On November 1, 1986, the body of 18-year-old part-time clerk Ronda Morrison was found under a rack of clothing at Jackson Cleaners in Monroeville, Alabama. Morrison, who was white, had been bludgeoned, strangled and shot three times. About $35 was missing.
Several months later, police arrested 30-year-old Ralph Myers, a career criminal, on suspicion of murdering a woman in nearby Escambia County. During his interrogation, police said that they had witnesses who would testify that he had committed the Morrison murder along with Walter McMillian, a 46-year old African-American man who was notorious in the community because he had a white girlfriend.
Eventually, Myers gave a taped confession in which he said that he drove McMillian to the scene of the crime and that McMillian went into the building alone. Myers said he heard “popping sounds,” and that when he entered the building he found McMillian, with a gun, standing over the dead body of Morrison and robbing her.
Because the case generated extraordinary publicity in Monroe County, where the white population was 60 percent, the trial was moved to Baldwin County, where whites made up 86 percent of the population. The trial began on August 15, 1988 and lasted only a day and a half.
The only evidence connecting McMillian to the killing was testimony by Myers, in line with his recorded statement, and two other witnesses who claimed to have seen McMillian’s "low-rider" truck outside the building at the time that the crime allegedly occurred. Myers had pled guilty as a conspirator in the murder and received a 30-year prison term.
McMillian presented six alibi witnesses who testified that they had been with him at a family fish fry the entire day. McMillian was convicted by a jury of eleven whites and one African American. The jury recommended a life sentence, but on September 19, 1988, the judge overrode the jury’s recommendation and imposed the death penalty.
McMillian’s conviction and death sentence were affirmed on appeal in 1991. His attorneys, from the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, filed a petition for new trial alleging various constitutional violations. In pursuing those claims, the attorneys obtained the original recording of Myers’ confession. After listening to it, they flipped the tape over and discovered a recorded conversation in which Myers complained bitterly that he was being forced to implicate McMillian, whom he did not know, for a crime neither of them had any role in.
Further investigation revealed that McMillian’s truck had only been converted to a “low-rider” six months after the crime took place, and that prosecutors had concealed information about a witness who had seen the victim alive after the time the prosecutors claimed that McMillian had killed her. In addition, the two witnesses who had testified that they had seen McMillian’s truck retracted their testimony, and admitted that they lied at trial.
On February 23, 1993, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed McMillian’s conviction and ordered a new trial. On March 2, 1993, prosecutors dismissed charges against McMillian and he was released.
McMillian filed a civil lawsuit against state and local officials, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against McMillian, holding that a county sheriff could not be sued for money damages. Subsequently, McMillian settled with other officials for an undisclosed amount. McMillian's case served as a catalyst for Alabama's compensation statute, which was passed in 2001.
McMillian died in 2013.