Murder was the case: Though 13 and not the shooter, Jesil Wilson got life in prison. Was justice served?
BY CARY ASPINWALL World Staff Writer
Sunday, December 30, 2012
12/30/12 at 2:09 PM
Federal appeals court ruling in the Jesil Wilson case
Click here to see the Transcripts of Preliminary Hearing
About this story:
Jesil Wilson’s case came to the attention of Tulsa World reporter Cary Aspinwall as a result of an Open Records request for offender marriage licenses from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
The Tulsa World used court records, trial transcripts, newspaper archives and interviews with family members and officials involved with the case. The family of Mitchell Knighten, former Judge Todd Singer and former prosecutor John Heil did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Using data provided by the Department of Corrections, the Tulsa World reviewed the cases of more than 65 offenders serving life sentences (with the possibility of parole) for crimes committed as juveniles. Records show that Jesil is one of very few Oklahoma prisoners - possibly the only one - currently serving a life sentence for a murder committed when he was 13, in which he was not the killer.
In the earliest hours of Jan. 3, 1997, 13-year-old Jesil Wilson knocked on the door of Letoria Knighten's townhome.
He asked for Mitchell, her 18-year-old brother. He told her it was important.
Mitchell Knighten stumbled sleepily down the stairs.
The sister heard two voices - "just a normal conversation," according to court records.
"Dude that was out there asked him, 'Do you have his stuff?' And he said, 'I ain't got your stuff,' " Letoria Knighten testified.
As she pressed her ear against the door and spied out the peephole, she saw Jesil's 18-year-old cousin, Zachary Ferguson. She couldn't see Jesil, but a security camera captured footage of three teens.
They were there to get a gun, one Mitchell had taken from Jesil on New Year's Eve.
Mitchell refused to give the gun back, pushing Jesil and threatening to "get his gauge" and kill them all.
Jesil stepped back into the street as Zachary walked toward Mitchell, called him a "buster," aimed and fired.
Three shots, one crumpled body. Three boys ran from the scene.
Mitchell's pulse faded. The blood prevented paramedics from inserting a tube down his throat to help him breathe.
In the chaos, a couch was flipped over in Letoria Knighten's living room. A .22-caliber pistol fell out of its hiding place and landed near Mitchell's lifeless body.
Knocking on the door that night took Jesil from middle school to maximum-security prison.
Prosecutors made the case that he was guilty of first-degree murder in Mitchell's death.
The judge who ruled that Jesil should stand trial as an adult said he lacked the "fire in his belly to get better and make himself a decent human being and show remorse."
Almost two years passed before Tulsa County prosecutors filed criminal charges against Jesil. By then he was 15. Ferguson, his cousin, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.
Jesil's case didn't go to trial until 1999, when he was 16. Whether he deserved a chance in Oklahoma's juvenile justice system depends on whom you ask.
Why he didn't get that chance may have had to do with a number of factors: poverty, education, gang affiliation, questionable legal representation, disputed evidence and his own actions in the years that followed.
Now 29, Jesil has spent the better part of his life behind bars.
New Year's Eve
Sirmodia Wilson married a man she fell for as a young girl. Her husband, Jesil Wilson, was convicted of first-degree murder as an adult for a shooting that happened when he was 13, although he was not the triggerman. He is serving a life sentence. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World
As 1997 arrived, a New Year's Eve party descended into chaos at the Skate World rink near 21st Street and Garnett Road.
Tulsa World archives refer to it as a disturbance where "several hundred juveniles destroyed property inside the building." Some 20 police cars arrived so officers could sort out the mess.
Jesil, whose street name was "Lil' Hoodsta," was there with a handgun. At some point, Mitchell Knighten took the .22-caliber pistol from the 13-year-old. Witnesses and police said Mitchell took it to keep Jesil from hurting anyone.
He reportedly intended to return the gun to Jesil's mother, who lived in the same apartment complex as Mitchell's sister, just across the street from Skate World.
Before this, the boys had been friends.
Knighten's relatives did not respond to interview requests for this story.
The police who interrogated Jesil told him that everyone else involved had already claimed that the gun at the center of the dispute was his.
In an interview from prison, Jesil maintained the gun Mitchell took from him belonged to Ferguson and the older Neighborhood Crips, the gang both boys ran with. Whenever they were out packing heat, the older guys told Jesil if police pulled them over, he was to say it was his gun or "jump out and run with it," Jesil said.
