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 Miller died at the scene; no one witnessed the crime, and the $20,000 he had just withdrawn was never recovered, according to documents from the California Supreme Court.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.”
In August 1993, two years after the merchant had been murdered, police in California were given Abel’s name in relation to the case by an anonymous tipster. Detectives later interviewed a woman named Lorraine Ripple, an acquaintance who had been convicted of committing several robberies alongside Abel, according to Abel’s attorney. She told police that Abel had once told her that he had killed Miller.
At the time, Abel was already serving a long prison sentence for a series of armed bank robberies. He would testify during his murder trial that he had “around two dozen” felony convictions, mostly for armed robberies occurring between 1973 and 1981 and again in 1991.
He ultimately was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death on Sept. 26, 1997, in Orange County (Calif.) Superior Court, according to documents provided by his attorney. The conviction and sentence were upheld by the California Supreme Court last year; he remains one of more than 700 California inmates currently on death row.
But Michael Lasher, Abel’s Washington, D.C.-based attorney, argues that the case is rife with error. No biological evidence, such as DNA, was found at the crime scene to tie his client to the murder, and witnesses testifying during the trial have identified multiple suspects as the shooter, he said.
Lasher, who works with the anti-death penalty, not-for-profit organization Reprieve, also has filed with the court two signed declarations that he says prove his client is innocent. One declaration is from Ripple, who has revised her testimony to say that Abel “never told me that he killed anyone,” and that she had identified him as the killer only after pressure from a detective.
The other declaration is written and signed by convicted felon Robert Chase, who allegedly admitted to shooting and killing Miller during a botched robbery. Chase has since died while serving a prison sentence on a separate murder conviction.
Abel’s attorneys hope the California court system will consider the declarations, but there is no timeline in which that could happen. Lasher said he would like to see the court move quickly, as Abel is in ill health and is not receiving the medical care he needs for his diabetes in prison.
“The fear is that he’ll die before the court gets on it,” he said. “The fear is they’re just going to sit on this because it’s difficult for courts to admit mistakes of this size were made. If the court refuses to rule, we will take it into federal court and see if they will hear our claims.”
Lasher said that but for the murder conviction, Abel would have been released from his other prison sentences by now.
Abel, now 69, doesn’t deny many of his crimes in other public statements, but he has expressed frustration over his murder conviction.
“I’m the furthest thing from John Q. Citizen, but it bothers me to be called a killer,” he told the Los Angeles Times in an interview from his prison last year.
Stephens acknowledged that it might be easy for people to judge her for her son’s criminal activity, to blame it on the way she raised him, for example. She said she doesn’t care what others might say, instead giving credit to her Christian God for keeping her sane.
But the situation has not been easy. Her son’s death sentence has been a constant source of heartache for her, and his criminal troubles have strained some of her closest relationships with family. Because Stephens has largely kept those struggles to herself, most people aren’t fully aware of what she has endured, said Deanna McDaniel, Stephens’ longtime friend.
“She never, ever has anybody give her pity in regard to her son; she’s kept that private and personal,” she said. “There’s not a lot of conflict with people coming against her because a lot of people don’t know.”
Stephens tries to visit Abel in California’s San Quentin State Prison, which houses the state’s only gas chamber and death row for male inmates, once per year; she last saw him in July on a visit arranged by Lasher. She also regularly sends him care packages filled with whatever he asks for — even sweets. She knows he doesn’t need the sugars and candy because of his diabetes, but it’s hard for her to deny him what he wants.
As she gets closer to her 90th birthday and Abel approaches his 70th, Stephens wants nothing more than to see her son walk free again in her lifetime. Despite attempts by friends to reason or be practical with her, she refuses to believe that the courts won’t give him that opportunity, and she refuses to give up on him.
She can even envision exactly what freedom would look like.
“I would like for them to give him a clear as soon as possible. All this time, and he’s been innocent,” she said, her eyes swimming with tears and her voice swelling with indignation. “I’d hug his neck and kiss him and dance for joy.”