An 8-Year Battle To Free A Retarded Inmate -- 2 Persistent Men Overcome System, Refuse To Give Up
AURORA, Mo. - Johnny Lee Wilson's own words had done him in. His confession to the murder of an elderly widow had put him behind bars for life.
Later, when the young retarded man said police had bullied him into confessing, authorities didn't buy it. They wouldn't change their minds even after a convicted killer confessed to the crime.
But the peculiar chain of events haunted two men. One had known Wilson as a child and couldn't believe the meek kid with an IQ of 76 had grown into a killer. The other knew the murderer who claimed responsibility and couldn't believe he was lying.
So Dean Rodgers, a building contractor, and Warren Ormsby, a bail bondsman, joined forces for the challenge of their lives: to free Johnny Lee Wilson.
Five years passed. Wilson sat in prison as one court, then another, rejected his appeals. Still the two men soldiered on - for eight years.
He was serving life without parole for the April 13, 1986, murder of Pauline Martz, 79, a widow who had been beaten, bound and burned alive when her ransacked house was set afire.
After the police received a tip - from a former special-ed classmate of Wilson's who later recanted - they and members of the sheriff's office interrogated Wilson, who swore he had not killed anyone and had an alibi: He was with his mother at the grocery store. For nearly four hours, he was threatened and intimidated.
Wilson, 20 at the time, finally entered a plea in which he didn't admit guilt but acknowledged prosecutors had a strong case.
When he appeared in court that day in 1987, he was asked to explain why he was pleading, he responded tentatively: "I'm guilty, I guess."
He was in prison the next year when Ormsby received a call from a Kansas inmate he had bailed out several times for burglarizing carwashes and coin laundries. In fact, the first time Chris Brownfield had repaid Ormsby with two Folger's coffee cans of quarters. "I've never known him to be a liar," Ormsby says.
Brownfield was in prison for robbing, beating and murdering an elderly woman in her Kansas home 16 days after Martz's killing.
According to Ormsby, Brownfield asked him if he knew about Martz's murder.
"Hell," Ormsby responded, referring to Wilson, "they got him, he got life in the pen."
"He said, `I got something to tell you,' " Ormsby recalls. "He said, `That kid didn't do it.' "
Ormsby went to authorities concerning Brownfield's confession but made no headway. So he approached Rodgers because the builder's nephew was the prosecutor.
Rodgers had once lived next door to Wilson. He remembers a mild-mannered, bike-riding kid.
Rodgers feared authorities had caught the wrong man, but his concerns initially were allayed by his prosecutor-nephew, now a judge, who declines to discuss the case.
Rodgers' doubts quickly disappeared as he and Ormsby began checking out Wilson's story.
After an investigator the pair hired turned up nothing, they launched a massive publicity campaign, printing bumper stickers, spending thousands of dollars on T-shirts and doing scores of interviews.
Rodgers called a news conference to announce a petition to recall the sheriff, even though a reporter had told him state law didn't allow it.
The two men also put up a billboard - which later was firebombed - reading "Aurora, home of . . . Johnny Lee Wilson, the boy without a trial." (Wilson had, of course, waived that right.)
They pressured a newspaper in nearby Marionville to write about the case. Ormsby, who helped sell ads, and Rodgers paid to print 10,000 copies instead of the usual 800 and blanketed the area with them.
The men ran afoul of the local newspaper. "They lied to me. They sent me on wild goose chases," says Kim McCully, editor of the Aurora Advertiser. "I have no respect ethically for them at all. They did a lot of showboating."
But the outside media did bite.
Over the years, newspapers and magazines, including the Kansas City Star and U.S. News & World Report, weighed in with editorials and stories. The prospect of a young-man-wronged story also lured "20-20," "The Reporters," "Unsolved Mysteries" and "Saturday Night With Connie Chung."
"The fact these two guys were almost obnoxious about it certainly got me going, and I don't know that I would have," says Maria Patrick, a New York producer who spent months working on a piece for the Chung show.
Lawrence County Prosecutor Robert George, who inherited the case and still believes Wilson is guilty, dismisses it all. "It's a prime example of how people can use the media and fool the public," he says.