Because he was young, he would be treated as a juvenile and "wouldn't get no time," he said he was told.
Police questioned Jesil for several hours after the crime, without an attorney or parent present. They knew he was not the gunman, so they said he was treated as a witness and not considered a suspect, initially.
At some point, police said, Jesil started making conflicting statements to throw the heat off his older cousin. Detectives stopped the interview and called his mother, Cinderella Ferguson, to the police station to sign a waiver of Jesil's Miranda rights.
Nickels and dimes
Jesil Wilson, 29, has spent his entire adult life in prison. He is serving a life sentence for a murder that occurred when he was 13, though he was not the shooter. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World
In the basement of downtown Tulsa's historic Beacon building, attorney Michael French's office sits near 50-cent pop machines and a janitor's closet.
A self-described "nickel-and-dime" guy, French's specialty is flat-rate fee representation for lesser crimes: DUI, larceny, failure to appear.
Jesil's family hired French for about $700 when Jesil originally faced accessory to murder charges as a juvenile.
"My family didn't have the best money to get a lawyer," Jesil said in an interview with the World. "You put your life in someone's hands, and you don't even know if they know what they're doing."
When first contacted by the World, French disputed he was the attorney of record for anything related to a murder trial, saying his name must have appeared in error.
But court records show French represented Jesil for both his final juvenile certification and preliminary hearing, where a judge decided to put him on trial for murder as an adult.
Whether French was qualified to represent the teen for either of those proceedings and provided effective counsel have been central questions for all of Jesil's appeals, which have been denied.
French maintains he really wasn't capable of handling such a case. He graduated from law school in 1997 and mostly handled divorces his first year, he said. In his career, he's handled maybe seven jury trials, he estimated.
"I don't do murder cases. I'm incapable of dealing with something that serious," he said.
But there he was on Nov. 4, 1998, representing Jesil at his preliminary hearing in Tulsa County District Court.
In the transcript, French appears caught off guard by a homicide detective's testimony about statements Jesil may have said before his mother signed a waiver of his Miranda rights. French said he was under the impression Jesil's mother had been present at the time.
Oklahoma law says information and evidence obtained by interrogating a child younger than 16 can't be used in court unless the child had a custodial parent or attorney present.
Police testified that Jesil was free to leave until they decided he should be considered a suspect, called his mother and asked her to come to the station and sign a Miranda waiver.
A detective testified Jesil was not told he could leave at any time.
"He never asked," the detective said.
Jesil had a learning disability and tested at the fourth-grade level, although he was in the sixth grade. He knew nothing about Miranda v. Arizona, the 1966 U.S. Supreme Court case requiring that detained criminal suspects - prior to police questioning - must be informed of their constitutional rights to an attorney and to remain silent.
"How was I supposed to leave? I was in handcuffs," Jesil said.
This police photo of the crime scene shows where murder victim Mitchell Knighten was gunned down when he was 18 years old. Courtesy
District Judge Carlos Chappelle, who now presides over civil court cases, clearly remembers seeing Jesil in his court for his first juvenile certification hearing on an accessory to murder charge.
"Even if I had another option, I still would have opted to treat him as an adult," Chappelle said. "When you get into the very serious violent crimes, they merit severe punishment."
Although Jesil was only 13 at the time, he played a key role in Mitchell Knighten's murder, Chappelle said.
"He was steely cold. Everything was a big joke to him," he said.
One factor Chappelle and then-Special Judge Todd Singer weighed against Jesil was a claim prosecutors made that he was a suspect in two other homicides. However, prosecutors were never asked to present evidence of this in court.
French did not object to such claims at the final juvenile certification hearing. No charges have been filed against Jesil for other crimes during the 14 years he's been in prison.
Now a lobbyist in North Carolina, Singer told the World he ruled on the facts of the case and the laws of the state of Oklahoma.
The night the Neighborhood Crips killed Mitchell Knighten was not Jesil's first brush with the law. Court records show he had been referred to juvenile court twice previously for trespassing and curfew violations.
When Jesil was a child, a former boyfriend of his mother's was arrested several times for assaulting her. In the statement he wrote for police, Jesil wrote his mother's boyfriend "beat me so bad with the extension cord that I couldn't go to the bath room without crying because my private was swollin. ... he took thing you open and close the blinds and just beat me and I had to go to school with aganising pain from the whelps."
