JOPLIN, Mo. —
It has been decades since Wilma Fay Stephens welcomed her younger son, John, home for the holidays.
This year, she set up a small Christmas tree in her Joplin home and sent $100 to the California prison where John has been on death row since the late ’90s. Now 87 years old, she is separated from him by more than 1,500 miles, but the love and support that only a mother can have for her son remain stronger than ever.
“He’s mine, and he hasn’t done what they said he did, and I believe him,” she said.
Her one wish in the coming year is that her son might be freed in her lifetime.
Her hope rests largely on two signed statements that an attorney said support John’s claims of innocence.
One is a retraction of a statement by a prosecution witness, the other is from another man who later confessed to the crime.
John Clyde Abel was found guilty of the murder of Orange, Calif., merchant Armando Miller, who was shot once in the head on Jan. 4, 1991, as he emerged from a bank in nearby Tustin, Calif. Miller died at the scene; no one witnessed the crime, and the $20,000 he had just withdrawn was never recovered, according to documents from the California Supreme Court.
While his attorneys work to free Abel based on evidence they say proves his innocence, Stephens has stood strongly, if silently, behind her son for years. The man who shot and killed Armando Miller more than two decades ago is not the man she birthed and raised, she said.
“I know my son — he could do a lot of things, but he could never kill,” she said.
Abel was a troublemaker during his childhood in Southern California and escalated from that to a life of crime. Stephens, who moved to Southwest Missouri from California about seven years ago, is the first to admit that her son has a criminal record “as long as your arm.”
Yet the mother always believed that there was good in her son, and blames his poor childhood behavior — and eventual criminal record — on several things: His lack of a male role model or father figure, his undiagnosed and untreated health problems, and her own inability or unwillingness to discipline him. Calling herself “not the best mom on the block,” her words carry a hint of self-blame and remorse.
“John was the type that wanted security, I guess, or someone that really doted on him,” she said. “He did love me, and I loved him, but I didn’t show it enough because after a few times (of John getting into trouble) I thought it has to be something to do with me.”