Innocent, But Behind Bars
Another man confessed to murder. Why is this retarded man in prison?
This much is for certain: Pauline Martz was brutally murdered in her own home. The 79-year-old widow was beaten, tied up and then burned alive when her stucco rambler was soaked with gasoline and set aflame on April 13, 1986. Acting on a tip, police in the little Ozark town of Aurora, Mo., questioned Johnny Lee Wilson, a mildly retarded man who was the grandson of one of Martz's bridge partners. Wilson confessed. He even provided minute details of the murder, from the color of Martz's blouse to the fact that her legs were bound with duct tape.
This now also seems clear: Wilson, in his ninth year behind bars, is not guilty.
Johnny Lee Wilson's supporters say he is a symbol of a seldom recognized problem: Among the most likely people to be falsely arrested, convicted and even executed in the United States are the retarded. They are quick to "confess" and easy to convict and frequently get poor legal defense. Once in jail, they are easy prey to other inmates and rarely get the attention and training they need to succeed once they are released. "Within the criminal justice system, this problem is everyone's dirty little secret," says law Prof. James Ellis of the University of New Mexico, an expert in such cases.
Shattered tranquillity. In the case of Johnny Wilson, the first shock was that any kind of murder occurred in a friendly town like Aurora (population: 6,500). The timid Wilson was a shadow, as anonymous as anyone could be in Aurora. He was the slight special-education student whose big moment came when the high school football coach kindly awarded him an athletic letter for being the team "manager." He had carried water pails and picked up the trash at Kelly Field after games. At home, he would shoot baskets, alone, in the back yard. His best friends were his protective mother, Susan Wilson, and grandmother, Nellie Maples, with whom he shared the first floor of a modest duplex. His mother would drive him the eight tenths of a mile to school each morning and be waiting in her rusty Plymouth when the bell rang in the afternoon.
Like 90 percent of the 7 million Americans with mental retardation, Wilson is mildly retarded. That means he can pass for "normal." In his senior class picture, he's just another kid with an uncertain smile. Those who talk to Wilson might not figure that he scored 69 on the verbal IQ test--the one most indicative of one's ability to understand legal proceedings--with a 76 IQ overall.
But Wilson knew he was different--and few conditions are as stigmatizing as mental retardation. On the first day of the only real job he had ever had--as a janitor at a woodworking shop--Wilson says he walked into the lunchroom only to be grabbed by the shirt by one worker who gruffly declared, "You don't belong here." The frightened teen clutched his lunch pail and retreated to a toilet stall. He would eat lunch there every day, except when his mother began driving up at noon so he could sit in the front seat with her. Wilson and his mother say he was fired several weeks later when his boss could not stop the ever more merciless teasing. Shop owner David Stanley says he is unaware of any harassment and that Wilson was fired out of fear that he "was going to get hurt" on one of the machines.