|Feb 27, 2005 | Raleigh News & Observer
Haunted, Gell moves on A year after freedom from death row
By JOSEPH NEFF, Staff Writer
LEWISTON-WOODVILLE -- He's no longer on North Carolina's death row, but Alan Gell hasn't left prison behind.
||Alan Gell sits with his mother, Jeanette Johnson, right, as his sister, Frankie Johnson, kisses her boyfriend at a Bertie High School game in February 2004. Stepfather Joel Johnson sits behind. It was Gell's first time in a crowd after his release from prison, above, where he was on death row in November 2002.|
|Sure, he's become a minor celebrity, meeting with lawmakers
over steak and beer, speaking against the death penalty across the state,
accepting good wishes from strangers at Wal-Mart.
But freedom for Gell is more complicated than regained pleasures and public recognition. He has avoided making friends since his release. He compulsively tracks where he goes and with whom, so that he has an alibi for all his comings and goings. He is wary of strangers and nervous about confined spaces.
One of the few places he feels safe is the home of his mother and stepfather, Jeanette and Joel Johnson.
"If I didn't have the family I had, I'd be in right rough shape," Gell said.
He accepts almost every invitation to speak, only turning down ones that interfere with his schoolwork. But he says he does it out of duty, not pleasure.
"My eyelids were taped open for nine years, where I saw every ugly thing about the criminal justice system and about drugs," he said recently. "I have an intense desire to make a change."
Ten years ago, no one could have predicted that Gell would become a spokesman for the anti-death penalty movement and a poster boy for reforming the criminal justice system.
When he was arrested for murder, Gell was a skinny 155-pounder with a mullet haircut, a wispy mustache and a considerable appetite for marijuana, cocaine and Calvert Canadian.
Prison chow, weightlifting and free world food have thickened him to 210 pounds. His sister, Amber, cuts his blond hair so short he can't comb it. His wire-rimmed glasses give him a studious look.
His Eastern North Carolina accent remains the same, delivered in a soft baritone. Nowadays, he has a lot more to say, and a lot of people to listen.
Gell gave the first public speech of his life on March 27. He has gone on to give at least a hundred more, and he has become more polished and comfortable.
But that first time, standing before 150 people at Northeast Branch library in Wilmington, he was so scared he almost passed out. Trying to calm his nerves, he thought about his death row comrades, some who had been executed. I'm doing this for them, he thought.
His voice cracked with nerves and emotion. Back in 1995, he found himself charged with a murder he had nothing to do with, set up by two 15-year-old girls who were cutting a deal with law enforcement. As he sat in jail, his mother told him not to lose faith.
"My mother and family said we've got a good system," Gell told the crowd. "We've got lawyers, and we've got God."
Going out of his way
As it turned out, the system wasn't good to Gell. Prosecutors withheld evidence that showed the murder of Allen Ray Jenkins occurred while Gell was in jail. His lawyers at his 1998 trial did little to rebut the state's case, and he was sent to death row.
"All things happen for a reason," Gell said. "God had me there for a reason. This might be the reason right now."
In his speeches, he talks about flaws that he sees in the legal system. Just as often, Gell talks about how he went wrong, how drugs, alcohol and the wrong crowd put him in a situation where he could be framed for murder. Most of his death row colleagues had drug or alcohol problems.
These speeches and public appearances help support him. Gell works as a public educator for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. He has also started a nonprofit group called Stay Out Inc. as a tool for speaking to middle and high school students about avoiding drugs and staying in school.
A ninth-grade dropout, Gell wants a college degree in sociology or psychology. He muses about becoming a social worker or a drug counselor or both.
To start off, he's a full-time student at Martin Community College, working for an associate's degree. He could have gone to school in nearby Ahoskie, but he drives the extra 10 miles to Williamston to avoid his former girlfriends and accusers, Shanna Hall and Crystal Morris. Both are out of prison now and living in the Ahoskie area. Gell has no interest in bumping into them.
For months, he lived at home with his mother and stepfather. But for a 30-year-old, things were a little tight in the house. So, with their help, he bought a repossessed 1999 single-wide mobile home.
He put it outside his stepfather's machine shop, a few hundred feet from his mother's house.
"I'm going to keep him close until I'm ready to let him go," she said.
