On April 13, 1986, 79-year-old Cuba Pauline Martz was found murdered in her home in Aurora, Missouri. Evidence of forced entry was discovered and she had died after she was tied up, beaten and the house set ablaze.
The following day, a major case squad composed of officers from several local law enforcement agencies was assembled to investigate the murder. Almost immediately they focused on 20-year-old Johnny Lee Wilson, whose grandmother played cards with Martz. During two initial interviews, Wilson said he knew nothing about the crime and had been shopping with his mother prior to the fatal fire.
Wilson lived with his mother, worked occasional odd jobs, was mentally impaired, and had attended primarily special education classes in high school.
At the same time, detectives also focused on another local youth, Gary Wall, because he seemed to know early in the evening of April 13 that the victim had been tied up and beaten. This was before the information was made public. Wall was a junior in high school and, like Wilson, attended special education classes and was mentally impaired. Wall had disciplinary problems at school and had been described as a “very skilled liar” by school officials. Following several interrogations, Wall gave a recorded statement saying that Wilson had confessed to Wall that he committed the crime. That same day, Wall passed a polygraph examination regarding this issue.
The police then arranged to pick up Wilson under the pretense of having him identify a lost wallet so they could question him about the murder. Wilson was located at the local movie theater and taken to police headquarters and placed in a windowless interrogation room. Detectives played portions of Wall’s statement to convince Wilson that he had been implicated in the murder.
Wilson continued to deny any involvement in the crime. He insisted that he was at the store with his mother prior to the fire.
One of the detectives, during three subsequent hours of interrogation, told Wilson that he knew what Wilson was thinking because they had an eyewitness who could put him at the scene of the crime before the fire. The detectives asked Wilson leading questions about the murder and strongly rebuked and threatened him when he was unable to answer their questions or gave answers that did not match the facts of the crime. Ultimately—as described by a later court ruling—“a collection of discombobulated facts about the murder evolved into a confession.”
No physical evidence linked Wilson to the crime.
Wilson was arrested and charged with capital murder. On April 30, 1987, after his motion to suppress his confession was denied, Wilson pled no contest (under which he maintained his innocence, but agreed that the prosecution had evidence that was sufficient to convict him) to a charge of first-degree murder to avoid the death penalty. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Numerous local residents believed Wilson was innocent, including bail bondsman Warren Ormsby. In 1988, a Kansas inmate that Ormsby had bailed out in the past called Ormsby and said that while he was in prison, he met another inmate, Chris Brownfield, who admitted he killed Martz.
At the time, Brownfield was in prison for robbing, beating and murdering an elderly woman in her Kansas home just 16 days after Martz's killing. That victim lived about an hour’s drive from Aurora.
In 1989, Wall recanted his statement, saying that he did not talk to Wilson in the days following the crime and that Wilson never confessed to him. Wall said that the police first suggested Wilson’s name to him as the criminal and that he was “tricked” into providing details about the crime that he did not know. Moreover, Wall said that the police threatened to put him in jail if he did not implicate Wilson and promised him a reward if he did.
For the next five years, lawyers for Wilson sought a new trial, presenting evidence of Brownfield’s admissions (which were recorded), Wall’s recantation, and a deeper and broader understanding of Wilson’s mental impairment. The petition for a new trial was denied by the Missouri Court of Appeals and the Missouri Supreme Court.
Wilson’s lawyers and Wilson’s mother then filed a petition requesting that Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan pardon Wilson. In September 1995, after conducting an independent investigation, Carnahan granted Wilson a full pardon, stating: “As a result of an intense investigation conducted by my office, I have decided to issue a pardon to Johnny Lee Wilson because it is clear he did not commit the crime for which he has been incarcerated.” Wilson was then released.
In 2003, Wilson settled a federal civil rights lawsuit against Lawrence County for $615,000.
– Maurice Possley