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.
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."
On the day his lover died, Watters said, he woke up between 7 and 7:30 a.m. and took a shower while Bell fixed him breakfast. Around 9 a.m., he later testified in the murder trials, Bell took a telephone call from her mother, Eleanor Enger. Watters said Bell cut the conversation short, telling her mother that she'd call back later because she wanted to see Watters off to work. Watters said he left by 9 a.m., locking the door. Bell's next-door neighbor, Sandra Salih, heard Watters leave. When he slammed the door, her windows shook.
Enger told the jury a slightly different story. Yes, she called her daughter at 9 a.m., but Bell never mentioned Watters. She said she'd never met Watters and didn't know he was sharing the apartment with her daughter.
Between 10 and 10:15 a.m., Pamela Richardson, who transcribed tapes and notes for court reporters, called Bell. Bell had four tapes for Richardson to transcribe, and Richardson, who was downtown at the time, agreed to come by Bell's apartment to pick them up. The apartment's parking lot was still full of snow, so Richardson would have to park on the street.
Richardson testified at trial about their telephone conversation. While they were talking, Richardson recalled, Bell interrupted the conversation briefly. When she picked up the phone again, Bell explained, "I just took a shower. I had to put on a robe." Richardson said that when Bell put the phone down, "I thought maybe somebody had come to the door."
Sometime after 10 a.m., neighbor Sandra Salih heard "angry male and female voices" coming from Bell's apartment. The "woman's voice was the loudest," Salih testified. "She was crying while the argument was going on. To me it was loud, angry crying." Salih testified that the argument lasted about ten minutes and assumed it was Bell and Watters who were fighting because "that's who I thought lived there."
At about 10:30 a.m., Salih heard someone knocking on Bell's door. It was Richardson.
It wasn't the first time Richardson had been to Bell's home. "I would knock on the door and [Bell] would look out her kitchen window, which was the level above the front door. I would see her face up there and I would hear her coming down the stairs. She would look out her peephole and then call my name before she opened that door," Richardson told a jury.
Richardson testified that Bell was an "extremely" cautious person who followed the ritual "every time."
This time, Bell didn't look out her kitchen window or peer through the peephole. Richardson heard "some movement right inside the front door. I heard the sound of a down jacket rustling against what I know now to be the door." And, she said, she also "heard some bumping sounds, muffled bumping sounds later ... right up against her front door." She knocked louder, called Bell's name two or three times to the window above. But Bell never answered the door, and Richardson gave up. She said that she tried calling Bell several times during the day, to no avail.
Richardson wasn't the only one trying to get in touch with Bell. Watters said he tried to call her several times but couldn't reach her.
Watters came home around 6 p.m. Bell's white Volkswagen Rabbit, just a few months old, was in the parking lot. Watters told the jury that both the doorknob lock and deadbolt were unlocked. When he opened the door, he saw Bell's shoes at the bottom of the stairs. The apartment was dark, and the radio was on. Some cards were shuffled about on the floor. He smelled burning coffee and turned on a light.
"I called out for Mary," Watters said. The bedroom door was closed, the room dark. "I believe I looked in the bedroom." But he didn't turn on the light. He only looked behind the bedroom door for the laundry, because, he told the jury, "I know we talked about doing laundry that night."
Watters went downstairs to the building's basement laundry room to look for Bell. When he didn't find her, Watters said, he went to Mellodie Wilson's apartment. Wilson, the apartment manager, had become friends with Bell.
The two returned to the apartment to look for Bell. They found her in the bedroom -- her nude body was across the room, in a corner between the bed and the wall. From the door, the bed would have hidden the body. Bell was lying face-down on the floor, a pool of blood beneath her.
When police arrived, they found blood on the bed, the bedroom wall and carpet and a robe and a director's chair in the kitchen, as well as in the bathroom.
They also found evidence of rape: seminal fluid in the crotch of Bell's jeans, on the back inside part of her robe and on a director's chair. That led police to believe Bell had been wearing a robe and a pair of pants when she was attacked. Anal lacerations indicated that she'd been sodomized.
