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.
Seeking to avoid such unpleasantness, the mildly retarded learn quickly how to hide their limitations. They search for protectors like teachers and parents; they learn to please authority figures, and they bluff their way through situations they don't understand, says James Ellis. These survival techniques had served Wilson well--but they would be precisely the wrong skills to rely upon once he got caught up in the criminal justice system.
Interrogation. Wilson says he thought he was being asked to help solve the murder of a beloved family friend when--on April 18, 1986, five days after the killing--police said they wanted to question him. He signed a waiver of his Miranda rights, never thinking to ask for an attorney. Rights, as he later explained to a court-appointed psychologist, mean "right from wrong. I'd rather do right." Since he hadn't done anything wrong, Wilson had no fear. Early in his interrogation, police asked whether he would admit it if he had done "something real bad." "Yes," Wilson replied, childlike--"because that's what your job is here for. You help people, and you put them behind bars if they done something."
Wilson's trust was misplaced. From 8:30 p.m. until 12:10 a.m., four officers from the police and sheriff's departments, playing a good-cop, bad-cop game, would bully the retarded 20-year-old with half-truths and threats. They told him they had eyewitnesses who placed him inside Martz's home, even though they presented none. They claimed to have enough evidence to send him to jail. Courts have allowed cops to play such games of deception. Career criminals, after all, do not freely admit their outrages. And, experts say, an innocent man will not admit to something he didn't do, absent a physical beating. There is one little-understood exception, says Denis Keyes, a College of Charleston special-education professor who evaluated Wilson: A retarded man like Wilson "will admit to almost anything to get out of a threatening situation."
It was Wilson's own words that made the strongest case for his guilt. But to experts in retardation, that same confession also makes the best case for his innocence. The frightened Wilson, says Keyes, realized he was in trouble and desperately sought to give police the answers they wanted to hear. At first, for almost two hours, Wilson insisted upon his innocence. He described Martz, who had let him leave his bicycle in her carport after teasing classmates had vandalized it, as "another grandma to me." But a confused Wilson broke down when police, in loud voices, got tough in the following exchange:
OFFICER: You are in serious trouble right now. Murder is what you're in. Murder. Premeditated, willful, malicious, burning up an old lady in her house, that's what you're in on, Wilson. Ain't no sense kidding around about it.
JOHNNY: I wasn't near that house, though.
OFFICER: I think it's despicable.
JOHNNY: I was with my mom all along. I was at [the grocery store] with her and I was ...
OFFICER: Yeah, you may need other statements from your mother and things like that. We got statements from other people here that say you were there and that you admitted doing it. We got a lot of people that saw you there that night. And they're going to put you right inside that house torching that lady, robbing her, tying her up. No one else knew she was tied up. We didn't even know it.
JOHNNY: I didn't know it either.
When Wilson finally confessed, it was in a frightened and distant tone, sometimes speaking of his role in the third person or following the leading questions of officers who suggested that the right answer could get him out of trouble. He admitted, for example, to committing the crime with two other men whom police named first. Then, when told the others were not involved, Wilson contradicted himself to say he acted alone. Typical is this questioning:
OFFICER: What was she wearing? What did you see?
JOHNNY: Blouse of some sort, I can't tell what color.
OFFICER: Try to think. These little details are important, and it's important that you tell the true story as most accurate as possible because that will show that you're trying to tell the truth. This is an important time.
JOHNNY: I'll say it was white, probably a white or bluish blouse.
OFFICER: OK, how about bluish? I'll go for that.
OFFICER: How about bluish green maybe?
Later, this encounter took place:
OFFICER: What besides a rope was around her ankles? Something else, this is another test. I know and you know, just think. Come on, John.
JOHNNY: I'm thinking.
OFFICER: What are some things that could be used?
JOHNNY: Handcuffs, I think.
OFFICER: No, no--wrong guess.
Wilson comes up with duct tape, but only when the officer suggests it first.
By the end of the interrogation, Wilson had admitted to arson, attempted rape (a coroner's report found no evidence of sexual assault) and hiding stolen jewelry under his backyard basketball pole. Officers searched, yet found no such jewelry. But from inside the Wilson home, police confiscated costume jewelry (Wilson's grandmother collected baubles for the dolls she sold at craft fairs), women's underwear (police would suggest these belonged to Martz; Susan Wilson explained convincingly that the bikini briefs and bras in her size were hers) and a magazine with pictures of naked women that Johnny had bought at the 7-Eleven (police used this to suggest Wilson had a perverted interest in sex). It was flimsy physical evidence on which to base a murder charge.
