Jurors Never Heard of Accomplice Letter in Death Row Case

Jurors Never Heard of Accomplice Letter in Death Row Case
David Wilson. (Alabama Department of Corrections via AP)

MONTGOMERY, Ala.—Sixteen years after David Phillip Wilson was sentenced to death for killing a man during a 2004 burglary, the state of Alabama turned over a letter allegedly written by an accomplice saying she was the one that beat the victim with a bat until he fell.

A federal judge last month ordered the Alabama attorney’s general’s office to turn over a copy of the letter, noting the jurors never got a chance to hear about it even though prosecutors possessed the letter before Wilson’s trial and believed it to be authentic. The judge said while it’s “plausible” Wilson might still have been convicted and sentenced to death, the letter must be turned over to determine its importance.

“The jury was not told that an accomplice of petitioner’s who admitted entering [the victim’s] home also claimed that she beat the victim with a baseball bat while he was alive,” U.S. District Keith Watkins wrote in the March 27 court order.

A portion of the letter was turned over to Wilson’s new attorney last month after a lengthy legal battle that unfolded over several years as they seek to win him a new trial. The Alabama attorney general’s office argued in court filings that Wilson knew about the letter’s contents since before his trial and that it did not exonerate him since Wilson told investigators he also hit the man and put an extension cord around his neck. Wilson’s new attorney argued prosecutors and the state actively hid potentially exculpatory evidence.

“For almost twenty years, since August 2004, the State of Alabama through its District Attorney for Houston County and its Attorney General has hidden, withheld, and actively obstructed the disclosure of a written confession by petitioner’s co-defendant,” Wilson’s lawyer, Bernard Harcourt, wrote in a court filing. The state gave Wilson’s attorney only one page of the letter that discussed the killing. Harcourt is asking the judge to force the state to turn over the remainder.

Wilson was convicted of capital murder for the 2004 death of Dewey Walker, 64, during a robbery and burglary. Walker was found dead in his home, after failing to show up for work. Investigators said Wilson confessed to being there to steal a computer and that after Walker discovered him, he admitting to hitting Walker with a bat and then putting an extension cord around his neck to try to get him to drop a knife. Three others were sentenced to between 23 and 25 years in prison for Walker’s killing. Wilson was the only one sentenced death after a jury recommended a death sentence by a 10–2 vote.

At issue in the case is a 2004 letter allegedly written by one of the three accomplices who said she was the one who began hitting the man with a bat. The writer identifies herself as Catherine Corley. Corley pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 25 years in prison for Walker’s death.

According to court filings, the letter, in which she discusses the possibility of an insanity plea, was sent to another detainee at the Houston County Jail and that detainee provided the letter to an attorney, who then provided the letter to prosecutor Douglas Valeska.

“David slipped up behind Dewey and put an extension cord around his neck, Dewey would not fall. I did not know what to do so I grabbed the baseball bat & hit Dewey with it till he fell. David & I loaded up all we could find … About one week later we got caught. I threw baseball bat in trash dumpster,” the letter states.

Corley, who is still serving her sentence, could not immediately be reached for comment and it was not immediately known if she has a lawyer to speak on her behalf.

Prosecutors are required to turn over exculpatory evidence, also known as Brady material, to criminal defendants.

Judge Watkins chided the prosecutors for their handling of the matter. He said Wilson’s trial counsel was given a series of police “offense reports” that described acquiring a letter where the writer claimed to have “hit Mr. Walker with a baseball bat until he fell.”

“At best, it appears the [accomplice] confession was disclosed to the defense in a manner designed to not attract attention to it, thus to put the defense at a trial and sentencing disadvantage. As the Supreme Court has made clear, Brady’s disclosure obligation is not readily discharged via gamesmanship,” the judge wrote in a footnote in the ruling.

The Alabama attorney general’s office argued state courts had already ruled there was no evidence suppression because, “Wilson knew—at the very least—that the letter stated that Corley had also struck Mr. Walker and that the State believed she was its author.” They also argued that Wilson had confessed to hitting and strangling Walker.

“The Corley letter is not exculpatory. Wilson gave a detailed confession to the investigators in which he admitted that he broke into Dewey Walker’s home, that he struck Walker with a baseball bat, that he choked Walker with a mouse cord until it broke, and that he continued to choke Walker for six more minutes with an extension cord,” state lawyers wrote in a December court filing.

The judge also wrote that while Wilson’s “own confession was damning and, as [the state attorney general] argues, supported the jury’s verdict that petitioner is guilty of capital murder” that it “is no stretch, however, to argue that a co-defendant’s admission of a possibly greater role in the murder … might be a material consideration in a jury’s deliberation on whether to recommend a death sentence.”

By Kim Chandler

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