A movie being released to a nationwide audience this week is based on a capital murder case that was tried in Baldwin County in 1988. “Just Mercy,” starring Michael B. Jordan and Academy Award-winners Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson, tells the story of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian, who was convicted for the 1986 murder of 18-year-old Rhonda Morrison at a dry cleaners in Monroeville.
The movie is based off a 2015 memoir of the same name written by attorney Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson is a founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, which, since McMillian’s case, has gone on to find exonerations or other relief for at least 130 inmates with capital convictions.
McMillian’s case was heavily tinged with racial overtones — he was black, Morrison was white — and no physical evidence was ever admitted in the case. Investigators in the Morrison murder didn’t identify McMillian as a suspect until more than seven months after her death, when the statements of three unreliable witnesses put him at the scene. One witness, Ralph Myers, was implicated in a separate murder case and claimed he was with McMillian when the defendant shot Morrison during a robbery at the cleaners.
Another, Karen Kelly, was a habitual drug user and former girlfriend of McMillian, and blamed him for destroying her marriage. The third witness, an auto mechanic named Bill Hooks, was released from jail on misdemeanor charges and given approximately $5,000 in reward money after he told police he saw McMillian’s truck at the dry cleaners at the time of the murder.
But McMillian and several other witnesses testified he had an alibi. They said on the morning Morrison was killed, that McMillian was present at a fish fry at his house and the truck allegedly used in the robbery was on cinder blocks while the transmission was being replaced.
The twists and turns in the case are too numerous to detail in this space, but in 1995, journalist and author Pete Earley published a book, “Circumstantial Evidence: Death, Life and Justice in a Southern Town,” which documented most details and went on to win the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and Edgar Allan Poe Award for the best fact crime book.
Last week, Earley discussed the case with Lagniappe, emphasizing that it was really about two murders, the other being the beating death of a poor white girl named Vickie Pittman in Brewton.
“The reason they get Ralph Myers and Karen Kelly and [Hicks] to attack Johnny D. was because of the Vickie Pittman murder,” Earley said, adding investigators suspected both Myers and Kelly had knowledge of the Pittman murder, but they were seeking an arrest in the high-profile Morrison case more, so they pressured both witnesses to implicate McMillian.
“They really didn’t care about a poor, white girl from East Brewton, and were more interested in getting Johnny D. convicted in the death of Rhonda Morrison, who was not poor and was a beautiful young lady from a well-respected family,” Earley recalled.
Earley’s book details how Monroe County and state law enforcement officials, including Sheriff Tom Tate, District Attorney Ted Pearson and investigators Larry Ikner and Simon Benson, built the flimsy case against McMillian.
At trial, noted African American attorneys J.L. Chestnut and Bruce Boynton of Selma argued the defendant could not get a fair trial in Monroeville, so Judge Robert E. Lee Key Jr. granted their motion to have it moved elsewhere. But rather than move it to Conecuh County, which had similar racial demographics as Monroe County at nearly 50 percent black, Key moved it out of the 35th Judicial Circuit altogether to Baldwin County, where only 16 percent of residents were black.
In previous criminal cases he defended, Chestnut would typically work with local black preachers to identify potential jurors who may have been favorable to black defendants. But in McMillian’s case, there was neither time nor money to do so.
Meanwhile “the prosecution … was receiving help from Baldwin County District Attorney David Whetstone and his assistant, Lynn L. Stuart, who had been assigned to help Ted Pearson prosecute the case,” Earley wrote.
Ultimately, a jury of 10 whites and two blacks was seated, comprising eight men and four women. The foreperson was Doris Hansen, a white woman and flower shop owner who lived next door to Whetstone, according to Earley.
The trial lasted a day and a half, and all the witnesses who testified on behalf of McMillian were refuted by a single rebuttal witness, a collections agent for a furniture store who said they were confused about the day of the week his visit to the McMillian property took place.
“After an hour or so of discussion, Hansen suggested [the jury] vote by secret ballot. The results were unanimous,” Earley wrote.
