Circumstantial Evidence -The Movie

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Today's article by Alvin Benn of The Montgomery Advertiser.


Film planned about man freed from death row

December 30, 2005

MONROEVILLE -- It's been 19 years since Ronda Morrison was shot to death inside a dry cleaning business where she worked to help with college expenses.

She tried to get away, but her killer followed her. She was shot three times, the last shot fired at close range.

An arrest eventually was made, but Walter McMillian said he had an alibi. He said he was with friends at the same time police believe the 18-year-old girl was murdered.

McMillian, known as "Johnny D," was convicted of capital murder. The jury recommended life in prison without parole, but the judge ignored it and sentenced him to death.

A young Montgomery lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, went to work trying to free McMillian. Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, was convinced of his innocence.

Tommy Chapman, the new district attorney who assumed office in the circuit where McMillian was convicted, reached the same conclusion.

As the two men worked toward righting an egregious wrong, Ed Bradley of "60 Minutes" became involved and aired a report on the case. Millions of Americans became aware of the man on Alabama's death row.

On March 2, 1993, McMillian became a free man after nearly five years on death row. Other murder cases around the country are similar to McMillian's, but the one in Alabama had two interesting angles that set it apart -- race and a book.

McMillian is black; the victim white. And the murder occurred in a town used as a fictional setting for Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning book "To Kill a Mockingbird." It's about the wrongful conviction of a black man accused of raping a white woman.

Author Pete Early learned about the case and his book, "Circumstantial Evidence," won several awards.

As someone who covered the murder, McMillian's conviction and efforts to free him, I always felt it had all the elements of a blockbuster movie. During chats with Stevenson, I mentioned more than once that Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington would be perfect to play him in a movie about the case.

It might be about to happen but likely without the high-priced Washington in the lead role. The budget has been set at about $5 million, which is pocket change in Hollywood these days.

Producer Ron Sapienza of Chicago says filming could begin next year if everything falls into place. Sapienza said a major motion picture studio once had an option on Early's book but "sensationalized and fictionalized" it so much that the film was never made.

"We know what's important in this case, and we don't want to diminish anything," he said. "If things go according to plans, we could start shooting next June, and we want to include Alabama in the filming."

There were other elements in the McMillian case, and they may be included in the proposed movie. One was the murder of another young white girl about the same time.

Chapman, who wasn't convinced of "Johnny D's" innocence when he assumed office, changed his mind as he began to take a closer look. He got two Alabama Bureau of Investigation agents to look into the case, and their report led to actions that helped free McMillian.

Chapman's conclusion was that local authorities had botched the investigation so badly that "Johnny D" could never have received a fair trial.

"For one thing, the body was moved," he said. "Fingerprint powder was everywhere. People walked all over potential evidence."

Chapman was sure the conviction would be overturned and he'd have to retry McMillian. He didn't feel that would be necessary.

As far as a movie, Chapman says he'll reserve judgment until it's made, if it ever is.

"I'm not happy about this being dredged up again," he said. "As long as they do it evenhandedly, it'll be OK, but I don't want to see a black versus white thing."

In the meantime, Ronda's parents continue to grieve, especially every Nov. 1 on the anniversary of their daughter's murder.

"Johnny D," meanwhile, lives in north Alabama where Chapman said he has had a stroke.

Who, then, killed Ronda Morrison? That chapter may never be written.

If the guilty party remains free, it would give credence to a criminal justice verity -- some people do, indeed, get away with murder.

Alvin Benn writes about people and places in central and south Alabama. If you have suggestions for a story, contact him at (334) 875-3249 or e-mail him at benn8071@bellsouth.net.

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