Gell’s new trial underway

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 2, 2004

WINDSOR – Jury selection began here yesterday (Monday) in a murder case that has attracted statewide attention.

Fourteen months since Resident Superior Court Judge Cy Grant threw out James Alan Gell’s 1998 capital murder conviction and ordered a new trial, that process is set to begin all over again as prosecutors with the North Carolina State Attorney General’s office will again attempt to prove that Gell murdered Allen Ray Jenkins on Aulander in 1995.

The biggest difference in this trial and its predecessor is the fact that state prosecutors Jim Coman and Patrick Murphy will not seek the death penalty.

Jury selection could take as long as two days, perhaps longer – as of Monday afternoon, the State had approved 12 jurors, but Gell’s defense team had yet to pose any questions to those selectees. After a jury is selected, pre-trial motions will be heard prior to evidence being presented.

After sitting on death row in North Carolina Central Prison since March of 1998, Gell, a resident of Lewiston-Woodville, has finally received his wish of a new trial. He has maintained his innocence throughout the ordeal.

In December of 2002, Judge Grant granted an &uot;appropriate relief&uot; motion and ordered a new trial. That judgment came after Gell’s attorneys argued that state prosecutors (Debra Graves and David Hoke) at the original trial failed to share vital information with the defense attorney (Maynard Harrell) in a timely fashion.

During the December hearing, Gell’s new attorney, James P. Cooney III of Charlotte, argued that if Harrell was given the information in a timely manner, Gell would have been acquitted. As examples of that vital information, Cooney pointed to the statements of 17 witnesses who saw Jenkins alive and well days after the crime occurred. The state prosecutors only gave the defense the names of eight of those witnesses.

Cooney also questioned the testimony of Crystal Morris, who along with Shanna Hall pled guilty in 1997 to second-degree murder as co-conspirators with Gell to rob and kill Jenkins in his Aulander home on Aug. 3, 1995. In exchange for their guilty plea, Morris and Hall, both 15 at the time of the murder, the two Hertford County teens agreed to testify against Gell during his trial in 1998.

&uot;The prosecution built their case on three propositions, any of which that were proven wrong would acquit Alan Gell,&uot; said Cooney during the December, 2002 hearing. &uot;One – that Allen Ray Jenkins was actually murdered on Aug. 3. Two – that 17 eyewitnesses were wrong about seeing Mr. Jenkins alive and well after Aug. 3. Three – that Crystal Morris was truthful.&uot;

Cooney went on to point out that of the 33 fingerprints found at the murder scene, none belonged to Gell and that there were no hairs or fibers linking him to either the murder weapon or the crime scene.

If the eyewitness reports – including one from Jenkins brother, Sidney, who saw his younger sibling alive at 7:15 a.m. on April 8, 1995 as well as six others who recalled seeing Allen Jenkins in Ahoskie on April 10 – are correct, Cooney argued that Gell is innocent. Gell was either outside the state or incarcerated in the Bertie/Martin Regional Jail from April 4-22, 1995. He was jailed for theft of a vehicle.

Cooney also alleges that if the forensic pathologist who performed Jenkins’ autopsy was informed of the victim’s well being as of at least April 10, 1995, then their report may have been more accurate as far as a time of death was concerned. Jenkins’ decomposing body was discovered April 14, 1995 in his home. He had been shot at least twice in the chest.

&uot;Pathologists rely heavily on information concerning the last verified time and date that a witness saw a victim alive,&uot; noted Cooney.

As far as Morris’ testimony was concerned, Cooney made reference to a tape recording of a telephone call between Morris and Hall where Cooney alleges that, &uot;Morris said she was making-up stories about the murder in order to throw off the investigators.&uot; At one stage of the tape, Cooney alleges that Morris is heard screaming at Hall to, &uot;shut-up&uot; and not for Hall to tell Gell the details of the murder.

&uot;That is the most chilling part of the tape,&uot; said Cooney. &uot;Why would Morris tell Hall that? If Alan Gell did murder Mr. Jenkins then he should already know the details.&uot;

&uot;This type of evidence, if produced in a timely fashion to the defense attorney, would have acquitted Alan Gell,&uot; stated Cooney. &uot;Had the state turned over all 17 eyewitness statements, would the medical examiner or the jury believed that the murder took place on April 3?&uot;

Attorneys Joseph Cheshire of Raleigh and Mary Pollard of Durham will join Cooney on the new defense team.