Of the twenty identifiable fingerprints at the scene, nineteen belonged to Watters and one to an investigating officer.
On the basis of Richardson's contact with Bell, the time of death was estimated to be between 10 and 10:30 a.m.
The investigators found an eight-and-a-half-inch long bloody butcher knife, concealed in a first-floor closet near the front door. It had been wrapped in a towel and placed in a Styrofoam cooler. The blood on the knife was Bell's.
On the towel was a beard hair. The chief criminalist of the St. Louis Police Department later testified that the beard hair came from a white man.
Six weeks after Bell's murder, police still hadn't made an arrest. Both the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat carried stories and updates about the case, and police were under the gun to get the killer in custody. Three lie-detector tests were given, the police said, but they didn't divulge to whom the polygraphs had been administered.
Police ruled out John Bell, Bell's estranged husband, and Russell Watters, her lover, as suspects. Both had alibis.
John Bell said he was snowed in at home. Tom Liese, a lawyer and friend of Bell's, said he helped Bell dig out from 9:15 to 10:15 a.m., after which they were together until about 2 p.m.
Watters also had an alibi. Michael Pitzer, a lawyer with Watters' office, said Watters arrived at 9:30 a.m. or between 9:30 and 10 a.m. Pat Detjen, the law firm's receptionist, said Watters came in at 9:15 a.m. after a fifteen-minute commute from his apartment through snow-clogged streets. A year-and-a-half later, Detjen even remembered what Watters was wearing that day: charcoal-gray pants, a camel-hair sweater and Western boots. Robert Rosenthal, another lawyer at the office, said he went to lunch that day with Watters and Pitzer.
The police turned their attention to a man named Kirk Eaton, who'd been seen in the area of Bell's apartment shortly after the murder. Eaton was a convicted rapist whose brother lived near Bell. Eaton left town shortly after the Bell murder. A memo went out to officers about Eaton, describing him as "a Negro male, five-eleven, five-ten, 150 pounds."
On Sunday, March 14, 1982, officers Terry James and Mark Burford were patrolling the Lafayette Square neighborhood when they spotted a black man walking down Park Avenue in the 1900 block of Park -- several blocks from Bell's apartment in what is now a row of thriving retail shops and restaurants. The officers asked the man for identification, thinking he might be Eaton.
George Allen showed the officers several pieces of paper bearing his name but nothing with his picture. The officers ran Allen's name to see whether there were any outstanding warrants for his arrest. There was none. Nevertheless, the officers asked Allen to accompany them to the 3rd District station.
Allen asked why. Because Allen couldn't produce any photo identification, James testified, "We would like to take him to the 3rd District station, check him out, verify his name and see if he was wanted." If everything checked out, James testified, "I believe we said we'd cut him loose." The officers cuffed Allen and put him in the back of the squad car.
It was the last time Allen was a free man.
Allen was held in a holdover cell as the officers compared an old photo of Eaton with Allen. Unable to rule out the possibility that the man they had locked up was Eaton, they called Detective Pam LaRose of the sex-crimes department, as well as homicide detective Herb Riley. Riley asked them to bring Allen down to police headquarters.
Accounts of what happened next differ and would later become issues in Allen's trials and his appeals.
Allen later would claim in court filings that he was strip-searched while a female detective was in the room. He said he was "required to disrobe completely and was without clothes for one hour" and interrogated for several hours. He said he asked for a lawyer but was told that "he didn't need an attorney because he wouldn't be there that long." The officers asked him how many times a week he had sex and whether he liked to sleep with black women or white women. Allen said that Riley told him he was sure that Allen had committed the crime, that the police had his fingerprints to prove it. He said the police asked him to draw a diagram of the apartment but that when he did, they told him it was inaccurate. He said he talked to Riley for as long as three hours before the confession that would convict him was taped and that he made the confession because he felt he had no choice.
Police gave a different story.
