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."
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 Rosharon100 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.
Hamilton says there is little chance a nonprofessional could do something harmful in a legal sense to an innocence investigation, but victims are at risk and so is the future reception of such efforts, which seem to be increasingly popular.
"If something goes wrong, one apple could spoil the whole bunch," she says. "If somebody does something wrong, it could reflect badly on not just our program but all programs of this type."
Jerry and Brenda Morgan lived in a mobile home in rural Gregg County northwest of Longview. The couple were popular with their large, extended families. Jerry was "kind of loud" and a "know-it-all" on first impression, but those who knew him found he was "softhearted and...would do anything anyone asked him to do," one family member says. Brenda was a homebody who liked to embroider and refurbish old furniture. Their 21-month-old son, Devin, was "all boy, full of just play and life."
On the morning of April 30, 1984, a Monday, Brenda Morgan went to a new job in a physical therapist's office. Jerry dropped his son off at his parents' house nearby and then went to his job as a plumber. Jerry clocked out of work at 5:30 p.m. Brenda Morgan left work at 6:05 p.m. They picked up Devin before 6:30. That night, a sister called them but got no answer.
The next morning, Jerry Morgan's parents waited for him to drop off Devin as usual, but he never showed up. They started to worry and then telephoned. No one answered.
After a while, family members drove to the trailer. They looked through Devin's bedroom window and saw Brenda and Jerry lying on the floor head to foot and Devin lying across Jerry's chest. They had been shot.
Frantic relatives flagged down Mike Owens, a meter reader who was working in the area. They told him to go check the trailer because "a whole family has been murdered."
Owens told the Longview News-Journal, "The whole room [Devin's bedroom] was a mess, but there was a big pool of blood in the hall, and it looked like they had been dragged from the hall into the bedroom. I checked the baby to make sure it was dead, and it was...I just made sure the baby wasn't alive and got out of there. It was pretty bad."
Jerry Morgan had been shot five times, Brenda Morgan was shot once in the back of the neck, and Devin Morgan was shot twice in the face. They had all been shot with .22-caliber bullets. None of them had any food in their stomachs, which to police meant they hadn't eaten dinner before they were killed. That was something that would be important to the defense later.
Two folded towels had been placed under Brenda Morgan's head, and she was in her bare feet. A bullet was found fired into the floor next to Jerry Morgan's head. Hairs with "negroid-type" characteristics, according to a description by a forensics expert, were found on the towels and in the living room.
The front door was damaged, and there were bloodstains on a baseboard and a trail of blood down the mobile home's narrow hallway leading to the boy's room. Some guns, a VCR, coffeemaker, lamp, alarm clock, some decorative brass butterflies and the Morgans' Pontiac Catalina were missing. One neighbor said she heard her dogs barking at something around 9:30 p.m. on the night of the murders. Another would testify that he saw what appeared to be an African-American man around the Morgan house that day and that there were "a bunch" of cars around the house. According to another witness, an African-American was driving the Morgans' car near their house on the evening of the murders. That would be just about all police would publicly say anybody saw or heard until about seven years later.
At first, the most promising lead was the Morgans' missing Pontiac, which police hoped would give them something the crime scene couldn't--physical evidence that would lead them to a suspect. On Wednesday morning the car turned up on a street near a hospital in Tyler. Police found baby clothes, some diapers and "smudges" from the car but no fingerprints or any other physical evidence. Police learned that on the night of the murders a Ford Silverado pickup had been stolen about a block away from the spot where police found the Catalina. On the chance that it was related, they launched a search.
Two days later, police in Grand Prairie found the Silverado. Two black men were in the truck. A "floating heart" pendant necklace was found in the possession of the men and was initially identified by Brenda Morgan's family as belonging to her, though family members later said the necklace wasn't hers after all. Police questioned the men but soon ruled them out as suspects in the murders.
Though police continued to follow leads and tips, the case quickly went cold. Or so they said. They told the public they had no motive, no leads and no suspects, but they did have at least one suspect. His name was Alvin Kelly, a known drug dealer and resident "badass" whom police felt was entirely capable of committing the killings.