McMillian was found guilty and upon sentencing, the same Baldwin County jury recommended he spend life in prison. But in a decision paving the way for the appeal process that eventually freed him, Judge Key overrode the jury’s recommendation and sentenced McMillian to death.
Stevenson spent six years appealing the conviction, including a 1991 evidentiary hearing back in Bay Minette. By that time, Key had retired and Baldwin County Circuit Court Judge Thomas B. Norton (no relation to current Judge Joseph Norton) was appointed to preside over the hearing.
There, Myers took the stand to recant his testimony against McMillian, while Stevenson also presented proof the prosecution concealed several pieces of exculpatory evidence from McMillian’s trial defense. But in a three-page report to the Court of Appeals, Norton ruled against McMillian, finding there was no clear evidence Myers’ original statements were untruthful. He did not rule on the exculpatory evidence.
“Bryan Stevenson had laid out all the facts; there was so much,” Earley recalled last week. “Just as the original trial made you think [McMillian] was guilty, you could not read what Bryan Stevenson turned up without saying this guy deserved another trial. I do wonder why in the hell your judge down there ruled against it.”
Within months, however, all of the state’s witnesses recanted their testimony and McMillian’s fifth attempt at an appeal was granted. Monroe County District Attorney Tommy Chapman, who had supported the conviction, decided not to bring new charges against McMillian. After a final hearing in front of Judge Pamela Baschab in Bay Minette on Feb. 23, 1993, McMillian was released from prison.
Judge William Bowen, a former member of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, later recalled the case in an article in the Hofstra Law Review.
“I sat on the court that affirmed [McMillian’s] death sentence on appeal,” Bowen wrote in 2008. “At the time, I felt absolutely certain that he was guilty of the crime. Later, however, thanks to the investigation conducted by [Stevenson], evidence was presented proving that McMillian was completely innocent and could not have committed the crime … McMillian’s trial lawyers did little, if any, investigation into the facts of the case, so all I had before me was the government’s evidence and the government’s theory of the case Stevenson’s investigation established, however, that not only had the prosecution presented false evidence to convict him, but that it was nearly impossible for McMillian to have committed the crime. I am now as certain of his innocence as I had been earlier of his guilt.”
In his book, Earley implicates another suspect — one also investigated by the state who matched an FBI criminal profile — but one who was never charged in the case.
Referring to him by the pseudonym of Howard Denmar (“I was advised by a lawyer to use a pseudonym,” Earley explained), the most probable killer was described as a former insurance salesman with a history of sexual violence who maintained an office accross the street from the dry cleaners and kept a constant curiosity about the course of the investigation.
“To this day, there are people in Monroeville who absolutely believe Johnny D. was involved and that Bryan Stevenson just got him off,” Earley said. “But If Johnny D. had been the black mayor of Monroeville rather than a low-level pot dealer and known womanizer, he would have never been charged.”
Lagniappe reached out to several local legal professionals who were involved in the case to some degree, including Stevenson, Whetstone, Stuart, Baschab and Judge George Elbrecht, but some didn’t respond and others didn’t wish to comment on the record. Key died in 2005, Hansen died in 2010 and Chapman died in 2017. Tate served as the sheriff of Monroe County until his retirement in 2018.
Released in select cities last month, the film has received favorable reviews, and currently holds a 79 percent “fresh” rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes.
“I’m excited about seeing the movie, I only have good things to say about Bryan Stevenson,” Earley said. “He is one of the few people I’ve ever met who is just unimpeachable. If the movie portrays him like he really is, people should walk away feeling inspired and blessed.”
But with the resources spent on the case, the author remains perplexed by the state’s decision not to bring charges against other suspects or attempt to solve both murders.
“My only caveat would be that I wish some attention had been paid to the Vickie Pittman case because that was a sad, sad story too,” Earley said. “She’s kind of the forgotten figure in all this.
“Ralph [Myers] was a really tragic character … he came from awful circumstances. But McMillian was framed and he had a tragic life after he was exonerated. He never got a dollar from the state of Alabama and he died poor. I also think it’s tragic the real killer was never caught.”
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