LaRose said she read Allen his Miranda rights at police headquarters and interrogated him at the homicide office for about half-an-hour. She asked "personal questions ... about sex ... if he thought sex was a normal thing." She wanted to know whether he'd ever forced a woman to have sex. Allen said yes, then no. At that point, LaRose decided that she didn't have anything to book him on and "terminated the interview."
One of the arresting officers, Mark Burford, concluded that Allen wasn't Eaton and returned to duty after LaRose finished her interrogation. Then, at about 1 p.m., Riley met with Allen. Riley also concluded that Allen wasn't Eaton; he testified, "Once I came back and determined that he was not Kirk Eaton, he could have left."
But, Riley admitted to Allen's defense lawyer, "I did not say he could leave." And no other officer mentioned to Allen that he was free to go, either. According to the police, Allen had been in custody for about two-and-a-half hours.
Riley asked Allen why he was walking the city streets when his home was in University City, because it seemed odd that he would be walking around the area. He wanted to know whether Allen had ever had "relations" with white women. Then he asked Allen whether he was familiar with the LaSalle Park area, the area where Bell was murdered. Allen said yes. Riley wanted to know whether Allen had been in the area around the time of the big snow. Again Allen answered yes.
Riley also testified that he showed Allen a photograph of a vase. And Riley recalled telling Allen: "'You know that we have fingerprints from this house' or maybe I might have said from the vase. I don't remember." He never told Allen the fingerprints were his, but, Riley testified, "I wanted him to think that we had his."
Once Allen admitted to being in the area around the time of the murder, Riley said, Allen became a suspect and police began tape-recording Allen.
The taped interrogation begins with a brief statement from Riley: "The date is March 14, 1982, and the time is approximately 1:47 p.m. My name is Detective Sergeant Herb Riley, assigned to homicide, and to my left is, ah, Officer Terry James, assigned to District 3. Ah, the gentleman in the room here with us is a man who may or may not have information relative to this incident."
Before the interrogation, Riley had shown Allen pictures of the apartment complex where Bell lived. During the interrogation, he refers to the pictures: "I asked you if you had ever been down to these apartments, ah, particularly, ah, in February when we had the deep snow. And you looked at the pictures, and was you down in that area?"
"Yeah, I was down there," Allen answers; a moment later, he adds that he was positive it was "late -- late at night" when he knocked on Mary's door. (The murder occurred in the morning.)
Riley mentions additional photographs of doors, wooden decks and steps at Bell's apartment that were shown to Allen.
"Had you ever been up on that deck and, in fact, had you ever knocked on that particular door?"
"Yeah, I did," Allen responds. A lady answered, he adds.
What did she look like? "Ah, I guess white," Allen says. "Dark hair, I guess." (Bell was a blonde.)
Riley continues: "When I asked you what she looked like, George, I mean, was she an attractive woman or ..."
"Yeah, she was attractive."
"Did she have a nice body on her?"
"You remember how she was dressed at that time?"
"Uh, I think she had on a nightgown," Allen answers, then describes the nightgown as white.
Allen says he asked the woman whether he could come in and get warm. She said she didn't usually let men in the house.
"And what -- did she let you in there?" Riley asks.
"No, I don't think so. I think I forced my way in."
"Well, then what happened?"
"Ah, we started wrasslin'."
"I mean," Riley continues, "do you remember when you went in the door, did you go up some steps, or what happened? Ah, you remember?"
"Well, I think I was chasin' her up the steps."
Riley asks what happened next. "Well, I was wrasslin' with her, tryin' to force some answers," Allen says. "We went to bed together" on "a brass bed."
Riley asks, "Are you sayin' that because I showed you a picture of that, or do you recall that?"
"I recall it."
Did Allen have sex with Bell? Allen says yes, but "front, was all."
"Did you stick it in her butt?" Riley asks.
"Ah, no, I didn't."
"You sure of that?"
"Uh, no, I'm not sure."
"Could you have?"
"I might have. I could have."
The two men talk abut Bell's figure. "Was there anything about her body that especially turned you on?" Riley asks.
"Um, her chest, breasts."