Inside a cardboard evidence box at the Gregg County Courthouse are the mangled bullets that killed Jerry, Brenda and Devin Morgan. There are hair samples, a bloodstained piece of the Morgans' mobile home floor and an 8-by-10-inch color picture of Cynthia "May" Cummings, now Alvin Kelly's ex-wife.
Cummings, whose most recently listed telephone was disconnected and who could not be located by the Dallas Observer, was the product of a tumultuous upbringing. She dropped out of high school when she was 16, shortly after her mother died, and started smoking marijuana and drinking. The poorly educated daughter of a truck driver, she married young, became pregnant and continued partying until she became addicted to hard-core drugs, she later testified.
At about the time the photograph was taken, Cummings was just getting to know the longhaired, heavily bearded Al Kelly. Kelly considered himself dangerous, and according to his own recollection, was a "John Dillinger" of East Texas.
When Cummings met Kelly, he made a modest living as a diesel mechanic. Cummings characterized Kelly as "charming" and hardworking. Their "partying" usually consisted of sitting around at Cummings' home with Kelly drinking beer and Cummings drinking vodka, Cummings testified.
Things changed after Kelly moved in with her. He began sharing "black mollies" (speed pills) with Cummings and introduced her to methamphetamine. Cummings became a regular user, shooting up meth sometimes a couple of times a day and staying up all night with Kelly, helping him in his shop.
It wasn't long before Kelly gave up the repair business and started dealing drugs full time, she testified. Kelly carried a gun in a holster and "ran the roads." Cummings' job was to watch his back, according to court documents. They began moving often, living in trailers or cheap apartments.
In the winter of 1985, more than a year after the murders, Cummings and Kelly were living in the back of a pickup truck camper outside Kelly's mother's house. Kelly was arrested on a warrant for auto theft and Cummings for camping in the city.
Because the Morgan killings remained unsolved, everybody detained in Longview, including Cummings and Kelly, was asked about the Morgans. When Longview Patrol Sergeant Roy Bean asked Cummings about the Morgan murders, she told him she had information but didn't want to talk without a guarantee of immunity from prosecution.
"I had numerous conversations with her, and it was clear to me that she was present at the murder scene because she knew details about the murders that were never made public," Bean says in an affidavit. "She made it clear to me that she would talk about the Morgan murders as long as she could be promised immunity."
Bean passed the information on to the district attorney's office, but they could do little more without more evidence or Cummings' cooperation.
Police suspected Kelly in the Morgan killings, and they also believed he killed a roommate less than three weeks after the Morgans were murdered. The roommate's body was found with .22-caliber bullet wounds, his truck was torched, and at about that same time, Kelly showed up at a hospital with severe burns.
In 1990, seven years after the murders, Cummings finally became persuaded to give police information. It helped that Kelly had just started serving a 25-year prison sentence for aggravated sexual assault and that they were divorced. After Cummings came forward, Kelly quickly made a deal with prosecutors. He pleaded guilty to killing the roommate and was given 30 more years in prison.
Now Cummings was ready to testify in the Morgan case. She had moved to Michigan and supposedly stopped doing drugs by this time. As part of her testimony, she confessed that she was at the scene of the Morgan murders with Kelly and that she helped cover it up.
To some of those familiar with both of the trials for the Morgan killings, it seemed incredible that Cummings would agree to be flown in from out of state, take the witness stand and talk without being threatened into it by prosecutors or promised legal protection. But Cummings swore that no one made her any deal that would protect her from prosecution. She didn't even have a lawyer.
Prosecutors said the only reason Cummings didn't talk before is because she was terrified of Kelly. With Kelly locked up for three decades, she was convinced she was protected.
When Cummings appeared on the witness stand, she was no longer the rough-looking drug abuser known to Alvin Kelly or Ronnie Wilson, a friend who did drugs with them. Wilson says angrily that they "cleaned her up" to make her look like a schoolteacher.
No one had publicly told what happened when the Morgans were killed, and Cummings would take the jury into the trailer along with Kelly and Wilson on the night of the murders.
On the morning of April 30, 1984, Cummings said, she woke up at a trailer in Rusk. Wilson, a relatively new friend, showed up there just after noon. All three of them injected meth, as usual.
After staying at the trailer until about three or four in the afternoon, Kelly told Cummings, "Get your shoes on. You're going with us."
