The murder case against William M. Kelly, Jr., initially seemed strong. Kelly had given police a written confession. Two eyewitnesses said they had seen him leaving a bar with the victim the night she went missing, and Kelly himself would ultimately plead guilty. Just over two years later, however, new evidence would prove Kelly’s innocence beyond a doubt.
In early February 1990, the body of a young Pennsylvania woman was discovered buried in a landfill near the Dauphin County pauper cemetery by two men training hunting dogs. The victim was last seen the night of January 8th at a local bar with a man resembling Kelly’s description and had been reported missing January 11th. Investigators determined that she had been raped before being clubbed to death with a blunt object and hastily buried in the landfill.
Kelly, then 28-years old, was questioned and later arrested after allegedly making incriminating statements to police investigators. He was also believed to have been at the bar the night of Jeanette Thomas’ murder three days earlier. At one point, Kelly told investigators that the victim had tried to steal money from him and that he killed her with either a board or a tree limb (he wasn’t sure which) after she tried to run away. At first, he told police that he and the victim had not had intercourse. Later, he allegedly said they had intercourse but he didn’t ejaculate. Seminal fluid was recovered from the victim’s body and serological testing excluded Kelly, but prosecutors said they believed he was the perpetrator and had not ejaculated. DNA testing was not yet commonly used in criminal cases, and the serology tests conducted in this case only identified the blood type of the person who had deposited the semen.
Kelly suffered from mental illness, and prosecutors were unsure whether he could have formed the specific intent to commit murder. They offered him a plea bargain, which he accepted once it became clear that his confession would be admitted as evidence against him at trial. Kelly pled guilty to third-degree murder and was sentenced to a 10-20 year prison term.
In August 1992, Joseph D. Miller, who was facing trial for similar murders in the area, led detectives to the same landfill where Thomas’ body had been discovered. There, they found the skeletal remains of two other women. The case against Kelly began to collapse after Miller subsequently confessed to murdering the victim in the Kelly case and the two other women. Dauphin County District Attorney Richard A. Lewis, who had worked on Kelly’s case, ordered a reinvestigation of Thomas’ murder, and subsequent DNA testing implicated Miller as the source of semen on the victim’s body from Kelly’s case. Investigators also noticed that Kelly and Miller looked alike, and each had a similar nasal speech impediment. One witness, who initially identified Kelly as the man who left the bar with Thomas, recanted and identified Miller.
Investigators re-interviewed Kelly, who recanted his confession, but still gave conflicting information regarding his knowledge of the incident. Kelly was also interviewed by a forensic psychologist. The psychologist determined that Kelly suffered from manic depression and chronic alcoholism and had a history of blackouts. The combination of these factors meant Kelly was particularly susceptible to suggestions from police, and therefore might not be able to “distinguish what he did in reality from what the police believed he might have done.” Finally, the psychologist concluded that these psychiatric conditions, combined with Kelly’s low intelligence, created a scenario where Kelly believed he had committed the murder during a blackout and had incorporated information given to him by police into his own memory as to what may have happened.
In light of the compelling evidence of Kelly’s innocence, prosecutors moved to vacate the conviction against him. On January 8, 1993, three years to the day after the victim went missing, a Dauphin County judge vacated Kelly’s conviction and dismissed the indictment.
Miller, though he confessed to murdering Thomas, was never actually charged with the crime. However, he was convicted and sentenced to death for the murders of the two other women discovered in the same landfill. His death sentence was later vacated after his attorneys successfully argued that he could not be executed because he was mentally disabled.
Kelly’s attorney, David J. Foster, would later take up the appeals of another man he believed had been convicted based on a false confession — Barry Laughman. DNA tests exonerated Laughman in 2003 after he had served 16 years in Pennsylvania prisons for a crime he didn’t commit.