"What was -- what about her breasts?"
"They were large," Allen responds. Riley asks Allen to describe Bell's figure.
Allen estimates Bell's measurements for the detective.
"Shit, man, you talkin' about a big -- big, big chest, ain't ya?" Riley says. "You sound like you're an authority on measurements. What'd you say 38 --"
"Sounds awful good, doesn't it?"
"Yeah," Allen answers.
Riley has Allen go back through his testimony up to this point and asks, "Did you have sex -- other than on the bed, did you have sex anyplace else in that room?"
"On the floor. And, ah, I guess over against the wall and then --"
"On the floor, next to where?"
"Next to the bed."
A couple of questions later, Riley goes back to the question of sodomy.
"OK. Did you stick it in her butt?"
"Yeah, I guess I did. Yeah."
"Was she -- was she resisting this, George?"
"Uh, yes, she was."
"Had you ever had white girls before?"
"Yeah, I have."
"Huh? Well, where -- when you had white girls before, did you usually stick it in their butt like that, or -- "
"Yeah, if it went in."
Riley goes back through the places Allen claimed to have sex with Bell, then asks, "I mean, was she -- when she came up the steps, was she, ah, running around the apartment or did she run right to the bed, or -- "
"She ran in one room up and tried to, ah, hold the door shut," Allen says.
Riley asks what happened after Allen raped Bell. "Uh, then I remember, uh, puttin' on my clothes and runnin' out the door."
"Oh, but didn't you do somethin' first?"
"I don't remember doin' anything else."
Riley presses: Did Allen take anything from the apartment? Allen denies doing so.
"Did you pick up a towel while you was in the house?"
"Yeah, I guess I did," Allen says, but he can't remember the color.
"Did you wrap anything in this towel?"
"Think now, George."
"I don't remember -- I don't remember taking anything. I remember runnin' out of the house, that's all I know."
"OK. When you was in the house, did you hear any noises? Like noises comin' from the outside? Or noises from the inside?"
"No, I didn't."
Riley has Allen go back through the sequence of events. Allen remembers a knock on the door, a voice calling "Sherry."
Then Allen again tells Riley that after the rape, he left.
"When you started to go, was she still screamin', or what was she doin'? 'Cause what's gonna keep her from screamin' if you left?"
"Well, I had hit her a couple of times, and I think she was ah -- "
"What'd you hit her with?"
"Well -- didn't use nothin' else? Think about it, now."
"Uh-uh, nothin' else."
"That was it."
"Well, I know you're a, you know, you're a pretty good-size man."
"Didn't you cut her?"
"No, I don't remember cuttin' her."
"Didn't you get somethin' from her house and cut her?"
"What, like a knife from the kitchen? It might have happened that I hit her or somethin' -- but I don't remember it."
"I didn't say a knife in the kitchen. You said a knife in a kitchen. Do you remember stickin' her with a knife?"
"I know I recall chasin' her through the house," Allen says.
"Do you remember stickin' her with a knife?"
"No. I don't remember stickin' her with one, no."
Allen continues to deny that he stabbed Bell; Riley keeps pressing. Finally Allen says Mary had a knife, that he knocked it from her hand.
"Did you pick it up?"
"Think about it, now."
"You didn't touch the knife?"
"We have the knife, you know," Riley tells Allen. "Do you remember if you touched the knife?"
"Yeah, I guess so. Yeah."
Allen tells Riley that Mary had the knife and that he chased her in the apartment. He knocked the knife from her hand.
"Did you go back and pick up the knife?"
"George, did you stab this woman?"
"I don't remember stabbin' her."
"Could you have stabbed her and don't remember?"
"I could have."
"How many times did you stab her, George?"
"I don't remember."
"You remember everything else. Why wouldn't you remember that? Look at me."
"I don't remember."
"Look at me --"
"I don't --"
"Look at me. Look at me, George."
"-- because I'm a heavy drinker, and if I did it I was drunk at the time, I know."
"But you're not saying anything about stabbin' her."
"Was she stabbed?"