But the prosecution got its biggest break from Wilson's own court-appointed defense team: They forfeited a trial. Instead, Wilson entered a rare plea bargain called an Alford plea. It is allowed when a defendant maintains his innocence but fears the evidence nonetheless will convince a jury to convict. By pleading guilty, and accepting a life sentence without parole for first degree murder, Wilson avoided the possibility of the electric chair.
"That was Johnny's decision," says public defender Michael Garrett, who says the three-lawyer team carefully explained the options to Wilson and his family. Wilson, however, seemed confused when he entered the plea on April 30, 1987, telling Jasper County Circuit Court Judge L. Thomas Elliston, "I'm guilty, I guess."
Garrett says the plea was Wilson's "best option," given the confession and an "eyewitness" named Gary Wall. Police investigating the murder never would have given the inward Wilson a second thought had it not been for a tip from Wall, a special-ed classmate. Wall had followed the fire sirens to Martz's house. Among the scores of spectators was Wilson. "I asked him what was going on, and he said that the lady was tied up, beat up and burned," Wall told police five days after the crime. When Wall asked, "Was you in on it?" he said, Wilson replied, "Yeah"--but then threatened, "If you tell anyone that, I'll beat you up and I'll get some other guys."
Police were intrigued. Since firefighters delayed entering the house for 40 minutes, only the killer would have known at that point that the elderly woman was inside tied up. Wilson claimed, by Wall's account, that his "older brother" had been inside and seen Martz tied up. Wall described the brother as tall and thin, with brown hair. That alone should have made police question Wall's credibility: Wilson was an only child. And Gerry Johnson--the high school assistant principal--had already told police that Wall was a troublemaker and "a very skilled liar." Investigators, however, never asked Johnson about Wilson. If they had, she says she would have told them that Wilson "didn't have the mental capability to do the planning of it."
U.S. News found Wall's brother, who says Wall later admitted he had lied because he hoped to receive an award from a state arson fund. Johnny Ray Wall says the subject came up a few years after the murder when he and his wife took Gary one harvest season to California, where they earned a migrant worker's wage picking fruit. "Did the kid really do it?" Johnny Wall asked his younger brother. He recalls Gary Wall's answer: "No, he didn't really do it, but I'm getting $5,000." According to Johnny Wall, his brother "was more or less bragging about it, and he was happy because he was going to get $5,000." Gary never got the money. Johnny Wall says neither police nor Wilson's attorneys ever questioned him. Johnny Wall, who never went to police with his story, says he has not spoken to Gary since last fall, in part over a falling-out after Gary pawned his older brother's rented VCR and television.
Wilson's alibi. Not only was the prosecution's star witness offering shaky testimony but Wilson had a strong alibi. When fire sirens wailed at 8:05 p.m. on that Sunday night, Wilson and his mother were in a grocery store buying cheese and soda. One neighbor, Lucille Childress, told U.S. News that she spoke to them there, as the sirens went off, but never told police because she was afraid to come forward. Before that, Wilson had spent the evening at home. A 13-year-old neighbor, Matt Reed, had come over around 5:30 p.m. to tape heavy-metal records. The two boys watched the start of a Disney movie that began at 6, and Reed said he went home for dinner a half-hour later. Susan Wilson then helped her son tack posters to the new paneling in his bedroom and by 7:30, she estimates, they left for the grocery store.
Sometime in that period, the prosecution argued, Wilson (who asked permission every time he went to the park just across the street) sneaked out of the house, walked the eight tenths of a mile to Martz's house, ransacked it, tied up Martz, set the house on fire and walked home carrying the stolen loot--in time to go shopping with his mother. Journalist Bill Maurer, who wrote for a now defunct weekly paper, knocked on doors along the 40-minute round-trip route between the Wilson and Martz homes--which passed businesses onthe town square and churches conducting services that evening--and found no one who recalled seeing Wilson.
Another confession. Wilson's story might have ended with his imprisonment, had it not been for an extraordinary event one year after his guilty plea. Another man confessed to the Martz murder. Chris Brownfield was in prison at the time. His crime: the beating, robbery and murder of an elderly woman in her home 16 days after the Martz killing and only 60 miles away.
