Bad Apples

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

He lifted the boy above his head and fired a shot into Devin's face, just above his right eye.

"He held the baby out by his arm like that and shot him. And, then, he pointed the gun at me and said I'm next if I didn't get to the fucking truck," she said. "He put the gun to my head and told me to 'get the fuck out.' And then, there was another shot when I was walking out."

She left the trailer and went out and sat in the truck. She was convinced that Kelly would kill her if she did not obey him, she said. She also thought he would kill Wilson if he didn't obey. She saw Kelly and Wilson start taking things from the house--a shotgun, a VCR, a coffeepot, some "butterfly things that go on the wall." Wilson approached the truck. Cummings said she thought he was going to get back into the truck but instead heard Kelly tell Wilson, "You're riding with me," she said.

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.

All she could think of was, "Can I run and get away without being shot by him?"

Kelly said to Cummings, "Just follow me.' That's all he said. 'Just follow me, and you better follow me.' I said, 'All right.'"

Kelly and Wilson left the Morgans' trailer in the Catalina with Cummings following in the pickup truck. They drove to Tyler and stopped near a hospital. Cummings said she was crying so much she could hardly see the road.

After wiping fingerprints off the car, all three got back into the pickup. Kelly had a beer while they drove to his brother Steve's house in Tyler. Kelly wanted to borrow $500 from his brother and they argued about it, she said. Steve Kelly testified that Al Kelly told him he needed the money because they "took out a family."

"He said yeah, that we had to take out a family and it involved a child, and...I said, 'A child,' at which I dropped my beer and spilled my beer," Steve Kelly testified.

They left with the $500 and headed back to their trailer in Rusk.

In the morning, Cummings said, she heard about the murders on her daughter's radio. Kelly and Wilson left for Waco.

She kept living with Kelly after that, and a year later he insisted they marry, "To keep it where I'd know that you were never going to say anything about the murders," she said Kelly told her.

"He says, 'In the state of Texas, if you are married, a wife can't testify against her husband.' He said, 'Then, you know you will be safe.' He said, 'Because I know you've been jittery.' That's what he told me."

The jury, which also heard from two other witnesses who said at different times Kelly bragged about "having to kill a family," didn't spend much time deciding that Al Kelly was guilty or in sentencing him to death. They struggled a bit more with Ronnie Wilson, spending about 11 hours over two days deciding whether he was even at the scene. Largely based on Cummings's testimony and the testimony of Kelly's brother, they decided Wilson was there.

On the living room couch in her Corpus Christi home, Donna Strong sits underneath a heap of court documents. She pulls a single sheet of paper from a stack, and then another, and another, making a comment or penciling into a notebook when she finds something that fits a piece of the massive puzzle she's assembled. Here, in the pages strewn on and around her and in the volumes stored in half a dozen milk crates in another room, is the physical evidence of Strong's passionate yearlong quest for what she believes is justice.

"Where's the affidavit?" she asks, exasperated. "Oh, son of a biscuit. Way too many papers around this place."

She bolts up, brushes strands of her bright red curly hair from her face and strides purposefully from the room. A moment later, she emerges from her office, a converted garage attached to the main house. The office, painted lime green, is where Strong keeps her desk, her computer, her books and most of her case against Gregg County and the state of Texas. With the missing affidavit in hand, Strong returns to the couch and dives back into the story of her efforts to expose truth, to save a life, to set a man free.

Strong is working mightily to exonerate Wilson and to a much lesser extent, Kelly. She says nothing ever put Wilson at the crime scene with the exception of Cummings' testimony, which she says was full of holes.

One of Strong's "babies" (what she calls her students at Del Mar College) first told her about Ronnie Wilson and Al Kelly. A friend of a friend had been in prison with Wilson and gave Strong, who teaches journalism and a seminar in justice, the first batch of what would become her huge collection of documents. She looked over the case material "as a totally objective outside source," she says.

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