Bad Apples

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

Prosecutors said that Cummings was never clear on the timing, but nothing precluded the trio from arriving at the Morgan trailer later in the afternoon. The members of the jury heard about Wilson's hospital alibi, and they weren't convinced that it proved he was not at the nearby crime scene the same day.

Cummings also claims that Wilson and Kelly stayed in the Rusk trailer on the night of the murders. She said the next morning, Wilson and Kelly left for Waco and that they were there for two days. But, Strong says, Longview police ticketed Wilson for speeding on the afternoon of May 2, which means he could not possibly have been in Waco as Cummings said.

Cummings claimed it was dark when they used drugs a second time on the day of the murders and when they got back to the Morgans' trailer. But, with daylight-saving time, it would not have gotten dark until after 8:30 p.m. If the killers had gotten there after 8:30, the Morgans would probably have already eaten dinner, which autopsies showed they hadn't. Plus, police found no lights on in the trailer, which indicates it wasn't dark during the murders, she says.

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.

In each instance, prosecutors counter that the jury heard Strong's competing claims during the trial but nevertheless voted to convict.

But Strong says that prosecutors ignored possibly exculpatory forensic evidence, the hairs with "negroid" characteristics and witness accounts of black men around the trailer. Prosecutors counter that the men and the hairs were investigated. Nothing tied them to the crime.

Strong also says that none of the bodies had burn marks that would be characteristic of gunshot wounds at a range as close as Cummings describes. The burn marks are, however, consistent with shots from a .22-caliber pistol, according to an expert in gunshot wounds.

The "floating heart" pendant found in the possession of the men in the Silverado is a key point to Strong. Brenda Morgan was known to often wear a similar necklace, and if the one from the truck isn't hers, then Brenda's necklace, which she frequently wore, has never been found. Strong also notes that most of the "facts" that Cummings seemed to know about a missing coffeepot, some decorative butterflies and details of the inside of the trailer and murder scene were in the newspapers at the time of the murders. Other information, like the missing items or the presence of a vacuum cleaner in the living room and a potty chair in the boy's room, could have been shown to her in police photographs, and she could have been coached for other testimony, Strong says.

Prosecutors said she could have been coached, but she wasn't. The jury believed Cummings in two separate trials.

Steve Kelly, Al's brother, testified that the three came to the house late after the murders, but he also testified that he saw Al Kelly severely "pistol whip" Jerry Morgan a couple of days before the murders. But, Morgan had no bruises on his body that backed that up, Strong says. Steve and Al Kelly had a long-running feud. That's why Steve testified. The jury, however, heard about the pistol whipping and the autopsy reports. They believed Steve Kelly.

Neither prosecutor David Brabham nor Simpson would talk publicly in detail about the case because they are now both judges in Gregg County and their comments could violate the judicial code of ethics, they said.

But, one person close to the prosecution says, the passing years make it easy to now poke holes in cases that took so much time to build. A jury was legally chosen, and those men and women voted for convictions after hearing the evidence live in a courtroom and arguments by defense attorneys.

This is perhaps what makes efforts such as Strong's so attractive to crusaders and distasteful to those working in the legal system. She and others like her are essentially second-guessing the legal system and revisiting facts often gone cold.

That's why the introduction of DNA evidence in cases such as these is about the only thing besides new evidence that can help those such as Kelly and Wilson prove their innocence. And, in this case, too, it appears DNA is what both men and Strong are hoping above all other things will lead to exoneration.

Refined DNA tests were unavailable in 1991 but are currently under way on the "negroid" crime scene hairs. Kelly's lawyer has also asked the court to allow the necklace to be tested for DNA as part of Kelly's final appeal process. Today's DNA testing is so sensitive that material as small as a pinhead from many years ago can possibly be retrieved from such a necklace and tested, a forensics expert at GeneScreen Inc. in Dallas says.

"It should still be quite useful for DNA testing," said Judy Floyd, forensic manager at GeneScreen. "There would be a certain amount [of skin cells] that would be needed for testing, but it's so much less than it used to be."

If the hairs match either of the men in the stolen truck or if the necklace matches Brenda Morgan, then the stolen Silverado could be linked to the crime scene and Cummings' story would fall apart. Kelly, Wilson and Strong are all putting their hope into the tests, which will be completed within the next couple of months.

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