Real Name: Johnny Lee Wilson
Location: Aurora, Missouri
Date: April 13, 1986
Details: On April 13, 1986, at 7:30pm, firefighters were called to the home of seventy-nine-year-old Pauline Martz, where her body was found inside. She had died of smoke inhalation, but her death was no accident. It was determined that she had been bound and gagged, her killer having set the fire in order to suffocate her and destroy evidence of his crime. Five days later, the police picked up twenty-year-old mentally-challenged Johnny Lee Wilson, who was a friend of Pauline's, for questioning. After several hours of interrogation, they obtained a confession from him even though he was not aware of which he was confessing.
On the day of the murder, Johnny had hung out with friends and then mowed a neighbor's lawn. His mother and grandmother picked him up and took him home. They said that Johnny then had a friend over until around 7pm. Afterwards, they went to the post office to mail a letter, and when returning home they heard the sirens and drove to Pauline's house to discover it was on fire. Gary Wahl, a mentally retarded friend of Johnny's, said hello to him while in front of the house, and then left. However, the next day when Gary was questioned, he told police that Johnny had confessed to tying Pauline up and leaving her in the house. However, Gary soon failed nearly all of the polygraphs he took.
Police soon searched Johnny's home and found women's underwear in his bedroom. However, his family stated that it was his mother's underwear, not Pauline's. The police also found jewelry that was apparently stolen from the Martz home. However, Johnny's grandmother said she used that jewelry for sewing. Finally, they found a nearly empty gas can that they claimed was used to set the fire.
After the confession, Johnny was arrested and charged with first degree murder. He was evaluated to see if he was mentally fit to stand trial. Two psychiatrists did not think that he was mentally fit to stand trial. However, a court-appointed psychiatrist felt he was fit to stand trial. He told his attorneys that he was innocent, but with the evidence against him, his attorneys told him to plead guilty because otherwise he would be found guilty and sentenced to death.
When he pleaded guilty, it was quite obvious that Johnny had no idea what he was doing. When asked why he was pleading guilty, he responded that he did not know. Johnny said that he did not want to plead guilty to the murder charge. However, despite saying this, the judge decided to accept the plea and sentenced him to life in prison.
In February 1988, Chris Brownfield, while serving time in prison for another crime, told authorities that he knew Pauline's real killer, and that it was not Johnny. Brownfield claimed that he and an accomplice were tipped off about the Martz home and that she had a great amount of money inside. They broke in, ransacked it, and bound and gagged Pauline. Brownfield and his accomplice then decided to burn the house down to destroy the evidence. Brownfield claims that he tried to go back into the house to save her, but it was too late. They then fled the scene and left Pauline to die.
When the confession was made public, the town of Aurora was in shock. A billboard was created in an attempt to get more interest in the case. A few weeks later, it was firebombed by an unknown assailant. Brownfield's confession was later determined by a judge to be bogus. However, Johnny's supporters believe that he is a perfect suspect in Pauline's murder, as he has killed elderly victims in a similar manner to the way she was killed.
Prominent attorney Dee Wampler soon took up Johnny's case. He learned that Johnny had lost his wallet shortly before the murder, and that the police had claimed that they had found his wallet and were able to get him to come down to the police station without his mother or grandmother. They then began to interrogate him about Pauline's murder. They continually told Johnny that he was guilty and that they had witnesses to corroborate it. They yelled at him and aggressively interrogated him.
Since Johnny had such a low mental capability, he was unaware that he could leave whenever he wanted to. Finally, after they attempted to physically assault Johnny, he confessed. As the interrogation continued, it was obvious that the deputies were feeding Johnny information about the crime, which he knew nothing about. They told him that if he said what they wanted him to say, he could go home. When he did, they instead arrested him for the murder, which Johnny could not understand. The shocking details that Wampler found in the "confession" showed that Johnny's confession was false.
Former deputy Dustin Toler began investigating Johnny's case as well and found that the evidence against Johnny was not credible. All of the evidence found at his home did not belong to Pauline and nothing could be found that could tie Johnny to the case. One interesting piece of evidence that was found at Pauline's home was a stun gun. Chris Brownfield had described losing a stun gun at the Martz home, and described a stun gun that was identical to the one found at the crime scene. Also, the usage of a stun gun was never released to the public. Johnny had no idea what a stun gun even was.
On May 8, 1989, Wampler attempted to get Johnny an actual trial, but a judge denied it, claiming that Johnny was competent during his confession and Brownfield was not a reliable witness. In September 1990, his appeal for a new trial was denied again. To this day, Johnny remains in prison but maintains his innocence.
Extra Notes: This case first aired on the November 28, 1990 episode.
Results: Solved. As the years passed, the case against Johnny continued to fall apart. One of the witnesses, Gary Wahl, recanted his testimony. He claimed that the police forced him to say that Johnny confessed to him. He also claimed that he had not seen Johnny on the night of the crime. Despite this, in 1991, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld his conviction.
In 1993, Johnny and his attorneys requested a pardon from Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan. He agreed to review the case. Brownfield sent a letter to Carnahan from prison, stating that he had killed Pauline, not Johnny. Carnahan had a staff lawyer, Joe Bednar, review the evidence. He concluded that no physical evidence linked Johnny to the crime and that more than half of his confession included "leading questions" from detectives. In September 1995, Carnahan granted Johnny a pardon, exonerating him of all charges. He concluded that the police had fed Johnny information about Pauline's murder, and that his confession was false and coerced. Johnny was released after serving nearly nine years in prison and was finally reunited with his mother and grandmother.
In 2003, Johnny settled a federal civil rights lawsuit against Lawrence County and was awarded $615,000. As of 2017, he still lives with his mother, and continues to mow lawns. He states that he is not bitter about the wrongful conviction, and has happily moved on with his life. Pauline's real killer is believed to be Chris Brownfield; however, he was never charged with her murder.
- Johnny Lee Wilson on Wikipedia
- Johnny Lee Wilson on Unsolved.com
- Johnny Lee Wilson on National Registry of Exonerations
- Brutal killing leaves Aurorans in disbelief - April 20, 1986
- Auroran arraigned in killing - April 22, 1986
- Petitioners seek reinvestigation of 1986 killing - September 11, 1988
- Wilson often tormented for disability, family says - June 25, 1989
- Retarded man says guilty plea to avoid execution, didn't understand rights - June 29, 1989
- One night of savagery triggers years of turmoil - September 9, 1990
- Woman's death triggers turmoil - September 9, 1990
- High Court Accepts Appeal From Retarded Man In Killing - January 10, 1991
- Wilson v. State - July 23, 1991
- Group hopes tape frees Wilson - March 22, 1995
- Lawyer: Interrogation 'hits you in the gut' - September 30, 1995
- Wilson to 'block all those years out' - September 30, 1995
- Pardoned Prisoner Savors First Full Day of Freedom - September 30, 1995
- Retarded man set free after 8 years in prison - October 1, 1995
- 'Ringmasters' Unlock Truth, Free Man Who Confessed to Murder - March 31, 1996
- The murder of an elderly woman, the confession of a retarded man, and a nine-year odyssey to Free Johnny - April 7, 1996
- An 8-Year Battle To Free A Retarded Inmate -- 2 Persistent Men Overcome System, Refuse To Give Up - April 7, 1996
- Murder, confession and 2 men bent on freeing inmate - May 5, 1996
- Johnny Lee Wilson v. Lawrence County - April 11, 2001
- What happened to the Aurora man who was pardoned by Gov. Carnahan? - April 1, 2017