Marquise Harris was leaving his family’s apartment one morning in 1992 to catch the school bus when a police officer stopped him outside his door. His parents had already left for work, but Nashville homicide detective Bill Pridemore asked the 13-year-old to talk in private.
According to Harris, the detective wanted him to say he had seen another teenager, Cyrus Wilson, shoot a man outside his bedroom window. Harris said he didn’t know anything about the alleged altercation.
“Then the detective grabbed my left arm and asked me in a loud tone, do I want to spend the rest of my life in prison for someone else’s mistake,” Harris recounted in a handwritten affidavit earlier this year. Pridemore told him he had enough evidence to arrest Harris as an accessory to murder if he didn’t cooperate, he said.
Harris, along with three other teenage witnesses, ultimately testified that 18-year-old Wilson had shot and killed 20-year-old Christopher “Crip” Luckett for stealing his car a few months earlier.
On their word, Cyrus Wilson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison after a two-day trial.
Three witnesses have now recanted their testimony, saying they were threatened into naming Wilson by Nashville police and prosecutors. Wilson, now 43, remains in prison. Detective Pridemore is now a city council member.
Harris was one of two supposed eyewitnesses to the murder. The other eyewitness, Rodriguez Lee, already recanted his testimony years ago, saying he had been pressured by the police. Lee originally told jurors he saw Wilson take a sawed-off shotgun from his house and shoot Luckett after Luckett pleaded for his life. Years later, he said it was all untrue, revealing in an affidavit that the police had come to his house and threatened to charge him with murder in front of his parents. “My momma told me to tell them what they wanted to hear, so that’s what I did,” he testified in a 2013 hearing.
The judge decided Lee’s recantation was not credible because Lee could not remember if he was 13 or 15 years old at the time of the shooting.
Wilson’s case is a mosaic of all-too-common breakdowns that occur particularly when poor defendants of color enter the criminal justice system. Because Wilson’s mother couldn’t afford his bond, he was held in jail for nearly two years before his trial. The court then appointed him an attorney who had never handled a criminal trial before. Just weeks after Wilson’s conviction, that attorney had his license suspended and was ordered to undergo emotional, psychological, and alcohol/drug dependency evaluation.
From prison, without an attorney, Wilson started working on his own appeals.
“I didn’t know what I was supposed to do or how I would do it, but I knew something could be done because I was innocent,” he wrote in a note to supporters last week. “At the time I still believed in the system and that this whole ordeal was just some kind of crazy mistake.”
He quickly discovered a host of problems with the case against him.
Wilson managed to obtain prosecutor Kim Hattaway’s file on his case. In the file, he discovered a note suggesting she knew the teenagers were unreliable: “good case but for most of the Ws [witnesses] are juveniles who have already lied repeatedly,” she wrote.
His inquiries also uncovered a forensic gun report by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations, which determined that the gun prosecutors claimed Wilson had used didn’t match the shell casings found at the scene.
Wilson has always maintained his innocence through the years. He even turned down a plea deal in 2011 because he still hoped to prove himself in court. But at a status hearing on Wednesday, he may finally say he did it.
After so many attempts to clear his name, it may be his only chance to come home, said his wife, Casey Wilson. The Wilsons are hoping that the two most recent recantations will spur the district attorney’s office to put the plea deal he rejected back on the table. Wilson’s new attorney, Jesse Lords, filed a writ in July for a new trial based on the witness’ recantations.
“It’s hard for people to understand why someone who is innocent would even consider pleading guilty,” Casey told ThinkProgress. But if you have been through this process and you understand how the odds are stacked against you…he’s having to dig himself out of a hole while someone’s still shoveling dirt on top of him. If somebody said you can go home next week, well, why would you not?”
This dynamic has helped drive the proliferation of plea bargains, which have become the engine of the criminal justice system. Prosecutors seeking quick convictions will offer lesser sentences rather than go to trial. In exchange, a defendant — some of whom may have already been in jail for months awaiting trial — says they are guilty of the crime, regardless of whether or not they are innocent. As a recent Atlantic feature on plea deals noted, just 86 of the roughly 100,000 criminal cases in Nashville last year were resolved at trial.
Time and experience in the system have changed the Wilsons’ perspective radically. Before Wilson was convicted, they both trusted that the system would suss out the truth.
“Looking back, I think I was so naive,” Casey said, recalling how she watched Cyrus’ trial when they were both teenagers. “The only experience I had in courtrooms was watching TV shows. And of course in the TV show, the good guy always comes out. The innocent person never goes to prison.”
Wilson’s case has also been submitted to the district attorney’s newly minted conviction review unit, which is meant to investigate potential wrongful convictions by their office. However, exoneration is a longshot. The power to exonerate lies solely with Bill Haslam, the Tennessee Governor. Haslam is currently stalling on the exoneration of another Tennessee man, Lawrence McKinney, who was cleared of rape charges by DNA evidence after 31 years in prison. McKinney received $75 from the state when he was released in 2009, and has been fighting for his exoneration ever since.
Given these odds, Wilson is just hoping for a quick resolution by any means.
“We want a life together. We want to be together,” Casey said. “He wants to come home.”