Bad Apples

Is a teacher's effort to free two convicted killers a rush to bad judgment?

Alvin Kelly leans forward and folds his hands together on the white table in front of him. From behind a plastic window, the 50-year-old Kelly, with black hair speckled gray and dark circles under his eyes, looks sympathetic, sincere and innocent. He's not injecting methamphetamine or stealing from anyone anymore. He's found God during these last 10 years on death row.

"I don't fear death, and I don't fear these people," he says. "I know I'm going to heaven."

Donna Strong, a journalism teacher at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, is engaged in a fight for justice, she says. Not everyone agrees.
Charles Corsentino III
Donna Strong, a journalism teacher at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, is engaged in a fight for justice, she says. Not everyone agrees.

Kelly, imprisoned in the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, may not be afraid to die, but for now he's doing all he can to stay alive. He is appealing his death sentence and says DNA tests on evidence are going to prove he was wrongly accused. He didn't butcher a young family in their home, he says. He wasn't there that night.

On a prison farm in Rosharon 100 miles away, Ronnie Wilson, Kelly's convicted partner, appears equally sincere. Sitting on an old office chair and wearing prison whites, Wilson's face reddens, he clenches his fists and pounds them on the tops of his knees when his innocence is questioned. He adamantly denies he had any part in the triple murder that spring night in Longview in 1984.

Both blame Cynthia "May" Cummings, Kelly's ex-wife, for putting them where they are today. Cummings delivered testimony that was devastating to their defense. She told juries that Kelly wrenched a toddler from her arms and shot him in the face at nearly point-blank range while Wilson watched. On that same night, she said, Kelly killed the boy's parents at their Longview home, about 130 miles east of Dallas.

Besides Cummings, the men also blame Gregg County prosecutors who they say must have made a deal with Cummings to get her to talk. They coached her so it would seem she knew secret details of the murder scene. They were out to make a name for themselves in the high-profile case. The prosecutors framed them, Kelly and Wilson say.

Kelly was convicted of capital murder. He's in the final phases of appeals and could be executed within two years. Wilson was convicted of murder and sentenced to 66 years in prison. He is not scheduled to be released until 2012.

Both men have rattled their cages about the injustice of their convictions for years, and now somebody is listening. A journalism teacher in Corpus Christi heard of Wilson's plea for help from one of her students, a friend to one of Wilson's former cell mates.

The teacher, Donna Strong, had told her "Seminar in Justice" students at Del Mar College about such groups as the Innocence Project, which work to free the wrongly convicted. From what her student told her, Wilson's case seemed similar to others she had heard about. She visited Wilson, read about his case and became convinced of his innocence. Then she went to work collecting evidence.

Strong posted information on the Internet about the murders and what she says are inconsistencies in the trials and in Cummings' statement. The Web site is called "Targeted: Ronnie Lee Wilson and the Spring Hill Murders" (www.truthinjustice.org/ronnie-wilson.htm). It shows a mug shot of Wilson smiling and includes Strong's version of events.

Strong claims to have investigated the case and essentially found prosecutorial misconduct. She also believes that DNA evidence being tested now may prove Kelly, and particularly Wilson, were framed.

At first, it sounds as if Strong has launched an ambitious and noble undertaking. After all, it's well-known that the justice system has convicted innocent people before, and such efforts as Strong's have helped set men free. The big difference with those cases and with Strong's case is that those men were provably innocent.

Even with Strong's collection of facts, statements, affidavits and everything else, the overwhelming truth is that while their convictions may appear flimsy a decade later, Wilson was legally put behind bars and Kelly was legally put on death row.

Strong's effort to get Kelly off death row and to free Wilson may be exciting to her, but she has angered and sickened the extended families of the victims. Strong's effort is not going over well with those who worked on the cases and got convictions either. They say Strong may have haphazardly collected many documents after the fact, but she didn't sit through two trials or spend years trying to nab the killers. One of those originally involved in the cases said juries hear the evidence and decide guilt based on evidence and testimony. Strong seems to have collected only information that would bolster her case while ignoring any evidence that points toward guilt.

Far from being admirable, the victims' surviving family members say they see Strong's quest as naïve and cruel. And if she is proved wrong, as those who oppose her believe she will be, her amateur sleuthing and lawyering would not help genuine efforts to free the innocent who are stuck inside this nation's prisons.

Karen Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Innocence Network at the University of Houston (patterned after the well-known Innocence Project founded by lawyer Barry Scheck of O.J. Simpson case fame), says their organization is careful when choosing cases and concerns itself with victims as well as the worthiness of causes. The network is one of many such organizations that have cropped up at law schools in recent years along with DNA technology, which can provide powerful new and possibly exculpatory evidence.

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