Walter McMillian: Just Mercy’s Most Inspiring Case

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Who is Walter McMillian in the book Just Mercy? Why is his case so famous?

In Just Mercy, Walter McMillian is described as an inmate who was wrongfully convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. Lawyer and author Bryan Stevenson took an interest in McMillian’s case since he believed racial bias was involved in his conviction.

Continue reading to learn more about the McMillian case, from the initial arrest to freedom.

The Walter McMillian Case

Walter McMillian, Just Mercy‘s main subject, was a Black man from Monroeville, Alabama. In 1988, at age 46, McMillian was wrongly convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. McMillian’s case illustrates several of Just Mercy’s underlying themes: the racial biases entrenched in the criminal justice system, the use of dubious evidence and tactics to win convictions, and the lasting harm suffered by those wrongfully imprisoned.

Background Information: The Crime, the Arrest, and the Trial

To begin, we’ll discuss the case itself, including the crime, McMillian’s arrest, and the trial. Because we’ll examine the case’s nuances in the following sections, we’ll start by introducing it in the broadest terms.

The crime that McMillian was convicted of occurred on November 1, 1986, when 18-year-old Ronda Morrison was shot and killed at the dry cleaning shop she worked at in Monroeville, Alabama. However, Stevenson relates that police exhausted their leads within weeks, and after seven months still hadn’t made any arrests. Consequently, the local public grew restless, publicly criticizing authorities for their failure to solve the case.

The following summer, local criminal Ralph Myers was implicated in the unconnected murder of Vickie Pittman, a young woman from a nearby county. However, when police interrogated Myers—a pathological attention-seeker—for his role in Pittman’s murder, he made a shocking confession: He had also taken part in Morrison’s murder.

In particular, Myers alleged that on the day Morrison was murdered, he encountered McMillian at a local gas station, and McMillian forced him to drive to Jackson Cleaners, where Morrison worked. Further, Myers alleged that after McMillian left Jackson Cleaners, he confessed to murdering Morrison while inside. Then, according to Myers, McMillian forced him to drive back to the original gas station, where McMillian’s car was parked.

Though Myers’s story was rife with inconsistencies, Stevenson observes that police had grown desperate to quiet public criticism and solve the Morrison case. Consequently, in June of 1987, Monroeville police arrested McMillian on the basis of Myers’ allegation.

Over a year after his arrest, McMillian went to trial in August of 1988 for capital murder, and after only three hours of deliberation, the jury found McMillian guilty as charged. Moreover, although they recommended a sentence of life in prison, Judge Robert E. Lee Key overruled the recommendation, sentencing McMillian to death.

(Shortform note: McMillian’s experience of having a life sentence changed to capital punishment via judicial override is representative of a larger trend: According to the EJI’s 2011 report, 21% of the inmates on Alabama’s death row were sentenced via judicial override.) 

How Racial Bias Affected the Case

Stevenson’s discussion of the case suggests that racial biases were partially responsible for McMillian’s arrest, conviction, and death sentence. More generally, he says, McMillian’s case reveals that racial bias undermines the integrity of the legal system.

First, Stevenson notes that in the weeks before Morrison’s murder, news broke of McMillian’s affair with a white woman, Karen Kelly. According to Stevenson, this affair caused public disgrace for McMillian: Though the Supreme Court found anti-miscegenation statutes unconstitutional in 1967’s Loving v. Virginia, Alabama’s state constitution still banned interracial marriage at that time.

As a result, Stevenson says, both the general public and authorities in particular were heavily biased against McMillian. To show as much, Stevenson observes that when Sheriff Thomas Tate arrested McMillian, he shouted an array of racial slurs and even allegedly told McMillian that he deserved to be lynched.

Moreover, commenting on the crime itself, Stevenson observes that Morrison was a white woman from a reputable local family. As such, the local media and community became heavily invested in the case and yearned for justice for Morrison’s killer.

In addition to influencing McMillian’s arrest, racial biases influenced the trial itself. As Stevenson relates, the judge moved the trial to Baldwin County under the pretense that there was too much coverage of the crime in Monroe County. Baldwin County, however, had the lowest African American population of any nearby county—9%, compared with 72% in nearby Wilcox County, 45% in nearby Clarke County, and 40% in Monroe County itself. This change of venue, Stevenson argues, was devastating for McMillian’s chances of acquittal: The jury that swiftly convicted McMillian had only one African-American member.

Stevenson also argues that racial biases likely affected the judge’s decision to implement the death penalty. To show as much, he cites 1987’s McCleskey v. Kemp, which found that those convicted in Georgia were 11 times more likely to receive the death penalty if their victim was white. In the same vein, he notes that although 65% of Alabama homicide victims are Black, 80% of Alabama’s death row inmates were sentenced for crimes against white people. 

How the Prosecution Relied on Questionable Evidence

While racial bias hurt McMillian’s chances of acquittal, Stevenson argues that authorities’ use of questionable evidence and tactics further tipped the scales against McMillian. In turn, he implies that prosecutors and law enforcement are often willing to subvert the law to win convictions.

