*Spoilers for "Just Mercy" below*
Walter McMillan spent six years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, but even after the Alabama resident was exonerated, he remained tormented by his years behind bars.
McMillan — whose story is depicted in the movie “Just Mercy” premiering Christmas Day 2019 — never got the happy ending he deserved after his release from prison in 1993.
Instead, the Alabama resident spent his final years tormented by dementia that made him believe he was back on death row.
McMillan’s downward spiral began in 1988 when he was arrested for killing 18-year-old Ronda Morrison in Monroeville, Alabama.
Morrison was discovered dead under a rack of clothing in the Jackson Cleaners, where the teen had worked, according to The National Registry of Exonerations. She had been bludgeoned, strangled, and shot three times.
The crime would go unsolved for months, until police arrested 30-year-old Ralph Myers on suspicion of murdering another woman in a nearby county.
Investigators told Myers they believed he was responsible for killing Morrison as well and that they had witnesses that would testify that he committed the act along with McMillan.
McMillan, a 46-year-old black man, was well-known in the community because the married man had been having an affair with a white woman.
Myers eventually told police he and McMillan had driven to the cleaners together, but that McMillan had been the only one to go inside. Myers said in a taped confession that he heard several popping sounds and went into the building where he discovered the white teenager dead.
McMillan was convicted for the murder in a trial that lasted just a day and a half, even though multiple witnesses had said that the 46-year-old had been at a church fish fry at the time of the murder, according to NBC News.
In another unusual move, the judge in the case opted to sentence McMillian to death even though the jury in the case had recommended a life sentence.
The case soon earned the attention of attorney Bryan Stevenson, portrayed in the movie by Michael B. Jordan, who took on the case as part of the Equal Justice Initiative and eventually helped to exonerate McMillian after it was determined that multiple witnesses on the stand had been lying.
McMillian’s attorneys also discovered other recorded segments from Myers' conversation with police where he complained about having to implicate a man he didn’t know for a crime he said neither committed.
McMillian was set free in 1993 after his conviction was overturned by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
He returned to his hometown, where he resumed his work as a tree trimmer, but just two years later, he broke his neck while trimming a tree, according to The New York Times Magazine.
After his injury, McMillan went on partial disability and was able to work part-time taking in junk cars for scrap metal.
In the years after his release from prison, McMillan said it was difficult not to be angry but tried to “get over it” by keeping his mind off the wrongful conviction.
“Sometimes I just want to leave here and never come back,” he said in the 2000 profile in The New York Times Magazine. “A lot of people tell me, ‘Man, I’d leave.’ I tell them: ‘This is my home. I’m innocent.’ If I leave, first thing people say is: ‘He’s guilty. He left.’ I don’t see no reason I should leave my hometown.”
McMillan also said he often ran into the same police officers who were responsible for putting him behind bars.
''I never got an apology. I see them -- the cops -- all the time. I see them on the street, at the fruit stand, they say, 'Hey, Johnny, how ya doing?' They'll wave, just as good as anybody, like nothing happened. Every time I see one, I speak to them just like they speak to me. Ain't no sense in me being mad,” he said.
McMillan’s story of wrongful imprisonment doesn’t end there — shortly after he was released from prison he began to suffer from dementia and spent his last years trapped in his own mind, convinced he was once again back on death row.
“When that comes full circle - and he's sick, and he's in a hospital, and he's saying to me, you got to get me off death row again - it's heartbreaking,” Stevenson said in an episode of “Fresh Air” on NPR. “And one of the things I just wanted people to kind of understand is that we can't continue to have a system of justice defined by error and unfairness and tolerate racial bias and bias against the poor and not confront what we are doing to individuals and to families and to communities and to neighborhoods.”
Stevenson said many of the doctors believed McMillan’s early onset dementia had been trauma-induced.
“I think one of the things that pains me is that we have so tragically underestimated the trauma - the hardship we create in this country when we treat people unfairly, when we incarcerate them unfairly, when we condemn them unfairly,” Stevenson said. “You can't threaten to kill someone every day, year after year and not harm them, not traumatize them, not break them in ways that is really, really profound.”
McMillan died in 2013.
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