Gell settles for $3.9 million

Published 1:51 pm Saturday, October 3, 2009

RALEIGH – Despite sitting in a jail cell in Goldsboro, a Bertie County man has become a multi-millionaire.

A $3.9 million settlement has been reached in a civil case filed on behalf of James Alan Gell who sued the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and others on the grounds of obstructing justice that led to his capital murder conviction in the 1995 death of Allen Ray Jenkins of Aulander.

Gell spent nearly six years on death row before being granted a second trial in that murder. Armed with information that defense attorneys claimed was either withheld or fabricated, a Bertie County jury took less than three hours to find Gell not guilty at the new trial held in February of 2004.

Claiming a violation of his civil rights, Gell, in May of 2005, sued Dwight Ransome, an SBI agent who was the state’s lead investigator in the case, and former Aulander Police Chief Gordon Godwin. Additionally, the suit named David Hoke and Debra Graves, formally of the NC State Attorney General’s office who prosecuted the case at the first trial, held in 1998.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, Gell told this newspaper…“the parties responsible for the inappropriate actions that led to my wrongful conviction need to be held accountable for their actions.”

He also alleged a conspiracy among the prosecution team and the criminal investigators.

Due to immunity from lawsuits, Hoke and Graves were dismissed from the civil case. Meanwhile, the Town of Aulander reached a 2007 settlement with Gell, paying him $93,750.

That left the SBI to bear the brunt of the lawsuit. According to documents made public on Thursday, the SBI paid $500,000 with the remaining $3.4 million coming from the Bureau’s insurance companies.

The financial windfall comes at a time when Gell is back behind bars.

In April of 2006, Gell was charged with 32 sexual offenses. Those felonies stem from his alleged involvement with a Gates County teenager, including 16 counts of statutory rape and 14 counts of indecent liberties with a child. He was additionally charged with second degree sexual exploration of a minor and an internet cyber crime where he allegedly displayed pornographic photos on a computer.

He is currently serving out a six-year term at Wayne Correctional Center in Goldsboro. His projected release date is Aug. 31, 2011.

Gell’s involvement with the Gates County teen resulted in the birth of a child. Apparently, a portion of the settlement in the civil case will be used for a trust fund that will support the child and the child’s mother. As far as the remainder of the settlement is concerned, it was reported that Gell will receive $7,857.28 monthly for the rest of his life once he is released from prison.

A torrid tale

From the outset, Gell said he was not guilty of the murder charges lodged against him in 1995.

In March, 1998 interview with this newspaper, just after being found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to death, Gell admitted he was with Crystal Morris and Shanna Hall – two Hertford County teens and co-defendants in the case who later pled guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for testifying against Gell – on the day (April 3, 1995) that Jenkins was alleged to have been murdered in his Aulander home.

Gell maintains he was not at the Jenkins residence. He said that on the afternoon of April 3, 1995 he dropped Morris and Hall off in Aulander, saying they told him they were going to the home of Hall’s grandmother. That same evening, Gell said Morris and Hall called him at home and told him they needed a ride because they had an argument with Hall’s grandmother.

However, Gell’s vehicle malfunctioned and he could not drive from his Lewiston-Woodville home to Aulander. Rather, he got his sister to take him and he said he met the girls at the Aulander Red Apple.

From that point, the three of them walked to Hall’s grandmother’s house where Morris made a phone call to her boyfriend (later identified as Gary Scott) who came and picked-up the threesome. Gell said Scott took him back to his Lewiston-Woodville home.

However, the two girls contended that Gell told them to return to Jenkins’ house, distract him and leave the door open so he [Gell] could rob him and “hurt” him.

Morris and Hall testified that, after Gell killed and robbed Jenkins, the three of them walked through a back field toward Morris’ grandmother’s house and disposed of the murder weapon, shotgun shells and a knife in the woods behind the house.

The girls’ testimony was the only direct evidence placing Gell at Jenkins’ house the night Jenkins was murdered. Apparently, the jury believed that story and Gell was found guilty at the first trial, despite the fact that none of the 33 fingerprints located at the murder scene belonged to Gell. In addition, there were no hairs or fibers linking him to either the murder weapon or the crime scene.