Brownfield laid out the Martz crime in detail. He described how he and a partner picked Martz because a third friend, who had once repaired her driveway, told them she kept large amounts of cash in the house. He also named the Joplin hotel where the two men spent that night. It was not the first time Brownfield's name had come to the attention of Lawrence County investigators. Three days after Martz's killing, a Joplin police detective had called to say that the murder fit the modus operandi of an escaped felon named Chris Brownfield, who was "known to tie up old ladies while he robbed their homes."
Most important, Brownfield provided something long missing: a clear motive for murder. Brownfield claims his partner--named in legal documents as Bruce Moore--had lost a stun gun while ransacking the house. Afraid it carried his fingerprints, Brownfield says, Moore chose to burn the house to destroy the evidence. (Moore has denied involvement.)
One of the lingering mysteries of the Martz murder was a stun gun found by police. On the tape of Wilson's second-day confession, police can be heard setting off something that buzzes loudly behind Wilson's back. What is it, they ask. An electric razor, he guesses. Unable to explain this key piece of evidence, police let the matter drop.
Unbending authorities. Following Brownfield's 1988 admission, a new attorney for Wilson sought a trial. But police and prosecutors in Lawrence County stood by their belief in Wilson's guilt and opposed reopening the case. They were aided by a crucial report from the office of the state attorney general. In it, investigator Jack Ruffel argued that because Brownfield was a career criminal, his testimony was "virtually worthless" and declared his story "not credible" based on several discrepancies.
Still, it is the major points of Brownfield's confession that seem to bear him out. Ruffel wrote that the stun gun had "truly baffled law enforcement personnel." But he dismissed Brownfield's tale because he drew a picture of the gun with a straight handle; the one retrieved from the fire had a slight curve.
Equally telling is Brownfield's memory of checking into the Capri Motel. Ruffel questioned this, noting that Brownfield "was very positive" that he had registered under an alias, "Tom Carpenter," but a check of the guest register found no one by that name. Ruffel conceded that "I did find where a Bruce Moore registered for two people and stayed in room 117." Hotel records indicate that the two drove Brownfield's 1978 Oldsmobile with Oklahoma license plates. Two phone calls were made from the room. One was to Moore's home in Oklahoma City; the second to the house where the third friend named by Brownfield was living.
Then there was Brownfield's claim that a young girl on the high school track across from Martz's home had spotted him. Indeed, police had such a witness--the only witness to see someone on Martz's property. Melanie Houser, then 13, was jumping hurdles with her father that evening. A police hypnotist got Houser to describe the man. Police insist that the resulting composite sketch bears a striking resemblance to Wilson. But the face, with its helmet of dark hair, seems to more closely resemble Brownfield. Houser, now a college student, told U.S. News that police never reinterviewed her after arresting Wilson, whom she knew. "The man I saw definitely was not Johnny Wilson," she said.
Dismissed by the state investigator, Brownfield, with attorney Vern Miller, concocted an elaborate plot to prove his truthfulness. Miller, a former Kansas attorney general, got Brownfield temporarily and secretly released from prison to track down Moore, under the ruse that Brownfield had escaped from prison and needed his help. In the 1990 taped phone conversation, Moore was clearly displeased. "You've been doing too much talking for my likes, brother," warned Moore. When Brownfield said that he tried to keep Moore's name out of his Martz confession, Moore replied, "Well, thanks. God damn, it takes you a whole hour to cop me out, man."
None of this has shaken the certainty of police and prosecutors in Lawrence County that Wilson killed Martz. "To release a criminal who brutally murdered someone and pled guilty would just create more public distrust of the legal system," says Lawrence County Prosecutor Robert George. "If I was an elderly widow in Aurora, I'd be a little frightened if he was released."
Lawrence County Sheriff David Tatum, whose office handled the investigation, referred all questions to his own private attorney, who, in turn, said he was unable to discuss specifics of the case.
In July, Wilson's new lawyers, David Everson and Michael Atchison of Kansas City, presented Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan with a new petition for Wilson's release. Carnahan, a Democrat in office since last year, has already commuted the death penalty of one retarded man. But the Wilson case is potentially more risky: He would be returning a confessed killer to his community, something sure to be highly controversial in Aurora. One possibility is that Wilson be released, but waive his double-jeopardy protection so that Lawrence County prosecutors can choose to try him. But officials there object. Says prosecutor George, "He pled guilty, and as far as I'm concerned, he's still guilty." Martz's closest living relative, nephew Charles Hillhouse, agrees. "We would be very disturbed if he is released. We feel he is where he belongs."