A court-ordered psychological evaluation reported that when Jesil was 4, the family was reported to the Department of Human Services for "an unspecified allegation of neglect."
His father was never in the picture. He was briefly placed in foster care and eventually ended up living with his maternal grandmother, Faye Ferguson.
'Truth got to be told'
Jesil's mother testified on his behalf at the preliminary hearing. But a few months earlier, she had filed for a protective order against him.
Cinderella Ferguson, now Luna, requested an emergency protective order on June 25, 1998, alleging Jesil had threatened to kill her if she had him locked up, yelled at her and became violent.
But the order was dismissed the next day, and Luna later said she made up those claims against the eldest of her nine children out of frustration and anger.
The judge at Jesil's preliminary hearing was not persuaded, ruling Jesil should be tried as an adult for first-degree murder. Luna said she had hoped the protective order filing would help Jesil be placed in a facility such as the Tulsa Boys Home instead of jail, she told the World recently.
"I was trying to keep him safe. I didn't mean it to hurt Jesil in any kind of way," she said.
She tried to clarify her reasons at the hearing and years later in an affidavit filed for her son's appeal, but no one has listened, she said. It's caused her 15 years of guilt and depression.
"I feel like I'm the one that took him down," she said, wiping away tears.
At the trial, where Jesil was represented by a public defender, the only family member to testify on his behalf was his older cousin, Zachary Ferguson.
Brought to court from prison, Ferguson testified that he shot Mitchell out of self-defense because he feared that Mitchell would shoot him and Jesil after he threatened to "get his gauge" and kill them. Jesil did not know that his cousin was going to shoot Mitchell, Ferguson testified.
Prosecutors said this was a different story than he had told investigators in 1997. Perjury is not much of a threat to a man serving life without parole, Assistant District Attorney John Heil said.
"You didn't tell (the police) the truth, did you?" Heil asked.
"No, sir," Zachary responded.
"What's your motivation to tell the truth now?" Heil asked.
"Truth got to be told," he replied.
Jesil began serving his prison sentence at Diamondback Correctional Facility in rural northwest Oklahoma. At 16, he was the youngest prisoner on the yard.
Between two worlds
There are two legal quirks in Jesil's case.
His crime occurred one year before the Youthful Offender Act became effective in Oklahoma, in 1998. Lawmakers had approved the law four years earlier, but it did not receive funding until that year.
Before the law, youthful offenders in custody of the Office of Juvenile Affairs were released at age 19, no matter how violent they remained in juvenile custody. So judges may have been reluctant to give Jesil a shot at a juvenile system where he would have been back on the streets with a clean slate by age 19.
The act allows young people convicted of violent crimes to be bridged into the adult system if they fail to progress while in custody of the Office of Juvenile Affairs. Several judges interviewed for this story said Jesil might have had a better shot at juvenile rehabilitation if he had been eligible for the Youthful Offender Act.
Jesil's trial also occurred before the effective date of Oklahoma's 85 percent rule legislation, requiring convicts of violent crimes to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before they're eligible for parole.
Because of that, Jesil's first parole hearing is scheduled for July 2013. He will be 30. Under the 85 percent rule, he would not have had his first parole hearing until well into his 50s.
'The last will be first'
In 2001, Faye Ferguson signed a sworn affidavit in an attempt to get the courts to reconsider Jesil's conviction.
He had never given his grandmother problems; he was courteous and treated her well, she said. She was unaware her daughter had tried to have Jesil arrested to get him "out of her hair."
"I argued with the officers when they came to arrest him, but was told I had no say in this matter. I tried to make the facts known at the hearing, but nobody would listen to me. He was and is a blessing to me," she wrote.
For more than a decade behind bars, Jesil hoped he might be paroled or released so he could spend more time with his grandmother.
He never got that chance; Faye Ferguson died Dec. 19, 2011.
Now there's another woman waiting, hoping he might get a chance at life beyond prison bars: his wife, Sirmodia.
In 2011, Sirmodia Wilson married a man she fell for as a girl, one who may spend the rest of his life in prison.
For this, many people question her sanity.
But she is resolute. She knew him before he got into trouble, before he became the hardened convict in a prison mugshot.