Gell is compulsively tidy. He neatly lined the drawers and cabinets with wallpaper. He keeps six full sets of John Deere place settings on the kitchen table. He turned one bedroom into a study with a computer. But there are signs that this isn't an average mobile home in Eastern North Carolina. On the coffee table is an 18-by-24 inch homemade card, framed in hand-drawn barbed wire, signed by North Carolina's death row inmates: "ALAN THANKS! KEEP FIGHTING!"
On the counter close by is a guide to the North Carolina General Assembly, with photos and phone numbers of the 50 senators and 120 representatives.
In the year since he left Central Prison, Gell has spoken with many of the legislators. Gell has often teamed with Darryl Hunt, who spent 19 years in prison before DNA testing exonerated him of a notorious 1984 murder and rape.
They make an unlikely pair: Hunt, a soft-spoken African-American from Winston-Salem who always wears a Muslim skullcap, and Gell, a country boy and Baptist whose taste in clothes runs to Dixie Outfitters and John Deere garb.
One of Gell's guides to the ways of government has been Zeb Alley, one of Raleigh's most influential lobbyists, who is helping to push a moratorium on the state's death penalty while state officials study whether it has been applied fairly.
Last year, Gell, Hunt and House Speaker Jim Black discussed the criminal justice system over filet mignon and Corona beer at Alley's house. Alley recently took Gell to Sullivan's Steak House in Raleigh to dine with several Republican legislators.
Given Gell's drug use and years in prison, Alley said he was surprised by Gell's insights -- and his lack of bitterness.
"If some lawyer or prosecutor had railroaded me, I'd be bitter," Alley said. "He's really an amazing person. He might have me fooled, but that's hard to do."
Because of Gell's case, prosecutors must now share their entire file with defendants, a change in the law designed to prevent the misconduct that put Gell on death row.
But even that change frustrates Gell. The law only applies to current and future felony cases. What about the 30,000 inmates in prison now? Wouldn't opening their prosecutorial files help the innocent ones now locked up?
"It's like, 'We'll fix it in next year's model, but not in the ones on the road,' " he said. "If it was a car, we'd do a recall."
Gell is often asked if the state will compensate him for the years he spent in prison. To pursue his legal options, he has retained Chapel Hill lawyer David Rudolf, most recently known for his defense of Durham novelist Michael Peterson.
Gell could petition Gov. Mike Easley for a pardon of innocence, which would entitle Gell to $20,000 for each year he was wrongfully imprisoned. He could file for compensation with the N.C. Industrial Commission under a state law that would allow him to recover up to $500,000. Or he could sue the state in federal court. Whichever road he chooses, Gell said, he wants to change the system.
Reminders of that time
The system that Gell is working to change has left its marks on him.
After leaving prison, Gell walked around with his fly open. After nine years of wearing prison jumpsuits or pants with buttons, it took a week or two to reacquaint himself with zippers.
He has struggled to take charge of his schedule, now that he's no longer ordered around by correctional officers 24/7.
"I look at my watch and say, 'It's chow time' or 'It's time to go outside'," he said. While that has diminished, he still wakes each day at 5:30 a.m., the time the lights go on at Central Prison.
Some marks run deeper than his clothes or when he rises.
The volatile confines of prison forces inmates to know each other well, if only to avoid trouble. To survive, Gell learned to read each and every person around him. He kept tabs on the moods and problems of the men on his block. Did they receive mail today? Did they expect mail and not get it? Were they in debt to other inmates? How had their last visits gone? What was happening in their case?
All this information was needed to answer the critical prison question: Can you safely turn your back on this person?
"You have to know it all or you're slipping," Gell said.
Gell expects this wariness to stick with him for a long time. He doesn't expect his circle of trusted people -- his family and his lawyers -- to expand anytime soon.
He harbors a distrust of women that he attributes to being set up by two girls who said they were his friends. Out of prison, he started a series of affairs -- almost always with married women, he says -- as if to reinforce a belief that women can't be trusted.
He says the sleeping around ended in the fall, when Gell started seeing Shannon Schwab, a friend of his younger sister. The two are almost inseparable, taking the same classes, often coordinating their John Deere or N.C. State garb.
One measure of his trust in her is their classroom choreography. Schwab takes a seat next to the wall and Gell sits next to her, eyes on the door and other students.
"I read the faces, to make sure they're normal," he said. "If I don't feel they're normal, I keep an eye on them. I'll turn my back to my girlfriend. ... It's a prison habit."
Staff writer Joseph Neff can be reached at 829-4516 or firstname.lastname@example.org.