These dubious tactics began prior even to McMillian’s arrest. Stevenson asserts that after Myers’s initial confession, authorities decided to arrest McMillian before actually investigating him. Consequently, they needed a pretext for his arrest, so they persuaded Myers to claim McMillian had sexually assaulted him. This allowed Sheriff Tate to initially arrest McMillian for sodomy, despite knowing that Myers fabricated the allegation of sexual assault.

Stevenson notes that after McMillian’s arrest, prosecutors continued to rely on illegitimate tactics to ensure Myers would testify against McMillian. For his part, Myers recanted twice before the trial, telling investigators his testimony was false. But, in an unprecedented move, prosecutors imprisoned Myers on death row to intimidate him. Ultimately, the tactic proved successful: Myers testified against McMillian, despite compelling evidence that the two had never met.

In addition to Myers, district attorney (DA) Ted Pearson relied on one other witness: Bill Hooks, a notorious jailhouse informant. Hooks—who was in jail for burglary—testified that he had seen McMillian’s truck near Jackson Cleaners at the time of the murder. Stevenson mentions that, in return for his testimony, Hooks was promised an expedited release from jail, along with $5,000 in reward money—information which, as we’ll discuss later, wasn’t disclosed to the defense.

Although McMillian had a credible alibi—his family held a fish fry at their house the morning of the murder, and over a dozen church parishioners, along with a police officer, saw McMillian at the house—it wasn’t enough to overcome Myers’s coerced testimony and the testimony of a paid informant. 

The Long Road to Exoneration (when was walter mcmillian released)

Via the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson began representing McMillian shortly after his conviction. Despite various failed appeals from 1990 to 1993, McMillian was released from prison in 1993 after the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his conviction. Yet, given the herculean effort needed to exonerate him, Stevenson suggests that the justice system is far too complacent regarding unjust convictions.

Stevenson first filed a brief to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in 1991. In this appeal, he made various arguments: Myers’s testimony lacked credible corroboration; jury selection was racially discriminatory; the change of venue to Baldwin County was illicit; and finally, the judge’s use of judicial override was improper. However, the Court of Criminal Appeals rejected these arguments, upholding McMillian’s conviction and death sentence.

After the ruling, Stevenson and investigators uncovered more evidence of McMillian’s innocence. For example, they discovered that Hooks was paid $5,000 for his testimony and that the DA and Sheriff Tate released Hooks from prison the day after his testimony; they were legally obligated to disclose this information to the defense, but failed to. 

Additionally, Myers contacted Stevenson directly and recanted his testimony. He further explained that Sheriff Tate and others had threatened him with the death penalty after his two previous recantations. In light of this evidence, Stevenson filed a Rule 32 petition, granting him access to all police and prosecutorial files.

In the Rule 32 hearing, Stevenson presented new evidence of McMillian’s innocence. In particular, he called Myers to the stand, who recanted his original testimony. He also called multiple witnesses who spent time in jail with Myers, whom Myers previously told that his original testimony was fabricated. Crucially, Stevenson presented tapes of Myers in police custody, where Sheriff Tate threatened him if he didn’t testify against McMillian, despite Myers protesting that he had nothing to do with the Morrison murder.

Nonetheless, the presiding judge denied McMillian relief, claiming there wasn’t sufficient evidence that Myers’s original testimony was fabricated. Consequently, Stevenson sought to appeal the decision in the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. 

Meanwhile, Stevenson notes that the new DA—Tom Chapman—had grown doubtful of McMillian’s guilt, ordering an Alabama Bureau of Investigation (ABI) inquiry into the crime. Six months later, ABI investigators revealed their findings: McMillian didn’t kill Ronda Morrison. Six weeks after the ABI’s report, the Court of Criminal Appeals released its verdict: McMillian was wrongly convicted, and he deserved a new trial.

In light of the ABI’s report, however, DA Chapman chose not to re-prosecute McMillian. Rather, the State supported Stevenson’s motion to dismiss all charges against McMillian, leading to his immediate release. On March 2nd, 1993—nearly six years after his original arrest—McMillian was exonerated and released from prison.

The Aftermath of Six Years on Death Row

Despite his exoneration, McMillian’s conviction and time in prison had lasting consequences. Indeed, Stevenson argues that McMillian’s unjust conviction caused him irreversible damage.

First, McMillian’s wife, Winnie, decided to separate from him, so he lived alone in a trailer in Monroe County after his release.

Moreover, although Stevenson filed a civil lawsuit against those involved in McMillian’s prosecution—like Sheriff Tate, the other investigators, and the DA—laws protecting state agents from civil liabilities made it difficult to win compensation. Altogether, McMillian received only a few hundred thousand dollars to compensate for six years imprisoned on death row.

Finally, Stevenson recalls that as McMillian grew older, he developed trauma-induced dementia, requiring constant care. However, because he was convicted of a felony, few nursing homes would accept him—even though he was exonerated. Further, though one nursing home let McMillian stay for 90 days, he suffered hallucinations of death row while there. Although he was released from death row, McMillian’s memories of it left him permanently scarred.

Walter McMillian: Just Mercy’s Most Inspiring Case

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Here's what you'll find in our full Just Mercy summary:

  • An examination of the justice system's failures toward marginalized populations
  • Examples of criminal cases from history that illistrate the failures
  • Possible solutions for repairing the justice system in America

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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