"My eyes were opened to our justice system"

Alan Gell tells about his nightmare in North Carolina

Former North Carolina death row prisoner Alan Gell spent almost a decade behind bars for the 1995 murder of a retired truck driver. Last year, he was finally exonerated and freed from prison. He told his story to Marlene Martin.

How did you wind up on death row?

At the age of 16, I quit high school and began to sell drugs. In 1995, there was a big drug bust, and they got one of my suppliers, so my drug supply dried up. A friend then introduced me to these two 15-year-old girls who were able to supply me with just about anything I needed through one of their sisters-in-law.

I gave drugs to a guy who was hooked on crack, and he told me that I could use his Dad's truck, but he never told his Dad. So I wound up in jail for car theft, and while I was there, I found myself being charged with murder.

On April 14, 1995, the body of Allen Ray Jenkins was found in his residence in a decomposing state. When police talked to neighbors, the names of my two co-defendants--the 15-year-old girls--came up. So the cops went and spoke with them.

Originally, they said they didn't know anything. Later, they changed their story, saying they did visit him, and that I busted into the house, shot and killed the guy, and then ran out of the house after I took his money. A few days later, I was arrested for first-degree murder, armed robbery, and conspiracy to commit both.

The first thing I did was call my mom, asking her to help me and thinking that mom could solve everything. I mean, I was basically a kid.

I found out that the cost of a hired lawyer was way out of our range. So I got court-appointed lawyers. I had to get rid of two of the early lawyers because one of them told me the best advice she could give me was to read the Bible. She told me to get to know Jesus and ask him to grant me forgiveness for what I had done--in other words, she believed I did it.

I got two other lawyers. The judge told them in December 1998 to be ready for trial in February--this is on his first day accepting me as a client. He said he wasn't sure he could prepare for a capital case that quick. The judge then said that the previous lawyer--the one who slid the Bible to me--had been working on the case for over a year and a half, and couldn't he just use her files and get her to update him on the case?

Lawyers are kind of like police officers, I found out--they look out for their own. My new lawyer asked for my old lawyer's file, and there wasn't one. She hadn't done anything on my case because she believed I was guilty. Instead of telling the judge nothing had been done, he just started doing what he could in the last frantic moment.

After spending two years and ten months at my county jail in solitary confinement, I finally started trial. I read in the newspaper that there were people who had seen the victim in the case alive after the day they were saying I had killed him--while I was in jail. We got seven statements from people who had seen him alive.

What was the trial like?

During every word that the two co-defendants said against me--which was the only evidence against me, there was no physical evidence at all--I was laughing inside, thinking, "You all cannot be behind this. Just quit even trying to tell these lies, because nobody is ever going to believe it."

What I didn't know is that my jury was sitting there, going, "Oh my god, I can't believe he did this!" They went into deliberations after closing arguments, and five minutes later, they found me guilty.

Then there was about a week and a half spent on the sentencing hearing, and the jury came back exactly 45 minutes later--I timed it on my watch--and gave me my death sentence. I'm asked a whole lot of times how it felt to get that death sentence, and the truth of the matter is that I was completely numb--totally thrown out of whack because I had been found guilty.

I didnft really get good representation until I was assigned Mary Pollard as my lawyer. She asked for full discovery and got my entire case file--investigative notes and prosecutorial notes. In reviewing it, she found that there were a total of 17 people who had seen Allen Jenkins alive after April 3, the date I had supposedly murdered him. Only the seven who had been re-interviewed by the FBI were turned over at trial.

There were two audiotapes, one of which had my co-defendant talking on the phone to another guy about how to make up a believable story for the FBI. The other audiotape was of a friend who had agreed to call and record me, trying to get me to confess. On the tape, this friend is heard telling me that the murder weapon had been found, and I made the remark on the tape, "Good--that's great!" And he says, "It's not good--there's fingerprints on it." And I say, "Are you for real? That's excellent! That means I'm fixin' to go home! I'll see you in a little bit."

We realized the time of death was a big issue. We contacted some people from the University of Tennessee and asked them to give us an estimate on time of death, because to date, it hadn't been done. After their review, they said the victim died somewhere between April 8 and April 10, which was five to seven days after when they said I did it. And I was in jail at the time the victim really was killed.

But even with all this new information, it would be over two-and-a-half years before I would go home--it was all caught up in the courts.

Why did the prosecutors withhold evidence that could have shown you were innocent?

Because they wanted to win. They believed I was guilty and didn't want anything to damage their case, so they ignored the signs of my innocence. Any obstacle that got in their way, they shoved aside. That's wrong, because you're supposed to investigate fully--you're not supposed to run into a problem and push it aside or see how you can get it out of the way. You're supposed to look into things.

Why did the prosecutors go forward with the second trial in the face of the new evidence that showed so clearly that you were innocent?

Today, after all the work I've done and after all the politicians I've had to deal with, I understand why they continued to fight. They did it to maintain a belief in the criminal justice system. If that means an innocent person will be executed for the justice system and for capital punishment to look peachy and nice, then that's the price they were willing to pay.

Rather than admit a mistake was made, which means that we have flaws in our justice system, they decided to fight it as hard as they could to keep the big ugly thing from coming out.

What you've got is a people with a whole lot of power doing everything in their power to cover up and hide the flaws are. From what I've seen here in North Carolina, there's a whole bunch of whitewashing--it's really terrible.

What would you want people to know about the people you came to know on North Carolina's death row?

I remember my first day on death row, I was really, really scared. Our death row is different than any other, because we are allowed to mingle with each other--we weren't locked in our cell all day. I remember my ride to central prison, thinking, "Oh my god, this is going to be bad. I'm fixin' to be in there with some horrible monsters." I had the same perception that the criminal justice system portrays to the public--that people who commit capital crimes are monsters and evil, cruel people.

It took about 15 to 20 minutes to realize these guys were human beings, and some of them had already convinced me that they were nice and good people. There are a lot of guys on North Carolina's death row that didn't deserve the death penalty as we define it. There are four guys on death row in North Carolina that I believe are innocent.

Some of my best friends are there. I've got a sign on my wall--a huge poster that says, "Alan, thanks, keep fighting," and it's got the signature of every death row inmate on it. That's where I keep it--right there in the middle of my room.

My eyes were opened to all the bad things that we have in our justice system. I had the false belief, like most people in society, that we had a good justice system--one of the best in the world. Once you get a really close look at it, you realize that it's not what we're told it is.

I'm doing everything in my power here in North Carolina and other states--if I get the opportunity--to speak out and have these problems addressed and see if we can't resolve them in someway. I want to see capital punishment done away with, but I also want to see the justice system changed.

If we do away with capital punishment, that's a good step. But then, we're just going to have a bunch of innocent men pulling life in prison instead of on death row.