Roanoke-Chowan News Herald

Unanswered questions
By Cal Bryant, Columnist, Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald
February 24, 2004

After nine, gut-wrenching years of having their loved one behind bars, the Johnson family finally heard last week the two words they had waited for - "Not Guilty."

After nine years of believing the man responsible for killing their loved one would surrender his own life in that crime, the Jenkins family was shocked to hear those same two words.

The retrial of convicted murderer James Alan Gell drew to a close last week in Bertie County Superior Court, the same exact location and the same exact month where a jury had found Gell guilty in February of 1998 for the 1995 slaying of Allen Ray Jenkins of Aulander.

As expected, at least by this reporter who sat in on all seven days of testimony, Gell was found innocent this time around. Armed with witnesses who said they saw Jenkins alive after he was, according to the testimony in the first trial, gunned down in his Aulander home on April 3, 1995 plus the statements from three experts in the field of body decomposition, Gell's attorneys were extremely convincing when presenting evidence that Jenkins was murdered after April 3.

The verdict was a no-brainer. April 3rd was the only day Gell could have committed the murder. He had a solid alibi from that day forward.

Members of the jury would have to be sound asleep - and on a couple of occasions, one of them did doze off - throughout the trial to render a guilty decision. Rather, they took a couple of minutes shy of three hours to make-up their minds. A short stretch of deliberation normally bodes well for a defendant and in this case, that proved as the rule rather than the exception.

But while the evidence and testimony at the second trial was overwhelming enough to paint a not guilty picture, one has to wonder, "what in the heck were Gell's lawyers doing, or not doing, in the first trial?" The answer was easy - his initial team of lawyers were not privy to certain statements taken from nearly a dozen witnesses who said they were sure Jenkins was alive after April 3. That critical evidence, plus a chilling telephone conversation involving Crystal Morris and Shanna Hall - two co-defendants in the first trial who fingered Gell as the murderer - was not heard by the first jury. One can only wonder if those crucial pieces of evidence would have acquitted Gell the first time around?

Thanks to the mandated process of reviewing all legal actions of a person sentenced to die, Mary Pollard of Durham noted the prosecution's failure to disclose all evidence to the defense in the first trial. She contacted noted Charlotte attorney James Cooney. He became actively involved, finally winning Gell a new trial. In the process, Joseph Cheshire, one of the state's and nation's most acclaimed defense lawyers, was hired to join Gell's growing defense team. Combined, they riddled the prosecution's claim of Gell's guilt with more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese.

While the final outcome was predictable, there remain so many unanswered questions.

Did the state waste their time and effort, not to mention taxpayer's dollars, in their pursuit of Gell as the triggerman, even though there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime? Did criminal investigators stop short of completing their inquiries into the murder after assuming Gell's guilt prior to his arrest? What happens to Morris and Hall after they are released from prison? According to the new jury, it's apparent they didn't believe the testimony of these two girls. Doesn't that break their plea bargain to "provide truthful testimony?" Can they be subject to a trial? Are they covering for someone else? Who did kill Allen Ray Jenkins?

I guess we'll never discover those answers. Last week, the NC Attorney General's office ruled out any further legal proceedings in this particular case. That response was, as I predicted, political in nature. By not reopening the investigation, it points no fingers of blame at any of the state officials involved in either trial.

But what that decision didn't take into consideration is that one family is now left without any closure in this case.
The man previously convicted of murder is now free and, in less than one year, two others that implicated themselves in the slaying will also be released from prison.

Do we have an unknown murderer living among us? Apparently, by their actions, the state doesn't care to know that person's identity. By their actions, all the state did was shift the pain from one family to another.

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