"I love who I love," she said. "There are three people in a marriage: you, him and God."
Sirmodia has watched the sweet, quiet boy who once sat near her in class at Madison Middle School grow into a heavily tattooed, tough-looking man who spent most of the past four years on lockdown in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, the state's highest-security prison.
"You put a baby in a cage full of monsters, he has to become a monster," she explained.
A verse from the book of Matthew gives her hope: "But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first."
Nearly all of the prisons where Jesil served his time have struggled with gang violence. He got tangled in that web, too.
As a teen, he ran with Tulsa's Neighborhood Crips. For a while, prison solidified that bond. He got "N" tattooed on both eyelids - and he got into trouble again.
He got sent to OSP, aka "Big Mac," a few years ago for his role in a 2008 gang fight where an inmate was stabbed at Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite. Jesil maintains it was self-defense because he was trying to break free from gang life and refusing to sneak in contraband.
They jumped him, and he fought back, he said. No charges were filed.
But since that offense, he's worked his way down to a lower-security level through better behavior. His last misconduct was in 2010, according to Department of Corrections records, and he recently was transferred to the Davis Correctional Center in Holdenville.
On Saturday mornings when Sirmodia Wilson doesn't have to work, she makes the nearly two-hour drive to visit her husband.
She is his world. He writes her love letters and made a jewelry box for her in the prison wood shop: "To Sirmodia, my queen."
She knows there's a chance the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board won't vote in his favor at his first hearing next year. And even if board members did, Gov. Mary Fallin still would have to approve his parole. For 2011-12, the governor's parole approval rate hovered near 50 percent.
"I just want them to hear what he's got to say," Sirmodia Wilson said.
Tulsa World researcher Hilary Pittman contributed to this story.
Cary Aspinwall 918-581-8477
Original Print Headline: Murder was the case
Throughout Oklahoma, sentences can vary widely for similarly violent crimes by juveniles.
A few months after Jesil Wilson was convicted, 13-year-old Seth Trickey pulled a 9 mm Taurus pistol from his backpack and opened fire on classmates at Fort Gibson Middle School, wounding five as he emptied his weapon's clip of 15 bullets. Trickey, who has never publicly given a reason for his attacks, was tried and treated in the juvenile justice system and released in March 2005.
In 1998, a 16-year-old Tulsan, Charles "Chas" Colbert, received a 10-year sentence for the slaying of a man whose bullet-riddled body was found beside an isolated road. A judge ruled he should be sentenced under the state's Youthful Offender Act.
In 2003, Daniel Dillingham fatally stabbed 16-year-old Carl Andrew "Andy" Robinson on a Porter school bus. He was convicted of first-degree murder under the Youthful Offender Act and released in 2008.
In 2009, 14-year-old Montoya Harris was sentenced to life in prison for fatally stabbing a 13-year-old girl. Because she was sentenced under the Youthful Offender Act, she would have had to serve only a fraction of that sentence with good behavior. However, Harris was bridged into adult prison in 2011 after failing to make progress in the juvenile system, court records show.
In 2011, 13-year-old Garrett Dickson pleaded guilty in juvenile court to a charge of first-degree manslaughter for fatally shooting his 13-year-old classmate, Landon Lee Jewell, with a rifle in Henryetta. A judge did not disclose the length of his juvenile sentence but said he could be held past his 18th birthday, depending on the circumstances.
In 2011, Michelle Burney was originally charged with first-degree murder as a 14-year-old in the slaying of her father. The charges were dropped and she was offered treatment in the juvenile system after agreeing to "testify truthfully" against her mother and co-defendant, Patricia Burney, who paid Michelle's boyfriend to kill her husband.
Throughout Oklahoma, sentences can vary widely among similarly violent crimes.
Jesil Wilson is serving a life sentence for a murder that occurred when he was 13, and he was not the shooter.
A few months after Jesil was convicted, 13-year-old Seth Trickey pulled a 9-mm Taurus pistol from his backpack and opened fire on classmates at Fort Gibson Middle School, wounding five as he emptied his weapon’s clip of 15 bullets.
Trickey, who has never publicly given a reason for his attacks, was tried and treated in the juvenile justice system and released in March 2005.
In 1998, a 16-year-old Tulsan, Charles “Chas” Colbert received a 10-year sentence for the slaying of a man whose bullet-riddled body was found beside an isolated road. A judge ruled that he should be sentenced under the state’s Youthful Offender Act.
