TALLADEGA, Ala. – More than a decade ago, a frustrated judge vowed there would be no more delays in the stalled retrial of death row inmate Shep Wilson Jr.
But the postponements only continued: a mental evaluation, a sick attorney, changes of judges and prosecutors, and a blizzard of legal papers. By the time he died in prison last week of natural causes, Wilson had waited nearly 18 years without ever getting a new trial in the slaying of a teenage store clerk.
Was it a case of justice denied or the justice system played? Prosecutors said their case was solid, and defense lawyers admitted in court papers that Wilson would probably have been convicted in a second trial and possibly sentenced to death.
"Sometimes in a death penalty case, they say delay is in favor of the defendant. This might be one of those cases," Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, said Thursday.
Dieter said most retrials take only one or two years to get to court. "Eighteen years? I've never heard of anyone waiting that long," he said.
The case file — five volumes of yellowing paper — tells the story of at least a dozen trial dates that came and went because of delays caused by hundreds of legal requests, scheduling conflicts and a prisoner who believed he would be found innocent someday, somehow.
The defense team never pushed for a speedy trial, and a succession of three different district attorneys and two judges never got Wilson back in front of a jury before he died at age 50.
Wilson's two sons and six siblings buried him Tuesday. The family was thankful that the state of Alabama didn't get a chance to execute him but angry that he never got another day in court.
"They didn't do him right. They did what they wanted to do: Let him sit there," said sister Suzanne Dates.
A relative of the slain clerk said Wilson got what he deserved — life in a 6 foot-by-8 foot cell.
"As far as I can tell, he didn't deserve (another trial) at all," said James Cook, a cousin of Monica Cook, 19. "He killed her for no reason."
Records show Wilson was a high school dropout who already had served time for rape and marijuana possession when Cook was abducted from a convenience store where she worked on Jan. 27, 1986. She was raped, beaten and choked, and her body dumped on the side of a road.
Wilson confessed to the slaying, telling investigators he killed the teen accidentally after they had sex. Court documents show he kept the body in his home for several days, sleeping with it in his bed at least once, before disposing of the corpse.
Jurors convicted Wilson of capital murder, and Circuit Judge Jerry L. Fielding sent him to death row. But the Alabama Supreme Court overturned the case in 1990, ruling that a prosecutor violated Wilson's rights by referring during closing arguments to Wilson's decision not to testify.
The justices sent the case back to Talladega County on Aug. 17, 1990, and Fielding resumed control. Early the next year, he set the first date for Wilson's second trial: March 11, 1991.
The defense claimed that trying Wilson again for the same crime would violate his rights, but the judge overruled the objection and moved forward. The defense challenged most every shred of evidence against Wilson, from his own statements to hair and fiber evidence.
The judge pushed back the trial 10 days at the request of the defense, then a month after a prosecutors' mother fell ill. The next delay was for seven months, at the request of the defense again.
Months turned into years. With the third trial date of 1996 closing in, a frustrated Fielding told lawyers enough was enough.
"I have set aside three weeks for this trial and will have more time if needed. Without question, this case shall be tried at this time, so please mark your calendar and clear any conflicts," the judge wrote.
But with the trial less than a month away, the defense filed a stunning document: Wilson's lawyers asked the judge to declare Wilson incompetent because he wouldn't plead guilty and take a prosecutor's offer of life without parole instead of death.
"Now he is insisting that he will be found not guilty at trial, although counsel have pointed out that there is a large amount of evidence against him," including a confession and evidence from fingerprints, DNA and blood, wrote attorney J.L. Chestnut.
The judge ordered a mental evaluation, freezing the case for two months until a state expert found Wilson "fully capable of assisting his attorney in his own defense."
The entire defense team asked to be removed from the case citing a "total breakdown in communications" with Wilson, but most remained for years.
Fielding finally retired, and by then the case was on its third district attorney, Steve Giddens. Circuit Judge William E. Hollingsworth III took over in early 2004, holding regular status meetings with attorneys as he tried to move the case along. Wilson attended them all.
The most recent conference was supposed to be on June 9, but Wilson was too ill to attend, as was Chestnut, a key lawyer in the case. The judge delayed the hearing until Wilson was capable of traveling to Talladega from Donaldson prison, about 75 miles away.
After being treated at least once in a hospital in Birmingham, Wilson died in the Donaldson infirmary on June 12. Relatives had visited him just a few days earlier.
"We left him happy, smiling," said Dates, his sister. "He was at peace. He said it was just like a vacation having us there with him."
Dates said prison officials told relatives Wilson died of liver failure caused by hepatitis C. Prison spokesman Brian Corbett wouldn't comment on the cause of death.
Dieter, the death penalty expert, said there's nothing unusual about prisoners remaining on death row while awaiting retrial after a case is overturned. Facing the possibility of another death sentence, things may have worked out as well as possible for Wilson.
"Given that being on death row in that situation is something of a fiction, maybe he was content to be there," Dieter said.
Fielding, the retired judge, said in an interview there wasn't any single reason Wilson never made it back to trial. One thing led to another, he said, and justice was repeatedly delayed.
Prosecutors did their job, Fielding said. Perhaps, he said, the defense did a bit better.
"I think a lawyer for a capital defendant would say, `As long as we can keep them from being executed, I'm doing a good job,'" he said.