"Pick up my life." In the Jefferson City Correctional Facility, a few blocks from the governor's mansion, Wilson says he would welcome a trial to prove his innocence. He talks of going home soon. "I'll pick my life up where I left off. I'll go to the movies, get a job, probably work at the high school," says Wilson, in a torn, flimsy gray jumpsuit and orange espadrilles. "It's the same stuff I do here--watch TV, listen to the radio, play my guitar."
But picking up where he left off may not be easy in Aurora, where the question of Wilson's guilt or innocence has transcended legal niceties and turned into a matter for intense personal and political feuding. Two men have kept Wilson's hopes alive. Warren Ormsby is a bail bondsman, with a craggy scar across his left elbow from the blast of a shotgun fired at him while he was in pursuit of a bail jumper. Dean Rodgers owns a real-estate company and knew Wilson as the timid 8-year-old next door whom he taught to ride a bicycle.
Image-conscious residents were displeased, to say the least, when the two men erected a billboard on the outskirts of town that said, "Aurora Home Of ... Johnny Lee Wilson The Boy in Prison Without a Trial!" It was firebombed. Nor did it help when in 1990, seeking money for Wilson's defense, the two men and Wilson sold their story for a TV movie that, if produced, may pay as much as $100,000. The stateattorney general, however, quickly claimed any money under the state's "Son of Sam" law. Rodgers now calls the deal a "mistake," since it let critics charge that Wilson's supporters were simply looking for a cash bonanza.
Susan Wilson and Nellie Maples have moved to a new house but keep a room ready for Johnny. They blame themselves for failing him, for not getting a lawyer when he confessed and for encouraging him to accept the plea bargain. "We knew nothing about the law," says Maples. "We, and Johnny, had never been in trouble. But half the things we done was wrong."
Perhaps the biggest remaining mystery is why Brownfield would open himself to further prosecution--possibly even execution--by confessing to the Martz crime. Apparently, greed was his original motive. He had asked a cellmate to write to Tatum with a vague tip, thinking the two men could then split any reward. But the sheriff's department proved uninterested. Brownfield says his discovery that a retarded man had confessed changed his heart--and gave him a cause by which to seek his own redemption. He thought of his first wife's retarded cousin, "who used to follow me around" and how he was easily influenced by those around him. Now he worries about how prison life may change Wilson. "He's innocent. I'm not talking so much about the crime. He's innocent of everything." Until last week, Wilson had spent seven months in a lock-down unit as protection after witnessing the knifing of another inmate.
How, Brownfield is asked, could he care so much about Wilson when he showed no conscience about the elderly victims of his involvement in, by his own count, two murders and a score of robberies? The refusal of police and prosecutors to admit they may be wrong in the Wilson case, Brownfield says, "gave me insight into my reaction when I robbed. I didn't care about those people. You don't want to dwell on it when you do a robbery or burglary. When you leave, it's out of your system." Brownfield believes Lawrence County officials similarly know they are wrong but don't want to dwell on Wilson's case.
Wilson, in another prison one state away, seems incapable of such reflection and is puzzled about what the future holds. He remains free of bitterness or blame. "I don't have no grudges against no cops. They were just doing their job. It's just that this time they made a hell of a mistake," Wilson says. "I made a mistake, but I hold up for my mistake in confessing. Why don't they hold up for their mistake, locking me up for something I didn't do?"
[Photo captions]: THE VICTIMS Pauline Martz was well loved in Aurora, especially by Johnny Wilson, who called her "another grandma to me." Yet he has spent his adulthood in prison for her murder.
THE FAMILY Harsh prison life has wiped away the sweet look of Wilson's senior class photo, yet his letters home to mother Susan Wilson and grandmother Nellie Maples always begin "Dear Sweethearts" and are signed "Johnny Wilson."
THE ACCUSERS Prosecutor Robert George (above) and Sheriff David Tatum remain convinced that Wilson is guilty. To release him, says George, would create "public distrust of the legal system."
THE WITNESSES Melanie Houser (above) saw a man who was not Wilson at Martz's house, which stood on the now empty lot across from the high school track. Lucille Childress backs up Wilson's alibi that he was grocery shopping as fire engines raced to Martz's house.
THE SUPPORTERS Efforts by Dean Rodgers (above, left) and Warren Ormsby to win Wilson's freedom have left bitter divisions among friends and neighbors. Wilson (right) was handcuffed for a 1989 court appearance.
THE INMATE Wilson, prisoner 160230 at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, believes he can go home to Aurora and "pick my life up where I left off." He says he holds "no grudges" against police.
This story appears in the September 19, 1994 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.