In 2008, Vicki Chiles was sentenced to life in prison for the suffocation death of 2-year-old Joshua Minton. Chiles, who operated a day care center in her midtown Tulsa home, admitted to taping Joshua’s hands and mouth with masking tape, because he wouldn’t be quiet during nap time. The State Court of Criminal Appeals later changed her sentence to life with parole, with all but 30 years suspended, meaning she’ll be eligible for parole after serving 25 years of her reduced sentence.
‘Railroaded’: A look at Jesil's appeals
Attorney Scott Graham was asked by a Tulsa County judge to represent Wilson in his federal appeal, after the case had sat untouched for nearly six years in the legal system.
When he first began reviewing Jesil’s case, he said he was shocked by what he saw as a 13-year-old getting “railroaded” by the legal system.
Graham wonders how much Jesil’s race played a role in his treatment.
But interviews conducted for this story and records show several of the judges, police officers and jury members involved in Jesil’s case were also black, so it may not be as simple as race.
As a young, poor, uneducated gang member, Jesil had several strikes against him in the legal system, Graham said.
Yes, Jesil committed a crime, Graham said. But serving time on accessory to murder in Oklahoma’s juvenile justice system would have allowed Jesil a shot at a normal life, he said.
Now all he knows is prison.
“People should go home and look at their 13-year-old kid and think about: If that person knocked on a door, is that enough to put the kid away for life?”
In a federal appeal, Graham argued statements Jesil made before his mother signed a waiver of his Miranda rights should have been suppressed at hearings that determined he would stand trial as an adult. Jesil had ineffective counsel at key points in his court case, Graham argued.
He requested an evidentiary hearing before the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, to determine whether the Miranda rights waiver violated Jesil’s Fifth Amendment rights or if prosecutors actually had any evidence to back up claims they made in court that he was a suspect in two other homicides.
Those two factors could have resulted in an entirely different outcome for the certification hearing that resulted in Jesil being tried as an adult, Graham argued.
There were key errors made by Jesil’s legal counsel at the preliminary hearing that were the difference between a 10-year sentence and life in prison, Graham said.
Graham pointed to this moment from the hearing transcript as an example:
Judge Todd Singer: As to the merits of the case regarding the actual crime, what says the defense?
Michael French: First, your honor, I have a question as to whether there is special consideration as to what merits the custodial -- or what defines custodial interrogation as to a juvenile versus what would constitute custodial interrogation?
Singer: I can’t answer your question. If you have law to present or comments to make or to present to the Court, I would be glad to entertain it, take it under advisement ... You need to argue the law on it regarding witness versus suspect, number one, and number two, in tandem with that, I guess -- I’m assuming you’re going to demur to the evidence, but go ahead and please make your argument.”
French: “I will demur to the evidence.”
Singer: “Anything about the issue of custodial versus noncustodial that you want to argue about?”
Two years after Graham argued for an evidentiary hearing appeal, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals finally answered: No.
The court noted Jesil had two opportunities to immediately appeal his certification as an adult, but did not (he had four different attorneys by the start of his trial).
The judges also noted the prosecutors’ claims that Jesil was a suspect in two other homicides should have been inadmissible at his juvenile certification hearing.
But his attorney was not deficient in failing to object to it when mentioned in court, they ruled. And they did not believe it weighed heavily in the decision to certify Jesil as an adult.
Graham summed up the court’s ruling: “Yes, there were errors. So?”
A two-year delay
Murder cases typically move slower in the legal system, because of all the evidence and witnesses required.
But murder charges weren’t filed against Jesil Wilson until November 1998, more than a year after his older cousin, Zachary Ferguson, was convicted of first-degree murder in Tulsa County and sentenced to life without parole for the murder of Mitchell Knighten.
Jesil was originally charged as an accessory to murder, and the charge was amended a few weeks later.
Carl Funderburk, one of the assistant district attorneys who argued the state’s case against Jesil, is now a special judge over cases in family court. He was a young prosecutor at the time of Jesil’s trial, but he recalled the details and reviewed a transcript of Jesil’s preliminary hearing at the Tulsa World’s request.
When Tulsa Police filed a criminal complaint with the DA’s office asking for charges to be filed, the complaint was listed as accessory to murder because Jesil didn’t pull the trigger, Funderburk said.
