Bad Apples

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

Strong, who comes across as intelligent, sincere and energized, says her interest in the case is based solely on her conviction that Wilson is innocent. That's what motivates her to drive the more than five hours each way to Rosharon to repeatedly go over details of the crime with Wilson. She also hopes to use the case to show her students that the legal system is not perfect and that the wrongly convicted can be helped. She doesn't claim to be an expert in law but says it was immediately clear to her that Wilson was among the innocent imprisoned.

"I approached the project with all due journalistic skepticism, thoroughly prepared for the possibility that Wilson's professions of innocence were false," she says. "However, even though I am not formally trained in the law, I immediately realized that things were terribly wrong. If I can spot these inconsistencies, imagine what a trained professional could find.

"It soon became painfully obvious that there were serious inconsistencies in Wilson's trial and activity verging on official criminality," Strong claims. "...Wilson has spent nearly 11 years in prison for a crime he obviously didn't commit."

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.

She says she believes exculpatory evidence was suppressed, alibi witnesses and evidence were ignored, prosecutors acted illegally, eyewitnesses were coerced, and errors in directions were given to the jury.

"The state of Texas is loath to admit mistakes, particularly in death penalty cases," she says. "However, if the testimony used to convict the two men was false--as I am now convinced it was--it must be exposed as such...And, there is still the issue of the wrongful arrest and imprisonment, which all of us believe must be addressed and corrected. There are some highly unethical, ambitious people in Longview and Gregg County, some of whom rode this case to higher office. That, to me, is unconscionable."

Strong claims that Rebecca Simpson, one of the prosecutors in the case and now a sitting judge in Gregg County, "stirs up public sentiment against" Wilson's release every time he is up for parole.

"I suspect, since she [Simpson] knows full well the extent of the prosecutorial misconduct, she is very worried about what she has to lose if the truth comes out. Though parole would be a welcome first step, Wilson should really receive a pardon."

Simpson says Strong does not know what she is talking about. "I totally deny that I made any effort whatsoever to express my feelings to the parole board one way or another," Simpson says.

In practical terms, what Strong's effort boils down to is a series of challenges to the parts of the case that prosecutors built and presented to juries 10 years ago. Strong characterizes her work as disassembling the evidence "piece by piece" and backs up her claims largely with affidavits collected from Wilson's or Kelly's relatives or those once connected with the case. But many of her claims are based on what she infers from the evidence--what she thinks must have happened--rather than evidence that directly contradicts the prosecution's case. In many instances, it seems, to believe her case one must approach her evidence already convinced that Wilson is innocent, and that approach angers many of those who see it differently.

Strong may have built a case for Wilson with all of the statements she has collected, but the problem is that the judges and juries that convicted Kelly and Wilson also had statements from people who testified under oath at two trials. For each of Strong's arguments in favor of innocence, the prosecution had an answer--then and now.

For instance, Strong is convinced that Cummings received a deal to testify or was threatened by law enforcement. No one involved in a crime would agree to offer self-incriminating testimony without some kind of assurance of immunity, Strong says. In one affidavit, Cummings was overheard saying she was threatened into testifying. In another, Cummings was heard to say she was told she would not be prosecuted if she testified.

Prosecutors, however, have said that Cummings didn't need a deal because she's never been accused of a crime. It isn't a crime to be forced into wiping down a getaway car, nor is it criminal to be forced to watch a murder. She told prosecutors that she came forward because she could not get the sound of the crying baby out of her head.

Strong points out that Cummings first told investigators that after the murders, Kelly took the Morgan car to their Rusk home on a wrecker. Later, she told investigators that they took the car to Tyler and she helped wipe it down. Prosecutors contend Cummings admitted that she lied about what happened with the car after the murders. At first, she was afraid to admit she actually had some role in covering up the crime.

Yet Cummings also claimed that three cars were at the Morgan house in the afternoon when they first visited, at the time both Morgans would have been at work. And Cummings said she spent the afternoon of the killings with Kelly and Wilson and that by nightfall the trio went to the Morgans. Wilson had witnesses who put him at a hospital with a friend's new baby in Longview sometime during that same afternoon, Strong says.

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