"Yes, she was stabbed."
"Well, she was stabbed during the fight, then."
Riley has Allen go back and tell the story again. Allen admits and then denies cutting Bell.
Riley gets exasperated: "George, I can't understand you. You remember so much, so many of the little details as I'm askin' you questions. You remember about the big bust she had, and about her waist and about this --"
"I'm rememberin' it 'cause you got the evidence. I don't remember nothin'," Allen said. "You got the evidence and the fingerprints, you know. Before we started talkin' I said, no, I don't remember."
Riley continues to ask about the stabbing, trying to get Allen to tell him where he stabbed Bell.
"I don't remember killing her, I really don't."
Riley pulls out two pictures of Bell: "Will this help your memory? Is that the woman you're talkin' about? George?"
"Yeah, that's her."
"You see the way she's stabbed there? In them pictures?"
"Did you stab her like that?"
"Yeah, I guess I did."
The interview continues only a few more minutes. Riley asks Allen a few more times to admit stabbing Bell, and when he waffles -- "I guess I did" -- Riley says, "Don't guess, did you --"
"I said I did."
The interview ends, and soon after Allen is charged with murder.
Herb Riley was a veteran cop with a reputation for getting people to confess. He'd served on the force for 27 years, seventeen of them in homicide. He retired as a sergeant in 1986. When he died in 1996, the Post-Dispatch described him as a detective "who used his smooth gift of communicating to get numerous murder confessions."
But Allen's lawyers weren't as impressed with Riley's gift. They noted that Riley showed Allen pictures from the murder scene before the tape started rolling, asked Allen leading questions that provided details from the crime scene and tricked Allen into thinking police had evidence linking him to the scene.
After the confession, investigators worked feverishly to obtain the physical evidence that would back up the confession, but they couldn't come up with anything.
In 1982, DNA evidence wasn't part of the criminal-law landscape. The first time a federal court admitted DNA evidence was 1986. The Missouri Supreme Court didn't approve its use until 1991.
So the lab work that was done to find Bell's murderer was primitive by today's standards. Police criminalists, however, were able to do a basic test on the seminal fluid found in Bell's apartment. Some men secrete blood antigens into their semen and other body fluids, but the seminal fluid found at the crime scene came from a nonsecretor, tests showed. A saliva sample taken from Allen also showed he didn't secrete antigens from his blood into other body fluids. The results didn't rule out Allen, but neither were they conclusive. Joseph Crow, the police-department criminalist who performed the test, was asked at trial what percentage of the male population would have the same results that Allen had. "About 89 to 90 percent," Crow said.
Investigators also analyzed fibers from Bell's home and Allen's. They were hoping to find fibers from Allen's home inside Bell's apartment. They didn't.
And despite Allen's claims during the confession that he hit Bell in the head, Dr. Elizabeth Laposata, a forensic pathologist with the St. Louis medical examiner's office, said that when she examined Bell's head for evidence of trauma, "there was nothing significant there" -- no injury to her head that would've made her lose consciousness.
And Allen had his own alibi witnesses.
Allen lived with his mother and sister in University City, a little more than ten miles from Bell's apartment. His mother, Lonzetta Taylor, testified that her son was home the morning of February 4. Around 8 or 8:30 a.m., she rousted him from his room to help push his sister's car out of the snow. When Taylor decided to walk to the grocery store, sometime between 11 a.m. and noon, she said, Allen was still at home. And when she returned from the store, about a half-hour later, he was still at home. She stayed home for the remainder of the day, and Allen was home the entire time, she said. She also said that Allen did not own a car, nor did he have permission to drive her car.
Elfrieda Allen, Allen's sister, also recalled seeing George at 8:30 a.m. on February 4. Joe Randolph, Elfrieda Allen's boyfriend, had been staying at the home because his car was stuck in the snow. When he woke, Randolph said, around 10 or 10:30 a.m. -- the approximate time of Bell's murder -- he saw Allen walking around the house.
