What happened to Walter McMillian in a small Alabama town in 1987 has long been pointed to as a classic example of a miscarriage of justice.
Despite the lack of any physical evidence linking McMillian to the murder of a white clerk named Ronda Morrison, he was arrested for the crime more than six months after it took place. Then, despite the lack of physical evidence linking him to the killing or even a motive, he was found guilty, with a nearly all-white jury sentencing him to life in prison. In an even more outlandish and horrifying move, the judge assigned to the case implemented a little-known rule allowing him to override the jury’s recommendation and instate a sentence of his own.
Judge Robert E. Lee Key, Jr. — who'd already used his power to make sure that McMillian was not tried in his home county of Monroe, which was 40 percent black, but in Baldwin instead, a county that was only 13 percent black — ordered that McMillian be put to death, according to The New York Times. McMillian returned to death row — where he’d already been placed, prematurely, following his arrest — where he spent the next six years before, after several attempts at an appeal, he was finally exonerated in 1993.
McMillian’s story is one of the most well-known cases of wrongful conviction, one that is being retold in the upcoming drama, “Just Mercy,” starring Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan. While McMillian passed away in 2013, his story continues to captivate and enrage audiences, and questions remain.
Here’s what happened to some of the key players in the case, from the sheriff who first arrested McMillian to the prosecutor who tried the case.
Sheriff Thomas “Tom” Tate
Sheriff Tom Tate was the one to first take McMillian into custody in June 1987, more than six months after Ronda Morrison was killed. McMillian, who repeatedly maintained his innocence, tried to inform Tate of his alibi shortly after he was taken into custody, telling the sheriff that he was at a fish fry on the morning Morrison was killed, The Washington Post reports in a piece that does not mention the sheriff by name.
Tate, however, told McMillian, “I don't give a d-mn what you say or what you do. I don't give a d-mn what your people say either. I'm going to put twelve people on a jury who are going to find your godd-mn black ass guilty.”
In 1998, years after McMillian was released, Tate was still the sheriff in Monroe County, according to the Associated Press. He also stood firmly by his decisions regarding McMillian’s case.
McMillian filed a lawsuit against Tate (and other state officials), suing him for $7.2 million over alleged civil rights violations, and Tate’s lawyer, in response, told the outlet, “Sheriff Tate committed no wrongful act of any kind and should be commended for the way he conducted the case.”
The Supreme Court ultimately ruled against McMillian, but before his death in 2013, he reached out-of-court settlements with a number of officials, according to The National Registry of Exonerations.
Sheriff Tate went on to make headlines in 2018 as one of numerous Alabama sheriffs who benefited from a little-known state law that allows sheriffs to pocket any so-called leftover money from the allocated funds they are given to buy food for inmates, AL.com reports. Tate in particular took home $110,459.77 in “excess” funds over a three-year period, according to court documents obtained by the outlet.
When contacted by the website, Tate defended his actions, remarking, in part, “I do it just like the law tells us to. That's about all I have to say about that.”
Beginning in 2019, Sheriff Tom Boatwright has served Monroe County, according to local records. Other online records show that Tate did not run for reelection in 2019. He chose to retire after 30 years, having never lost a bid for reelection, according to a story published by The Bitter Southerner.
District Attorney William Thomas “Tommy” Chapman
Chapman took office in 1990, two years after McMillian was already found guilty, according to the Associated Press. Speaking to the outlet in 1998, he admitted that the case had been mishandled, with “a lot of things that are real stupid” being done by investigators, like moving the body and otherwise contaminating the crime scene.
He did not prosecute McMillian’s case and, although he joined the effort to have McMillian’s charges dismissed, he denied that anyone had purposefully framed McMillian, according to a 1993 report from The New York Times, published after McMillian was set free.
“It just mushroomed into a horrible mistake,” he told the outlet. “I don’t want to call it that. A horrible incident.”
He went on to say that McMillian being set free proved that the system works, a claim that McMillian’s lawyers disagreed with.
Chapman continued to serve as the District Attorney of the 35th Judicial Circuit until 2012, when he stepped down after successfully winning four previous reelection campaigns, AL.com reports. Governor Robert Bentley then named Chapman a supernumerary district attorney, a type of quasi-retirement wherein retired elected officials continue to collect a salary but are liable to be called to practice if needed, or perform other tasks, according to the outlet.
He passed away in 2017.
District Attorney Theodore “Ted” Pearson
A month before McMillian was exonerated in March 1993, Theodore Pearson, who was District Attorney at the time of prosecuting McMillian’s case, was found by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to have suppressed evidence that the defendant’s legal team had requested, thereby violating his right to due process.
Still, in 1993, he defended his role in the case and put the bulk of the responsibility for the outcome at the feet of the jury, according to ABA Journal. Speaking to the magazine, he said that framing McMillian for a crime he didn’t commit was the “last thing” he would do, and remarked, “All I did is put the evidence I had in front of a jury. It was their decision to convict him, not mine.”
Pearson held a similar viewpoint when speaking to the Associated Press in 1998; he was an assistant district attorney in Mobile, AL at that point, according to the outlet.
“I thought he was guilty,” he said of the case. “I did what I was supposed to do. The grand jury thought he was guilty. And the jury convicted him.”
Pearson seems to have been working as an attorney as recently as 2018, according to one story published by local outlet, The Outlook, where Pearson was quoting as being one of the legal representatives of a family pursuing a multi-million dollar civil rights suit.
Today, the website for the Alabama Bar Association lists Pearson as being “inactive” since Oct. 2019, meaning he no longer practices law.
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