Walter McMillian: Condemned to Death by Perjury

Pictured above is where Walter McMillian was sent to death row in Atmore, Alabama from 1998 to 1993. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Walter McMillian lived an ordinary life alongside his wife Minnie McMillian and their three children. McMillian had a business of his own and was an upstanding member of his community. Aside from having a misdemeanor charge from a barroom fight, he had a clean record and no other charges to his name. His loving friends and family spoke very highly of him and of everything he did for his community.1

On November 1, 1986 in Monroeville, Alabama, shocking news struck the town. There was a tragic murder of eighteen-year-old Ronda Morrison. The crime took place at the Jackson Cleaners in Monroeville. The community heard about the tragedy as many had gathered for a fish-fry at McMillan’s home to raise money for their local church. McMillian clearly recalled the moment the news got to them. McMillian was shocked and absolutely saddened to hear about it. Little did he know that the murder of Ronda Morrison would impact his life in a major way later on.2

On June 7, 1987 at around 11:00 a.m, McMillian was peacefully driving down Route 84. Suddenly, State Troopers, city cars, sheriffs, and deputies surrounded his car. They stopped him with guns pointing at his face, and they shoved him up against his truck. McMillian was completely clueless as to why this was happening to him. When he asked for an explanation, they loudly and angrily said that he was being charged with sodomy for assaulting a man. This left McMillian even more clueless as they didn’t provide him with an explanation for how or why he was being charged with such a crime. He was then taken to the local jail where the charge was quickly dismissed. A deputy then revealed to McMillian that the initial charge was only a way to impound his truck. His truck was later examined by Bill Hooks who claimed to have seen McMillians’ truck at the cleaners. Hooks later testified at McMillians’ trial. At the trial, Hooks kept his testimony and claimed to have seen the truck near the Jackson Cleaners at the time of Ronda Morrison’s murder.3

Pictured above is the sign of the Monroe County Courthouse in Alabama | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

McMillian was innocent. He knew it, his family knew it, and his friends knew it. As a black man living in southern Alabama, McMillian didn’t stand a chance. That one testimony of Hooks’ was all it took to convict him for the murder of Ronda Morrison. Within weeks, McMillian was transferred to a maximum-security state prison in Atmore, Alabama. McMillian was then placed in a cell on death row where he waited for a year before his trial took place. McMillian recalls his time there as a terrible experience. He was allowed forty-five minutes of exercise per day and a few hours in the day room per week. His days were spent twenty-three hours a day in a dark cell. The visits from his family were the only thing getting him by in his time there. His time spent in prison was torture not only to McMillian but to his family and friends as well. They knew their statements against a white man’s perjured testimony didn’t stand a chance.4

Bryan Stevenson took on Walter McMillian’s case while he was on death row and eventually helped set him free | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

McMillian’s trial lasted two days. He had about half a dozen of his friends and family members testifying that they were with him at the time of the crime. Despite having various witnesses on his side, it seemed useless. All he could do was sit there and listen as three witnesses for the prosecution lied in their testimonies. The false testimonies claimed that they had seen McMillian near the cleaners the morning of the murder. Each testimony had inconsistencies in their stories, but that did not matter. The jury then found McMillian guilty despite that there was no physical evidence that linked him to the crime. McMillian was looking at two options for his sentence: death by electrocution, or life in prison. After the jury took a vote, the final decision was made, and McMillian was sentenced to death.5

In 1988, freshly graduated from Harvard, Bryan Stevenson was eager to help inmates on death row. Stevenson came across McMillian’s case and met with him and began working on appealing his case. Stevenson presented the newfound evidence at hearings and appeals before the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. Part of the evidence revealed a tape where a witness confessed to having been pressured to frame McMillan. On March 3, 1993, the County District Attorney finally dismissed the charges. At last, Walter McMillian was a free man again, after spending six years on death row.6

Seal of the Unified Judicial System of Alabama | Courtesy of Wikipedia

Once McMillian was free and returned to his hometown, he sought compensation. He filed civil lawsuits against state and local officials for his wrongful conviction. He also filed civil lawsuits for his sentencing to death row. The officials involved in prosecuting McMillian received no punishment or removal from their positions. While McMillian did receive an undisclosed amount of compensation, it was less than he had hoped for. Those six years on death row traumatized McMillian in many unthinkable ways. It took a significant toll on his health and led to him developing early-onset dementia. Walter McMillian passed away on September 11, 2013.7

  1. Pete Earley, Circumstantial Evidence: Death, Life, and Justice in a Southern Town (New York: Bantam Books, 1996.) 31.
  2. Michael B. Ross, “The Execution of Innocence,” Peace Review 10, no. 3 (1998): 481–483.
  3. Pete Earley, Circumstantial Evidence: Death, Life, and Justice in a Southern Town (New York: Bantam Books, 1996), 122.
  4. Pete Earley, Circumstantial Evidence: Death, Life, and Justice in a Southern Town (New York: Bantam Books, 1996), 150.
  5. Michael B. Ross, “The Execution of Innocence,” Peace Review 10, no. 3 (1998): 481–483.
  6. Michael B. Ross, “The Execution of Innocence,” Peace Review 10, no. 3 (1998): 481–483.
  7. Pete Earley, Circumstantial Evidence: Death, Life, and Justice in a Southern Town (New York: Bantam Books, 1996), 394.

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35 Responses

  1. This article illuminates how unfair and biased the justice system is to the minorities but also people of color. It’s so clear they will believe someone that had inconsistent and false testimony over many people confirming his alibi. Until his dying wish he did not receive justice for his wrongful conviction. He suffered mentally and physically to the point where he developed early on-set dementia.

  2. Did they ever reopen the case for the murder of Ronda Morrison, since Walter McMillian’s was proven to be innocent, or had the statute of limitations passed then? Either way, it’s a shame that not only our officers, but our prosecutors, which I believe work closely with the police department (at least more than defense attorneys), have also been shown to be racially biased. I get that Morrison was at a disadvantage when faced against white men for that exact reason, but if the testimonies were so obviously inconsistent, they should have known better. On the other hand, maybe the jury has more fault, since surely the defense attorney would had pointed out the inconsistencies of the witnesses’ testimonies, meaning that it can’t be trusted, but the majority of them ultimately decided to turn a blind eye too. Wonder how many of them were white, if any minorities were serving at all.

  3. This story was very sad to read, and unfortunately a clear reality in today’s times with our criminal justice system in the United States. I had never heard about this case before reading this article, and it is unfortunate to read about McMillian and his experience. It is also so sad to think about the families of those who are wronged by the justice system and to imagine what they themselves are going through.

  4. This story is incredibly heartbreaking and sadly not very uncommon. I appreciate that the author provided just enough detail so the reader could form an emotional connection to this story. Not to mention, the way the author starts the article is genius. Starting with, “ordinary life” lets the reader know that this could happen to anyone of color.

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