2, 2004, a Richmond County Sheriff’s deputy found Marnita Bynum’s body in the trunk of her Chrysler Sebring convertible on a rural road north of Hamlet. At the time, investigators said she was likely strangled before the car was abandoned.

Almost a month later, Marnita Bynum’s husband Melvin Bynum, pastor of Cry Out Loud Ministry in Sanford, was charged with first-degree murder in connection with her death.

Melvin Bynum had filed for divorce earlier that year but the process hadn’t been completed.

Prosecutors originally planned to pursue a death sentence for Melvin Bynum, but two and a half years later, the case was settled with a plea agreement before it ever went to trial. Melvin Bynum agreed to plea guilty to voluntary manslaughter in exchange for a sentence of 64 to 86 months. He could be released as early as Dec. 15.

It’s my opinion Mr. Bynum got away with murder.

—Sheriff Dale Furr

Melvin Bynum declined to be interviewed for this article, according to Michael Davis, superintendent of Davidson Correction Center.

Because the Bynums lived in Moore County, worked in Lee County and Marnita Bynum’s body was found in Richmond County, the investigation involved law enforcement agencies from multiple jurisdictions.

Richmond County Sheriff Dale Furr said Melvin Bynum was the only person his department ever considered to be a suspect.

“I feel the same way about it I did then,” Furr said speaking years after the case was closed. “I just can’t understand why the case wasn’t tried. It’s my opinion Mr. Bynum got away with murder.”

A FATHER’S PLEA

Robert Reives II, a Sanford defense attorney who, along with Eddie Meacham of Pinehurst, represented Melvin Bynum, said the case would have been tough to present for both the state and the defense. Reives, who argued for Bynum’s innocence throughout the process, said he wouldn’t call the plea agreement fair, but it was the best resolution possible for the case.

“I think that it was the best result for all involved at the time,” Reives said. “No matter what the evidence for either side, no one ever has any idea what the jury will do.”

It’s not because it’s my father; it’s because I know that he didn’t do it.

—Brock Bynum

“In some sense it was a polarizing case, because I think the unfortunate thing that happened with this particular case was there was a lot of information that was placed out there through different media outlets that didn’t quit match up with the evidence that was available at the time,” Reives said. “People had their opinions, but sometimes those opinions were put in place of the facts.”

Although more than two years have passed since Bynum was sentenced, Furr would not discuss the evidence that led to Melvin Bynum’s arrest.

Timeline of a Tragedy
2004
• Aug. 2: A Richmond County Sheriff’s deputy found Marnita Bynum’s body in the trunk of her Chrysler Sebring convertible near Hamlet in the early morning. Deputies from Lee, Moore and Richmond counties join agents from the State Bureau of the Investigation to track down the killer.
• Aug. 8: More than 1,500 attended Marnita Bynum’s funeral Sunday afternoon at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center.
• Aug. 18: Jacquelyn Carter, Marnita Bynum’s mother, pleaded with the community to come forward with information about her daughter’s death. Melvin Bynum was arrested a few days later.
• Sept. 7: A grand jury formally indicted Bynum on charges of first-degree murder.

 
2005
• April 27: A Richmond County judge approved prosecutors’ request to seek the death penalty for Bynum, who had been held in the county jail for eight months awaiting trial.

 
2006
• Jan. 2: Prosecutors and defense attorneys reach an agreement that calls for Melvin Bynum to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and receive a sentence of five years in prison. Superior Court Judge David Lee refuses to accept the deal.
• Jan. 3: Judge Lee accepts a new agreement, allowing Melvin Bynum to plea guilty to the voluntary manslaughter in exchange for a sentence of 64 to 86 months. Bynum begins serving his sentence with credit for time served and the case is closed without ever going to trial.

 
2009
• Dec. 15: Bynum’s projected release date, according to the N.C. Department of Corrections.

 
2011
• October: Bynum’s maximum prison sentence will expire.

Richmond County District Attorney Michael Parker declined an interview request but issued a statement of sympathy to Marnita Bynum’s family.

“On the anniversary of her death my thoughts and prayers go out to her family and friends and those touched by her life,” Parker said.

Melvin Bynum’s sons Brock, 22, and Marquail, 25, have maintained their father’s innocence throughout his incarceration.

“I’m still on his side 100 percent and ready for him to come home,” Brock said. “It’s not because it’s my father, it’s because I know that he didn’t do it.”

Marquail Bynum said he and Brock met with their father and his attorneys before the hearing and talked about their options. When Melvin Bynum asked his sons what they would like him to do, Marquail said a plea agreement would be best because it would guarantee their father would be a part of their lives in the future.

“Me and my brother felt like that if they took it to trial, the way this case was going, they would try and kill my father with a death penalty,” Marquail Bynum said. “He was going to stick it out. Me and my brothers are the ones that influenced the plea bargain.”

Brock Bynum said the fact that prosecutors accepted an agreement with a minimum sentence just over five years speaks to their conviction in the matter.

“The sentence alone will tell you that he didn’t commit the crime. Five years for murder? When have you known anyone to get five years for murder?” he said. “That’s unheard of. You get five years for selling drugs. You don’t get five years for murder.”