At the time Allen was charged with murder, the public-defender system sometimes hired private attorneys to handle big felony cases. Douglas Levine had been out of law school for about four years, had practiced with well-known criminal-defense lawyer Charlie Shaw and was a sole practitioner when he was asked to handle Allen's defense.
"They had contacted a couple of attorneys prior to talking to me," Levine says. "One or two people knew [Bell], socialized with her, and they just would not do it. She was loved by everyone."
Levine says he knew Bell, too -- he'd had a case in which she'd been the court reporter -- "but I didn't know her well." He also knew John Bell and Russ Watters "at least on a casual basis."
Before ultimately agreeing to represent Allen, Levine says, he thought long and hard.
When Levine took control of the case, he had a client with a minor criminal history. According to newspaper stories from 1982, Allen had been charged in 1977 in St. Louis County with the crime of assault with intent to ravish. The story from the Globe-Democrat says that the St. Louis County prosecutor knocked the case down to a misdemeanor because Allen was deemed mentally retarded. (That file can no longer be found in the St. Louis County courthouse. Clerks were unable to find the file and said that it must have been destroyed.)
In 1978, Allen confessed to stealing a car. His lawyer claimed coercion, had his client enter a not-guilty plea and asked for a psychological exam. According to the file, one was performed, but the results were not kept in the file. However, once the exam results came back, Allen switched his plea to guilty. Also in 1978, Allen locked his mother out of her house in University City. She called the police, and they used tear gas to get him out of the house. He was taken to Malcolm Bliss Mental Health Center, but his diagnosis is unknown.
In the Bell murder case, Levine asked for a psychological exam. Again, the medical records aren't part of the public record, and there is no reference to the diagnosis in the public court files. Levine says, "There were questions about that, but I honestly don't remember."
However, after an exam was performed, the judge ruled that Bell was fit to stand trial, and the proceedings started on April 20, 1983.
Circuit Attorney George Peach, a get-tough prosecutor later driven from the office in a prostitution scandal, assigned the case to assistant circuit attorney Dean Hoag. Peach, Hoag and other prosecutors knew Mary Bell, who had worked as a court reporter for the circuit attorney's office two years before she died.
During the first trial, Levine blasted Allen's arrest and confession. In his closing arguments, he fumed about how police nabbed Allen and how they elicited his confession: "Six weeks after the incident they've got a black boy walking nine blocks away from the incident, and then three hours later they've got a statement."
And he went after Riley. "Herb Riley was a 'saintly' fellow," Levine said. "I don't know what Dean [Hoag] called him exactly, but [it was] something like that.
"'Did you stick it in her butt?' [asks] the 'saintly' Sergeant Herb Riley," Levine continued, noting that Allen denied doing any such thing. And Levine told the jury to be suspicious of the interrogation that took place before the tape recorder was turned on. "I submit to you that you're making a mistake if you don't believe there was a whole heck of a lot more conversation going on prior to the time of the taping of this statement," Levine said.
Much about the case didn't add up. Why would Bell, described as cautious, open the door to a stranger? Why was there no evidence of trauma to Bell's vagina, which indicated, he suggested, that Bell had consented to sex. He said the evidence suggested that she was wearing jeans and a robe when sex was initiated. The evidence, Allen's lawyer argued, pointed a finger at a different suspect. "I submit to you that it was consensual sexual intercourse to start, and I submit to you that she wouldn't have opened the door to let just anybody back in. She would have let Russell [Watters] back in. And I submit to you that they had consensual sex, and that something went crazy, something caused the argument that the lady next door heard, and then it was all over."
"George Allen did not leave that house that day. George Allen did not -- from University City where he lived on a regular basis, he did not trudge through seventeen inches of snow on the morning of February 4, 1982. He didn't do it."
The jurors deadlocked. Some accounts say the vote was eleven to one in favor of a not-guilty verdict; others say it was ten to two. Judge Jack L. Koehr declared a mistrial, which meant that the case would be tried again.
Allen's second trial started on July 18, 1983.