In a bid to win Wilson a trial, Ormsby and Rodgers hired Dee Wampler, a Springfield, Mo., attorney and former prosecutor who had written a book titled "Defending Yourself Against Cops."
Even though Wampler believed Wilson was innocent, he says he met with the prosecutor and worked out a deal in which his client would plead not guilty by reason of insanity and be placed in a mental hospital.
A plea, he explains, would have gotten Wilson out of prison and on a fast track to freedom because he would have been eligible for review every six months - and a state doctor already had attested to his mental competence.
But Wilson backed out of the plea at the last minute, Wampler says.
Wampler also presented evidence of Brownfield's confession and motel receipts and phone bills suggesting he and an accomplice were in the area when Martz was killed. But a judge rejected Wampler's request for a trial.
By then, TV producer Patrick had immersed herself in the case. She called Vern Miller, a former attorney general of Kansas, and asked him to visit Brownfield in prison. She also sent him Wilson's confession.
"I was amazed how bad it was, how absolutely terrible that case had been handled," he recalls.
When Miller interviewed Brownfield, the convict repeated his story: He and an accomplice had robbed Martz and burned the house because they had lost a stun gun that had fingerprints on it.
George, the prosecutor, still brands Brownfield a liar who initially was out to collect a reward.
But Miller didn't see it that way. He and Brownfield tracked down the purported accomplice in Oklahoma. In a taped conversation between Brownfield and the man, Brownfield mentioned the Martz confession and said he couldn't "leave the kid laying in there." The man replied, "It took you a whole hour to cop me out, man."
For Miller, it showed that Brownfield and the alleged accomplice were guilty. The tape was presented in an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court, which cited other avenues of appeal - including a pardon.
Large firm takes the case
It was later in 1991 that one of Kansas City's largest law firms took on the Wilson case pro bono after being approached by Maria Patrick.
"I just thought this kid was never going to get out," she says. "Every point along the way, he had fallen through the cracks."
Mike Atchison, who began tackling the case while a law clerk, and his colleague, Dave Everson, had an uphill battle: to prove a man's innocence - and explain why he'd entered a plea.
To explain Wilson's behavior, attorneys called on Denis Keyes, an assistant professor of special education at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, who conducted psychological tests on him in prison.
Mentally retarded people, Keyes says, typically acquiesce to what police tell them. Keyes says Wilson is very shy and "would have said anything they wanted to get himself out of the situation." For three years, Atchison and Everson examined the issue of false confessions and compiled a 40-page brief and hundreds more pages of exhibits to prove Wilson's innocence.
Final stop on long trail
Joe Bednar, the governor's chief counsel, was the final stop on the long trail that Ormsby and Rodgers began charting in 1988.
The former prosecutor spent a year on the case. He interviewed police and prosecutors, examined physical evidence, cross-checked police reports, built a list of potential suspects and reviewed and listened to Wilson's taped confession.
After poring over the transcript, he retyped all the leading questions. The result totaled 42 pages.
Then Bednar retyped the questions that provided Wilson with facts only the murderer would know or were inconsistent with evidence.
They totaled 13 pages.
"There was nothing in that confession that Johnny came up with on his own," he says. "He didn't know anything about this crime."
Last Sept. 29, nine years after he was locked up, Johnny Lee Wilson was pardoned by Gov. Mel Carnahan .
Bednar's investigation did not address Brownfield's confession, and George says there's no reason to pursue a case against him because Wilson is the murderer.
Bednar chalks the case up to a small town pressured to solve a murder and a police force that misjudged Wilson's mental capabilities.
"Mistakes were made in this case," he says. "It wasn't an intentional situation of picking on someone and saying, `We're going to get this guy.' You're dealing with a rural county in Missouri. They don't have the experience (handling) a number of homicides."
Johnny Lee Wilson now lives with his mother and grandmother in a residential home for the elderly run by Ormsby's sister.
Wilson, now 30, tries to block out his years in prison.
"I knew I would get out," he says. "I didn't know exactly how it would happen. I never gave up the faith that I'd be coming home. "
Wilson says townsfolk have been pleasant. He also says he has learned from his ordeal. "I think I'm a little bit smarter than I was when I went in," he says.
Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.