Innocent man released after serving 6 years for murder

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March 03, 1993|By New York Times News Service

BAY MINETTE, Ala. -- Walter McMillian walked out of a courtroom here yesterday a free man after prosecutors conceded that he had spent six years awaiting execution on Alabama's Death Row because of perjured testimony and evidence withheld from his lawyers.

Whether he was also put there for being a black man who violated the racial and sexual taboos of the small-town South is only one of the issues swirling around the case, which has also raised larger questions of race and justice.

Almost everything about Mr. McMillian's conviction in 1987 for the shooting death of an 18-year-old white female store clerk now seems extraordinary. From the start, the case was enveloped in a volatile mixture of race and sex stemming from Mr. McMillian's involvement with a white woman. Mr. McMillian, who is 46, was locked up on Death Row even before he was tried. The state built a case on suspect testimony and withheld crucial evidence that called that testimony into question.

In the end, it was a decision by the trial judge, Robert E. Lee Key Jr., to treat Mr. McMillian as harshly as possible, that allowed Mr. McMillian to win his freedom. If the jury's sentence of life in prison without parole had been left in place, Mr. McMillian might have been another forgotten black inmate in an Alabama prison. But Judge Key overruled the jury and condemned Mr. McMillian to die in the electric chair. Because of the death sentence, Mr. McMillian's case was vigorously appealed, and the truth came to light.

"I think everybody needs to understand what happened because what happened today could happen tomorrow if we don't learn some lessons from this," said his lawyer, Bryan Stevenson. "It was too easy for one person to come into court and frame a man for a murder he didn't commit. It was too easy for the state to convict someone for that crime and then have him sentenced to death. And it was too hard in light of the evidence of his innocence to show this court that he should never have been here in the first place."

Mr. McMillian's case, which was given national attention last fall on the CBS News program "60 Minutes," played out in Monroeville, Ala., best known as the home of author Harper Lee, whose "To Kill a Mockingbird," told a painful story of race and justice in the small-town Jim Crow South.

To many of his defenders, Mr. McMillian's conviction for the killing seemed like an updated version of the book, in which a black man was accused of raping a white woman.

There were no immediate suspects after Ronda Morrison was murdered on the morning of Nov. 1, 1986, in a dry cleaning store. Eight months later, the police arrested Ralph Myers, 30, who has a long criminal record, in connection with another killing in nearby Escambia County. After a week of grilling by police, Mr. Myers accused Mr. McMillian, a pulpwood worker, as Ms. Morrison's killer.

Mr. McMillian was arrested, and in an extraordinary move, was immediately sent to Alabama's Death Row, in Holman State Prison, Atmore, which is usually reserved for convicted murderers awaiting execution.

Mr. McMillian was convicted after a one-and-a-half-day trial on the testimony of three witnesses.

Mr. Myers testified that Mr. McMillian asked him for a ride to the cleaning store. There, Mr. Myers said, he witnessed the murder. Another criminal suspect testified that he saw Mr. McMillian's "low rider" truck near the cleaner's, and a third man implicated Mr. McMillian.

Mr. McMillian's lawyer called a dozen witnesses, who all testified he was at home the day of the murder taking part in a fish fry. But despite that testimony and the lack of physical evidence, he was found guilty.

Judge Key, citing the "vicious and brutal killing of a young lady in the first full flower of adulthood" changed the life sentence to death, as allowed under Alabama law.

Mr. McMillian, who had two jobs and no criminal record other than a misdemeanor charge stemming from a barroom fight, did not have a history of violence, but he was well known in town. Mr. McMillian, who is married with three children from his current marriage and has nine children altogether, was dating a white woman named Karen Kelly. And one of his sons had married a white woman.

Both Mr. McMillian and his lawyer at the original trial, J.L. Chestnut, contended that Mr. McMillian's relationships alone had made him a suspect.

"The only reason I'm here is because I had been messing around with a white lady and my son married a white lady," he said last week in a prison interview.

Inquiries by Mr. Stevenson and by Alabama Bureau of Investigation agents have since discredited every element of the prosecution's case. All three prosecution witnesses have recanted their testimony.

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