This time, the prosecution was prepared for the defense arguments. Hoag knew that Levine would point a finger at Watters, so he brought in Watters' alibi witnesses to testify. The same was done for John Bell. Mary Bell's brother also testified that he'd had a fight with her in December 1981 because she opened her apartment door on two occasions without first checking to see who it was.
The prosecutor said Allen's confession proved that he killed Bell; he stressed the fact that Allen knew someone had knocked on the door and yelled "Sherry!" Riley testified that he didn't know that Richardson had called Bell's name when she stopped by the house. That was information only the murderer would know.
Richardson, however, testified that she told Riley about yelling Bell's name on February 4, either shortly after the funeral or a few weeks later. The prosecutor and Riley argued that the time frame meant that Riley didn't know until after he interviewed Allen. Allen's lawyer said the time frame put Riley's knowledge before the March 14 interrogation.
With the defense strategy exposed in the first trial, the prosecution outflanked the argument. Although the judge threw out a robbery count, the jury returned a guilty verdict on the remaining counts: capital murder, rape, sodomy and burglary. Allen dodged a death sentence when a juror's mother died during the penalty phase. His sentence, handed down by Judge Richard J. Mehan: life imprisonment without possibility of parole for 50 years on the capital-murder charge and fifteen years on each of the three remaining convictions -- to be served consecutively. His total sentence was 95 years.
After the conviction, Allen's mother received hate mail from people who identified themselves as members of the Ku Klux Klan. She called police, who, she says, told her to "just throw it in the trash can."
Levine says the case drained him. "It was difficult getting into it and difficult living it," he says, recalling the moments during and after the trial when he would get on and off the courthouse elevators with John Bell and Watters. "I don't think I made a lot of friends trying that lawsuit," he says. "But you do what you have to do."
"It was so intense, everything just stopped," Levine remembers. "I don't know if it was after the first or the second trial, but I remember waking up like an electric shock had gone through the system -- I had never had that before.
"It was kind of like a post-traumatic-stress thing, I think."
Levine appealed Allen's conviction. Prosecutors typically turn appellate issues over to the Missouri attorney general's office, and this case was no exception. John Ashcroft, now U.S. attorney general, assigned the case to assistant attorney general Michael H. Finkelstein. The two sides filed briefs, transcripts, exhibits and trial-court pleadings that number close to 2,000 pages.
The defense stressed the inconsistencies. The physical evidence at the scene suggested that a white man, not a black man, committed the crime. Allen was initially arrested because he looked like someone else the police were searching for who had been a suspect in the case. Riley lied to Allen about having fingerprints implicating Allen in the crime and showed him photos connected to the crime scene, and he had the opportunity to provide many of the details that Allen would later recount in the confession. Investigators couldn't find any physical evidence that Allen was ever in the apartment, and Allen would've had to walk several miles in twenty inches of snow on February 4 in order to kill Bell.
But the Missouri Court of Appeals' Eastern District ruled in favor of the state and against Allen in 1985. The court held that the police had probable cause to arrest Allen, that his confession was voluntary, that the confession was adequately corroborated and that the state acted properly when it was allowed to present witnesses who corroborated Watters' testimony. The Missouri Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
It seemed to be the end of the road for George Allen.
After his conviction, Allen was sent to the state's maximum-security prison in Jefferson City. In 1989, he was transferred to a new maximum-security facility in Potosi, about an hour-and-a-half from St. Louis.
In a recent interview with the Riverfront Times, Allen says he reconnected with his Christian faith and that it was through the prison ministry that he met volunteer Tom Block.
Block says that in 1996, "I made my rounds, prayed and read from the Bible." During those rounds, he met Allen.
"This other inmate encouraged me to look into [George's] case," Block says. "I've been involved in prison work for a long time. I know a lot of people aren't innocent."
But Block says that he was curious about George's case, and even though the Department of Corrections prohibits people in the prison ministry from getting involved in inmates' cases, Block told Allen to send him a copy of the trial transcript.
"So about a month or two months later, a big package wrapped with brown paper and 37 stamps shows up on my doorstep," Block says.
