On April 14, 1995, a truck driver named Allen Ray Jenkins was found dead in his home in Aulander, North Carolina. He had been shot. Jenkins had a record of sex with underage girls, and in July, police interviewed Crystal Morris and Shanna Hall, two 15-year-old girls who often went to Jenkins’s house to drink. The girls were interviewed numerous times and told several conflicting stories, but both eventually said they had been accomplices in a plot to rob Jenkins. According to the girls, Hall’s boyfriend James Alan Gell had devised the plan, and had then killed Jenkins on April 3 when attempting the robbery. In exchange for this testimony, police dropped charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy; both girls later pled guilty to second-degree murder. Gell was charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, armed robbery, and conspiracy to commit armed robbery.
Gell had been in jail since June 25, after he was caught breaking a house-arrest sentence he’d received for stealing a truck. At trial, the prosecution based its case on the testimony of Morris and Hall and a doctor’s testimony stating that, in light of the decomposition of Jenkins’s body, it was likely that he died around April 3. The date of death was very important because Gell had been either traveling or in jail for petty crimes for much of the first two weeks of April, and could only have committed the murder on that one day. A jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to death on March 3, 1998.
Gell’s appeal was denied in 1999, but in 2002 a State Superior Court Judge found that prosecutors had withheld evidence favorable to Gell, and vacated his conviction. Gell was retried in February 2004. At trial, the defense presented key exculpatory evidence that had been previously suppressed, including the testimony of 17 witnesses who said they had seen Jenkins alive after April 3, and a tape recording of Morris saying that she had to make up a story to tell the police. A doctor also testified that, due to the high temperature in the house when Jenkins was found, his body would have decomposed quickly, and he could easily have died on a later date. On February 18, Gell was acquitted of all charges and released.
– Alexandra Gross