Murder timeline questioned

A much different story emerged at the second trial.

First came the state’s medical examiner who, after learning there were witnesses who allegedly saw Jenkins alive April 3, 1995 and due to the introduction of scientific evidence, changed the assumption of an April 3 time of death to April 8-10.

Gell’s defense team sunk their teeth into that scenario, claiming their client could not have murdered Jenkins because he was in Maryland at the time. Upon his return to Bertie County on April 5, 1995, Gell was arrested for vehicle theft and spent the next 15 days in jail.

Jenkins’ badly decomposed body was discovered in his residence on April 14, 1995.

In addition, a taped conversation between Ransome and the two co-defendants, Morris and Hall, was not released to the original defense team. Upon its release at the second trial, the two girls were heard on the tape saying they had to “make-up a story” to tell the police.

However, the biggest bombshell to explode in the second trial was that Hoke and Graves were alleged to have withheld the names of nine witnesses who said they saw Jenkins alive after April 3, 1995. There were a total of 17 witnesses, but Gell’s defense team was supplied with only eight names.

Those statements proved as vital ammunition for the defense team during the second trial when, on day six of the new court proceeding, eight witnesses stepped forward to dispute the prosecution’s claim that Jenkins was murdered on April 3, 1995.

Benjamin Parker, the owner/operator of the Fishing Hole Seafood Market near Ahoskie, claimed he sold Jenkins some fresh herring on April 10, 1995.

Jerry Brown, Jenkins’ next-door neighbor, recalled hearing Jenkins and Sherry Brown, an acquaintance of Jenkins, arguing outside the home on either April 5 or 6, 1995.

Mary Hunt, another next-door neighbor of Jenkins, said she saw Jenkins between 11:30 a.m. and 12 noon on April 8, 1995. She testified she was sitting in her office (Farm and Home Gas in downtown Aulander) and saw Jenkins in his Camaro, stopped at the signal light.

Paula Brabble was employed at Golden Skillet in Ahoskie in April of 1995. She said she was working the 3:30-to-8 p.m. shift on April 10, 1995 when she recalled seeing Jenkins come in and place an order.

Aulander resident Margaret Adams testified she saw Jenkins, in his car, pass by her Pearl Street home on either April 8 or 9 as she and her husband prepared to go for a walk.

In a general conversation at a country store in Millennium shortly after Jenkins was found murdered, Robert Blowe said he had just seen Jenkins, but he couldn’t recall an exact date.

Larry Luke of Ahoskie said he also saw Jenkins in Ahoskie on April 10. He said he was standing in the yard of his brother’s apartment house, located on the west end of Maple Street, when he saw Jenkins traveling south on Memorial Drive (US 13) near the foot of the overhead pass.

Ricky Odom, a former Aulander now living in Roanoke Rapids, said he saw Jenkins on April 7, 1995 when he stopped at his home to give him an estimate for putting new shingles on the roof.

Two other statements were read into the court record from two witnesses – Willie Alton Hoggard and Donald Earl Hale – whom have since passed away. Hoggard’s statement (taken on April 14, 1995) said he saw Jenkins on April 7 while Hale (interviewed on the same day as Hoggard) said he had visited with Jenkins for about five minutes at his home on April 7.

During a June, 2004 hearing in front of the North Carolina Bar, Hoke and Graves said they did not intentionally withhold witness statements that indicated the murder occurred while Gell was in jail. They said they didn’t know the statements existed because they did not read their entire file as they prepared for the trial. Instead, according to Hoke and Graves, they relied on the lead investigator in the case (Ransome) to tell them what was in the file.

According to a Friday story posted on the Raleigh News & Observer website, Ransome has been reassigned to an administrative job in Raleigh with the SBI.

Additionally, the News & Observer reported that North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper has hired Chris Swecker, a retired assistant FBI director, to review cases handled by Ransome and to suggest changes in policies and techniques.