Best Evidence

George Allen claims police made him confess to rape and murder. Twenty years after Allen was convicted, his last hope hinges on a DNA test.

Heavy snowfalls pounded St. Louis in early February 1982, dumping twenty inches of the white stuff on some neighborhoods and paralyzing the city. Businesses closed, government services were curtailed and people hunkered down. On February 4, after five steady days of snow, side streets and parking lots still were blocked and temperatures hovered in the single digits. People who didn't have to go out didn't.

Mary Bell, a freelance court reporter who lived in the LaSalle Park neighborhood, was one of many who stayed home.

On that cold Thursday 21 years ago, George Allen Jr. says, he knocked on Bell's door. "Can I come in and get warm for a few minutes?" Allen asked the pretty blonde who answered.

William Hood
Murder victim Mary Bell
St. Louis Mercantile Library/UMSL
Murder victim Mary Bell

A troubled 26-year-old with a criminal record, Allen had a history that suggested mental illness, and he admitted that sometimes he drank so much he couldn't recall his actions. Weeks later, when he was interviewed by police, Allen struggled to remember what happened at 1018B Marion Street on that terrible day in February 1982. A police detective helped Allen put the pieces together.

During a lengthy police interrogation, Allen remembered that Bell was attractive, with large breasts and a small waist, and young -- maybe between twenty and 25 years old. Allen remembered that Bell (who was actually 31) told him she didn't usually let men in her house, but he just pushed his way in. Allen remembered that Bell took off running, terrified.

"I was chasin' her up the steps," he told the detective. "I remember chasin' her through the kitchen. I was wrasslin' with her."

Bell, Allen said, had a "big butcher knife about twelve inches long." Allen said he knocked the knife from her hand. Bell ran to a second-floor bedroom and tried to hold the door shut but couldn't keep Allen out. "We went to bed together; it was a brass bed," Allen said. He raped her on the bed, and he raped her on the floor against the wall, next to the bed. Bell fought hard and screamed "real loud," Allen told the detective.

During the rape, Allen said, he heard a woman "knockin' on [Bell's] door and yellin' out her name: 'Sherry' or somethin' like 'Sherry.'" The woman knocked on the door for about five minutes, then "went into her house," Allen said.

Allen said he fought with Bell before and after having sex with her. "She was stabbed during the fight," Allen said, though he was unsure as to exactly when. "I don't remember how many times I stabbed her. When I'm threatened with a weapon I'm -- I don't, ah, usually think; I just react."

Allen picked up a towel "to wipe the blood off," then left.

Bell's body was discovered after 6 p.m. that day. An autopsy revealed multiple wounds and evidence of rape. Bell had been stabbed fourteen times in the back; eight of the wounds pierced the front of her body. Her throat had been cut five times from ear to ear, the blade slicing through all of the neck muscles, the carotid artery and the jugular vein and into her spine.

After two trials -- the first ended with a hung jury -- Allen was convicted. He would likely have been sentenced to death, except he caught a break -- a juror's mother died during the penalty phase, interrupting the trial and preventing the unanimous verdict required for capital punishment. Instead, Allen received a 95-year prison sentence.

Allen's confession was critical to the prosecution's case: There were no witnesses to the crime, there were alibi witnesses who said Allen was elsewhere on the morning of the murder, there was no physical evidence to implicate Allen and there were other suspects. Allen ended up in police custody only because patrol officers saw him walking on the street and initially thought he matched the description of a black man they wanted to bring in for questioning in the Bell murder.

Almost from the beginning, Allen insisted he'd been tricked into confessing to the rape and murder, that police coached him with details and lied when they told him they had evidence putting him at the scene. But his complaints were dismissed, his appeals turned down and the book on Mary Bell's murder closed.

Now, after twenty years behind bars and with all of his legal appeals exhausted, Allen is getting one more shot. A prison-ministry volunteer who took a hard look at Allen's conviction pushed for DNA testing in the case. Recently St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce agreed, giving Allen one last chance to prove his innocence.

Her decision, which comes as more than 100 disputed convictions -- including ones with confessions -- are being overturned nationally because of DNA testing, shakes the dust off a case that always was troubling. Old questions have resurfaced; old wounds have been reopened.

And it's not just Allen's life that hangs in the balance.

In August 1981, about six months before her murder, Mary Bell had separated from her lawyer husband, John Bell. She'd been seeing 29-year-old lawyer Russell Watters since June 1981. John Bell later testified that his wife was "open to the idea" of reconciling. But Watters, who moved in with Mary Bell in January 1982, insisted "She loved me [and] I loved her."

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