Bad Apples

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

Kelly, from behind his death row window, says he is certain the hairs or necklace will exonerate him and make him eligible for parole. He leans back in his chair and locks his fingers behind his head, removing from view the Harley Davidson eagle tattoo that covers his forearm.

"I'm telling you, I was not there," he says. "My reputation put me here."

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.

Brenda Morgan's sisters are terribly unhappy with Strong's effort to blindly wade into the judicial system and overturn convictions because they know the DNA tests won't exonerate anybody except the two African-American men in the stolen Silverado. They say they wish Strong would stop what she's doing and find another "hobby," like saving dogs or cats.

"If I thought somebody was in there innocent, and I truly believed it after I sat through the trials, I would say wait a minute, there's something not right here," says Cheryl McGrede, Brenda Morgan's sister.

McGrede doesn't hide her anger at Strong and said she hardly slept since learning, from a letter Strong sent her, of the effort to exonerate the two men. It bothers her that Wilson's smiling mug shot is on the Web along with what she says is a false account of events. Strong's effort has been so upsetting to her family that she kept it a secret from her father and sent Strong a letter that said as much.

"You still have to contend with it every year anyway because Ron Wilson is up for parole every year. His parole date is set for my sister's [Brenda Morgan's] birthday," she says. "You've got to contend with that already. We shouldn't have to be sitting here telling you how we feel because of something that girl wrote in Corpus Christi."

Hamilton, of the Innocence Network, says the group is familiar with the Kelly-Wilson cases. She would not reveal whether the network is actively investigating but says there has to be proof of innocence such as DNA evidence or other new evidence for her group to take an inmate's case. The group has been selective in which of the 695 cases it chose to investigate in the last two years and even so has yet to free an inmate. Students do initial work, but they need lawyers and professional investigators to do the rest, she says.

"There really isn't anything that an amateur can do except for getting an attorney to take the case pro bono, and then it would be up to the attorney to get the person out of prison," she says. "There has to be a professional somewhere along the line because amateurs such as you or I cannot get into a court of law."

She says the network wants to make sure the innocent are free and guilty are imprisoned, but they are careful with victims.

"We have always had a very strong empathy for the victim. We do not step on anyone's feelings," she says.

Strong may be proven right, but it is more than possible she is wrong about Kelly or Wilson or both of them (in which case, she says, she'd feel "pretty Goddamned stupid"). Besides feeling stupid, she would also have to grapple with the knowledge that her effort caused anguish among the Morgan family members.

Simpson, one of the Kelly-Wilson prosecutors and understandably not a Strong supporter, says revisiting this particular case is just plain misguided.

"I do think that justice was done. I think that the jury spent a lot of time listening to all that evidence, and they evaluated what was presented in court, and they made their decision. That's all we can ask of a jury, and that's all we can ask of a justice system."

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