Bill Wilson (convict)
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Bill Wilson, a farmer in Blount County, Alabama, married Jenny Wade in 1900. Their third child was born in 1907. Jenny left her husband 19 months later and returned to her family. Bill moved in with his father Si, taking the two older children with him. During the divorce proceedings, Jenny and the child disappeared. Shortly before Jenny was last seen Jane McClendon, a local farmer's daughter, had mysteriously disappeared and for several weeks rumours circulated that foul play was involved in both disappearances.
In late 1912, Dolphus Tidwell and his son were fishing on the Black Warrior River near the property of Bill's father when they noticed a bone sticking out of the soil. The Tidwells found a mat under the soil which exposed what they believed to be the skeletons of an adult and a child. Believing there may be an Indian burial mound nearby they searched the area for relics but found nothing. They re-buried the bones and returned home. News of the discovery spread and for several days locals searched the area for Indian artifacts until they lost interest.
Jim House, a casual laborer who occasionally worked for Si Wilson, began telling anyone who would listen that he believed the remains belonged to Jenny and her daughter. He recounted how he had seen Jenny visit her father-in-law's house carrying a basket in 1908 and that the following morning he noticed footprints leading to the river. Following the footprints he found children's clothing and blood on a rock. The story soon spread until the county solicitor, James Embry heard it. Embry called a Grand Jury and Bill Wilson was indicted for the murder of his wife and baby.
James Embry prosecuted the case before judge J. E. Blackwood. In his opening remarks he said that Jenny Wilson went to her father-in-law's house to visit her two older children late in November or early December, 1908. A quarrel had occurred that night and Bill Wilson murdered his wife and child, took the bodies to the bluff, and burned them.
Dolphus Tidwell testified to finding the bones and they were placed into evidence as those of Jenny Wilson and her 19-month-old infant.
Dr. Marvin Denton testified for the state in regards to his findings from an examination of the bones. Although he agreed that the bones belonged to an adult and child, he noted that the child had permanent teeth which do not appear until around the age of six. He testified that he had never seen permanent teeth in a child under the age of four.
Jim House repeated his story about Jenny's visit to the Wilson farm, adding that he was concerned for her safety and had tried to talk her out of going. When he met Bill the following day he asked him about his wife. He stated that Bill denied that she had visited the farm. He then found the footprints and followed them to the spot where he found blood stains.
A convict who had a cell near Wilson, Mack Holcomb, testified that he overheard Wilson tell his eldest daughter Ruthie: "If you tell anything I will tend to you when I get out." Seven-year-old Ruthie was cross examined about this statement and stated that her father had actually said that if she was not a good girl he would punish her when he got out of jail.
Several locals recounted conversations with Wilson where he showed animosity towards Jenny or made comments indicating she would not return.
Lizzie McClendon, mother of Jane McClendon who had gone missing shortly before Jenny, told the jury that House visited her after her daughter vanished and said that he would testify that he saw the Wilsons kill her daughter if she would swear out a warrant for their arrest. Under cross examination, House denied the claim but did admit to ill feeling between himself and Bill Wilson.
Six witnesses, including Jenny's sister, swore that they had seen Jenny at various times in 1909 and that she was living with a man named John Wilson (no relation). A friend of Jenny's, Mrs Benton Cornelius, testified that Jenny told her April 1908 that she intended to move to Missouri after the separation.
Bill's brother John, his sister Frances, his daughter Ruthie, and John Rice, who worked for Si Wilson, all denied that Jenny had visited the Wilson home at any time after the separation.
Testimony was given that the female skeleton had no dental work. Jenny had fillings in her two front teeth. Dr. J. F. Hancock, said that he believed that the bones were at least ten years old, that the adult skeleton belonged to an elderly person and that the child's permanent teeth excluded that skeleton from being that of a 19-month-old baby.
On 18 December 1915, the jury found Bill Wilson guilty of murder in the first degree and he was sentenced to the Alabama state penitentiary for life. An appeal was overturned and several petitions for a pardon were rejected.
In 1916, Dr. Aleš Hrdlička, curator of physical anthropology of the Smithsonian Institution, declared the bones to be parts of at least four or five individuals, that they were very old and that there was nothing to indicate that they were not of Indigenous origin. The trial judge, J. E. Blackwood, believing that Wilson was innocent, pressured the Governor and the Attorney-General unsuccessfully to commute the sentence. By this time the public accepted Wilson's innocence, with the exception of the prosecutor, James Embry who blocked all attempts to obtain a pardon.
In 1918, Wilson's former appeal lawyer located Jenny Wilson and her daughter, now aged 11, living in Vincennes, Indiana with her second husband. She returned to Blount County on 8 July and signed an affidavit giving a complete account of her movements from the time she disappeared until she was found. The same day, the governor granted a full pardon and Wilson was released.
On February 15, 1919, the Alabama Legislature enacted a statute for the appointment of a commission to determine the amount of compensation Wilson would receive "up to the amount of $3,500" (2012:$46,600). Rather than compensation for wrongful imprisonment, the compensation was officially "for services rendered [to] the state while in prison." An award for the maximum amount of $3,500 was made with the money paid to the state trustee, a Probate Judge of Blount County who subsequently fled the state with the money. Wilson sued the judge's bondsman to recover the compensation due, an action which cost him $700 in legal fees. It is unknown how much he received but it is believed to be around $2,500 (2012:$33,300).
Wilson used the money to buy a small farm but got into debt and lost it. The last record of Wilson indicates he was working as a day laborer digging coal in an Alabama mine.
- List of wrongful convictions in the United States
- Wilson v. State, 191 Ala, 7, 67 So. 1010 (1915).
- Bill of Exceptions, Circuit Court of Oneonta County, Alabama.
- General Acts of Alabama, 1919, p. 79.
- Report of the Board of Pardons of Alabama, October 1, 1917, p. 126.
- "Bill Wilson". northwestern.edu. Retrieved 29 November 2009.
- Collins, Wilkie (2005). The Dead Alive: The Novel, the Case, and Wrongful Convictions. Pg 162: Northwestern University Press. ISBN 9780810122949.
- Borchard, Edwin M. (1932). "Convicting the Innocent: Errors of Criminal Justice Case #48". www.victimsofthestate.org. Retrieved 6 December 2012.
- Collins, Wilkie (2005) Pg 163