He told her they were going to "take care of business." Kelly put his .22-caliber revolver into a holster and harness. He was wearing a pair of black gloves, as he often did, she testified.
The three drove about 60 miles to Longview and directly to the Morgans' trailer near Spring Hill, arriving at about 5 p.m., she said. In the yard outside the trailer, near Devin's swing sets, Cummings saw the Morgans' blue Pontiac Catalina, a truck and another car.
Kelly told Wilson, a childhood friend of Jerry Morgan's, to go to the trailer door.
"I want you to go up to the door because you know I'm not allowed there," Cummings recalled Kelly saying.
With the truck running, Wilson went to the door and knocked. The trailer door opened and Cummings said she saw a man's arm but no face. Wilson stood on the small front porch and talked. Wilson kept looking back at the truck and motioning with his hands. He had an angry expression on his face, she said.
He came back to the truck, and they backed out of the Morgans' driveway, stopped at a convenience store for beer and then went to Kelly's mother's house in Longview. At about dusk, they returned to the truck and drove to a back road.
Cummings recalled using a small flashlight to draw three syringes full of methamphetamine for them.
Wilson was disoriented briefly from taking more of the drug than he was used to, but he was alert after that, Cummings said. The three of them "rode for a little bit longer."
"And then, Al asked Ronnie if he was ready. And Ronnie goes, 'I guess.' And we went back to the Morgans'. It was later though, and it was almost dark already, pretty dark."
They pulled up to the trailer for a second time and turned the truck's engine off, she said. Kelly took a packet of methamphetamine powder from his T-shirt pocket and gave it to Cummings, she said.
"He said, 'Hold onto this. We'll be out in a little bit. Play the radio. You can listen to the radio.'"
She didn't know the Morgans and thought Kelly and Wilson might be at the trailer to get drugs.
"I was turning the channels, trying to find something. I heard a gunshot," she said. She turned off the radio, got out of the truck and went up to the trailer.
"I heard a baby crying. I mean there was some screaming," she said. She heard Kelly yelling, "Shut your fucking mouth, bitch."
She went into the trailer and saw that Kelly had Brenda Morgan pinned against the hallway wall with one arm against her back. He told her to "shut her fucking mouth," and he was laughing, Cummings said.
Devin was sitting on the living room floor, crying. Wilson was standing to the right of the front door at a kitchen counter that separated the kitchen from the living room. Wilson, who did not have a gun that night, according to Cummings, had a "confused or shocked" look on his face and had his hands in his pockets. Jerry Morgan was already dead or nearly so, lying on the floor in Devin's bedroom with multiple gunshot wounds.
Cummings said she went to Devin and picked him up.
Brenda was still cussing at Kelly. "He liked that," Cummings said, "and he laughed, and he shot her."
Kelly shot Brenda in her neck, and she fell down onto her back, Cummings said. Brenda was still conscious when Kelly picked up her bare feet and started dragging her down the hall. Brenda pleaded for help. Cummings put the crying Devin onto a chair and followed Kelly as he dragged Brenda to the back bedroom. Jerry Morgan was lying there, faceup and apparently dead, she said. Brenda was also faceup and drowning in her own blood. Cummings went to the bathroom and got a towel, which she put under Brenda Morgan's head.
Cummings remembered that Brenda was wearing brown bell-bottom pants and had bare feet. Cummings testified that she remembered the pants because she recalled thinking that bell-bottom pants were out of style and the feet because she thought Brenda's feet were unusually small. She returned to the living room and picked up Devin, she testified. Seconds later, Kelly appeared behind her.
"What the fuck are you doing?" he asked.
"I said, 'I want to take the baby and put it at least on somebody's doorstep.' The baby was crying."
"Please let me take the baby," Cummings said she begged. "I asked him again. I was going to run with it, but I was afraid he would be shot anyway. That's why I didn't run out with him. I said, 'He's crying.' Al said, 'There's only one way to shut a fucking kid up.'"
Kelly grabbed one of Devin's arms and yanked him from Cummings.
"I was holding on him tight. He did pull him hard, and I was afraid he was going to hurt his arms, not thinking he was going to shoot him anyway," she said.
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.
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.
"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.
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."
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.
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.
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 prosecutorDavid 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.
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."
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."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.