As he examined the evidence and analyzed the law, he realized accessory was not appropriate in Jesil’s case, because the actual charge is “accessory after the fact.”
Jesil was involved in the planning, Funderburk said.
“Jesil Wilson played a major role in this crime,” he said.
Funderburk said he’s not sure exactly why there was a delay in filing murder charges against Jesil.
“If I recall correctly, during the Zachary Ferguson charge, it came to light to the ADA prosecuting the case downtown to look at what happened to Jesil’s case,” he said.
There may have been a delay when shuffling the case between the juvenile justice system and district court, Funderburk said.
Though a psychological evaluation stated otherwise, there were indicators that the juvenile justice system would not be an effective rehabilitation option for Wilson, Funderburk said.
“He was not amenable to treatment,” he said. “I think he was hardcore enough, he wouldn’t have made progress (in juvenile treatment). He was very instilled in the gang culture.”
In interviews the Tulsa World conducted from prison, Jesil said the murder charges against him were only filed after he took the stand to defend his cousin, Zachary Ferguson, at his 1997 trial.
Jesil said he lied in an attempt to save his cousin, and he believes the murder charges were filed as a result.
“Hi, baby!” Marcie Ferguson’s sing-song voice drips like syrup over the phone line.
Her nephew, Jesil, is calling her from prison. Marcie can afford for Jesil to call her four times a month, and they write letters in between.
“I tell him, I’ll be the person you can call,” she said.
Jesil and his mother, Cinderella Luna, have had limited communication since went to prison. It’s been more than 10 years since she visited him, and she recalled the last time they spoke was before her mother, Faye Ferguson died in 2011.
Having Jesil and his cousin, Zachary Ferguson, in prison, has been hard on the family, Luna said.
“That’s torn the whole family up,” Luna said.
Visiting her son is hard, because she struggles with depression, and lingering feelings of guilt she has over a protective order she filed that was used against him in court, she said.
In an affidavit filed with one of Jesil’s appeals, Luna wrote that she filed it to get back at Jesil for disapproving of her boyfriends and lifestyle.
Jesil, the oldest of her nine children, didn’t like her boyfriend at the time, and didn’t think she should allow him to hang around her other children.
“It was my fault when I let a man like that around my children - drinking, smoking and stealing. Jesil would get awfully upset with me and tell me ‘Why do you let this man hang around?’ “
Her son was judging her choices and lifestyle, so she decided to “show him who was in charge,” she said.
Jesil told police that same boyfriend had beaten him with an extension cord and used crack in front of him and his younger sister. The conflict prompted Jesil to move in with his grandmother years earlier.
Jesil said he harbors no anger toward his mother, and misses her.
In addition to his relationship with his aunts, he has his wife, Sirmodia.
Jesil and Sirmodia dated briefly in middle school, then broke up. But after a few years, they started talking again and writing letters.
Sirmodia used to pick up his grandmother, Faye Ferguson, and drive her to “Big Mac,” the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, for visits when Faye was in better health.
But her health deteriorated, and soon it was only Sirmodia who was able to make the drive.
Sirmodia would visit Faye nearly every day, bringing her chicken broth or Luby’s liver and onions. Faye would sit at home and open the door, staring out, and Sirmodia would ask her who she was waiting on.
“Jesil,” she would answer. Her precious boy, she called him.
His family is ready for him to come home, Sirmodia said.
She works as a menu clerk, planning meals for patients at Tulsa Spine & Specialty Hospital. She’s studying to become a dietitian, and fills plastic storage crates with novels she reads in her spare time (mostly romance).
Jesil got his GED in prison, but has few job skills. He’s never driven a car.
“You can’t get them 14 years back. You just got to live for the future,” Sirmodia said.
At the end of each conversation and letter, Aunt Marcie tells him to keep the faith.
“Tough times don’t last forever, baby. Tough people do.”
Jesil writes her faithfully from prison; she keeps his letters in an old shoebox.
“You always tell me Grandma is in a better place now, and it’s going to be OK. I can’t wait to come home and see her. I know she’s going to be proud and happy and smiling down on me from heaven when she sees me walk through these gates a free man.”
Jesil Wilson stands in shackles at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in August. He has spent his entire adult life in prison and was recently moved to a lower security level at a prison in Holdenville. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World