Not everyone in the family has stood beside Melvin Bynum though.

Marnita Bynum’s mother Jacquelyn Carter, 61, was convinced Melvin Bynum was responsible for her daughter’s death from the beginning. She was one of the few family members to speak during Bynum’s sentencing hearing and, according to reports at the time, her testimony played a big part in Superior Court Judge David Lee’s decision to reject Bynum’s original plea deal that would have imposed a sentence of just five years.

While Carter’s opinion hasn’t changed over the years, her attitude has. Carter, 61, says she has been able to get past all of the anger she felt following her daughter’s death and forgive her son-in-law.

“God forgave us and in order for me to get any peace, I have to forgive him,” she said. “I don’t have to forget it and I don’t have to like it, but I can honestly say I have forgiven him.”

Carter, who lives in Chicago, admits her relationship with her grandsons was strained during the court proceedings, but now they are on good terms and she is able to visit them several times each year.

Carter said she has no plans to see Melvin Bynum again following his release.

“Hopefully he’s learned something with doing his time and can come out and start a new life and go on with his life,” Carter said. “Because we’re going on with ours.”

CARRYING ON

Brock Bynum was a junior at Lee County High School when his mother was killed. Brock spent the rest of his high school years living with his friends’ families. After graduation he enrolled at Winston-Salem State University, where he is working towards degrees in criminal justice and elementary education.

“I’ve come to find out I’m very good with talking with kids. Explaining my situation, what I’ve been through, it motivates them to persevere in life, to do better in life,” Brock Bynum said. “It’s like they look at me and say hey if Mr. Bynum can do it, then we can do it too.”

Hopefully he’s learned something … and go on with his life — because we’re going on with ours.

—Jacquelyn Carter

Brock Bynum hopes to build a career as a counselor for troubled youth, either working within the court system or with a private agency. In the mean time he is working as a counselor at the Boys and Girls Club in Winston-Salem.

“It’s like I’m picking up where my mom left off with kids,” Brock Bynum said. “I see all of their energy. It makes my mom’s death go by faster and my dad’s being incarcerated go by faster working with the kids.

“It’s been a loss for me, but also it’s been a gain because it’s allowed me to go out and inspire kids by telling my story and how I have overcome the stuff that has happened to me in these last five years.”

This year, Brock Bynum took a semester off from college to focus on working more to provide for his 4-year-old son Devin, who lives in Sanford. Brock Bynum said he learned about being a responsible father from his own father’s example, and while he plans to finish his education within the next two years, caring for his son will always be his priority.

Marquail Bynum had just turned 19 and was a sophomore at East Carolina University when he learned that his mother had died. In the days after her death, he couldn’t believe that she was really gone.

“I probably believed that (she was alive) for four years,” Marquail Bynum said. “It’s just now getting into my head that she’s gone. I didn’t want to believe it for years.”

After the murder, Marquail Bynum says he dropped out of school and moved back home to help provide for his brother Brock Bynum, as well as his adopted brother Robert Ortega.

“I haven’t went back since the incident, but I do plan to finish school,” Marquail Bynum said. “That was my mom’s dream for me.”

Earlier this year Marquail opened a restaurant that he runs in his father’s hometown of Snow Hill. With a 1-year-old daughter of his own, Marquail Bynum says he has found stability in his life.

The church Melvin and Marnita Bynum spent more than a decade working at together stills sits on the corner of Woodland Avenue and Rose Street, practically unchanged since its pastor was arrested almost five years ago.

A Spanish-speaking congregation, Iglesia Ebenzer, holds services in the building three nights a week but a sign for Cry Out Loud Ministry with Bynum’s name prominently at the top still stands on the church grounds. The half-built foundation of a building expansion started in the years before Marnita Bynum’s death sits overgrown with shrubs and weeds beside the main church building — put on hold after Melvin Bynum’s arrest, according to his son. The answering machine at the church still names Melvin Bynum as pastor.

Brock Bynum said he hasn’t attended the church in Sanford since he moved to Winston-Salem several years ago, but he understands the old congregation still meets occasionally with guest speakers.

Messages left on the church’s answering machine were unreturned and when one church leader, Angela Jones, was reached at home, she declined to comment.

Melvin Bynum’s sons said he plans to continue preaching when he is released and while he won’t likely move back to Sanford, he does plan to pick up where he left off with his church on Woodland Avenue.

Marquail Bynum says he talks to his father over the phone at least once a week.

“It’s brought us closer,” he said. “Realizing that with certain people gone out of your life you have to hang on to what you’ve got.”

Living in Winston-Salem, Brock Bynum has a short drive to visit his father at Davidson Correction Center. He arranges a visit with his father most weekends, spending three or four hours at a time talking about how their lives have changed and making plans for the future.

Both boys are anxiously counting down the days until their father is released.

“The first thing I’ll do is hug him and kiss him,” Marquail Bynum said. “After that we’ll just get on with our lives. That’s all we can do. You can only move forward.”

 

<—Back to Published Work

Text and images copyright 2009 by The Sanford Herald/Paxton Media Group.
Used with permission.


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