Block describes Allen as a man with "mental limitations and slowness." And it seemed implausible to him that Allen would walk several miles "in the worst storm in decades"; that Mary Bell, "a cautious white woman," would open her door to a black man; and that Allen could commit a brutal and bloody crime and get back home to University City without being noticed.
On December 16, 1996, Block wrote to the Innocence Project about Allen, and by the end of the year, the group had agreed to take Allen's case. Founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, the Innocence Project is a nonprofit legal clinic headquartered at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at New York City's Yeshiva University.
Block says that in 1998, the Innocence Project was told that the evidence no longer existed in Allen's case. The lawyers in New York suggested that Block take the case to Sean O'Brien, a Kansas City attorney who tries to get death sentences overturned on the basis of new evidence. O'Brien didn't have enough time, Block says, so he also tried the Midwestern Innocence Project, headquartered at the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school. But Block says that this group was also understaffed and unable to push Allen's case any further through the system.
In late 2002, Block says, he contacted the Innocence Project staff in New York once again because evidence from other cases was turning up at the St. Louis circuit attorney's office. The New York-based group agreed to push for DNA testing once again in the case.
Block also sent St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce a letter, dated May 15, 2003, urging her office to consent to test Allen.
In May, Joyce agreed, though she says that her office's Justice Project had initiated its own review of the case.
Joyce agreed to DNA testing but says her assent shouldn't be construed as "a comment or statement about the strength of the case."
It may take a couple of months before test results are returned in the case, but Joyce says that if Allen is exonerated, it won't necessarily mean that people will harbor an even greater distrust of the system.
"I think it will strengthen people's faith in the criminal-justice system," Joyce says.
The soft-spoken, bespectacled inmate is now 47, and his hair is turning gray. Known to corrections officials as inmate number 48248, Allen says he gets daily doses of medication and psychiatric visits every three months for what he's been told is "schizo-affective" disorder.
Allen doesn't know much more about his mental condition -- he says he doesn't like to talk about it with the doctors. What he really wants to talk about is his religious awakening. He says that at 9 p.m. on September 9, 1993, he was "drawn to the kindness of Jesus" and saved during a "Rock of Ages" revival at the prison.
"He [Jesus] was perfect, and everybody was looking on him as if he was doing wrong," Allen explains. Since that moment at the revival, Allen says, he was born again: "It was kind of like walking out of the darkness and into the light."
Allen may have found Jesus in prison, but he gave up any expectation that he'd ever be a free man. "I'd lost hope," he says. That changed on Memorial Day, he says, when he received a phone call from his lawyer telling him he was going to be tested. Was he happy? "It takes me a little while to get excited about it -- after all these years," Allen says.
He says he feels horrible about what Mary Bell went through -- anyone who wouldn't is cold-hearted, he says. But he adds: "I didn't kill Miss Mary Bell. I was a product of the system that got rid of black people from the street, especially black men."
Asked about his confession many years ago, Allen says, "I didn't know nothing about no murder. They put words in my mouth. Whatever they wanted me to say, that's what I said."
Allen's former defense lawyer says he's relieved the case is being reexamined. "I still strongly believe that he is not guilty," says Douglas Levine, who is now the St. Louis County chief deputy public administrator. Levine acknowledges that the DNA test, which reopens the question of Allen's guilt, will conjure up painful memories for everyone touched by Bell's murder. "A lot of people don't want that case dredged back up," he says.
Mary Bell's mother and brother declined comment. Neither John Bell nor Russell Watters, who both still practice law in St. Louis, returned calls.
Dean Hoag, the prosecutor who tried the case against Allen twice, is now an assistant U.S. attorney. Asked whether he thinks justice was done in the Mary Bell murder case, he says, "Obviously I do. That's a goofy question."
"George Allen," Hoag says, "is guilty."
Looking through the lens of the criminal-justice system, Hoag is right: A convicted man is a guilty man. And twelve jurors decided decades ago that Allen raped and murdered Mary Bell.
Science may offer another verdict.
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