Jonathan Bruce Reed: Ironclad alibi did not avert death sentence

This story is the sixteenth in a series, Unrequited Innocence, that looks at cases where people were sentenced to die and have not been exonerated despite significant evidence of innocence.

In 1978 a Dallas flight attendant, Wanda Jean Wadle, 26, was murdered by an intruder in the Dallas apartment she shared with another flight attendant.

According to the court record:

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Unrequited Innocence

Her roommate, Kimberly Pursley, arrived home while the intruder was in the bedroom with his victim, and heard a man in the bedroom call out, “Don’t come in. Stay out there.”

Pursley thought nothing of it; but as the man left the bedroom, saying he was from “maintenance,” Pursley noticed Wadle’s body through the open bedroom doorway. The intruder then attacked her, tying her up and gagging her until she pretended to be unconscious. The man stole $20 from her and left.

Pursley freed herself and ran outside, meeting two neighbors who were both nurses. The three of them came back and found Wadle lying on the bedroom floor, still breathing. She was nude from the waist down, blood oozing from her mouth, a plastic bag over her head and a belt around her neck. Her hands were bound with a telephone cord. Pursley called paramedics who rushed her to a hospital, where she died nine days later.

Jonathan Bruce Reed

Jonathan Bruce Reed

Pursley described the attacker as white, 25 to 28 years old, with medium-length curly thinning blonde hair, a little taller than six feet and about 180 pounds.

Micki Green, a legal secretary who lived in the same complex, read of the crime and reported that a man with wavy blond hair had knocked on her door the afternoon of the attack, said he was from maintenance and asked if anyone had checked the air filter. She said she didn’t know since she hadn’t been home and he left, saying he’d return to check on it.

A sketch artist made a composite based on the two women’s descriptions.

A police officer thought Jonathan Bruce Reed, who was arrested for an unrelated sexual assault, resembled the sketch, and several hours later, Pursley, Green and a third neighbor, Phil Hardin, who had seen a man with a clipboard in the area around the time of the murder, all identified Reed.

He was arrested and charged with murder.

No physical evidence tied Reed to the crime. He was excluded as the source of fingerprints on items Pursley believed the killer had touched: two drinking glasses, a cold-water tap, a telephone and the front doorknob.

Reed’s employer and family members testified Reed was not wearing a red shirt and blue jeans — as the apartment complex witnesses described the killer wearing.

Reed also had evidence that he was driving to Fort Worth at the time of the murder. Around noon on the day of the murder, Reed’s father testified that he called his son at his part-time job at Diamond Motors, 18 minutes from Wadle’s apartment, and asked if he would drive a family friend to Fort Worth. Reed agreed and left for his parents’ home, according to testimony. A woman visiting next door testified she saw Reed arrive home shortly after 1 p.m., a time she confirmed based on the airing of a television show.

The defense also produced receipts showing that once Reed arrived in Fort Worth he placed two long-distance calls to Diamond Motors. Nevertheless, the jury convicted Reed based on the eyewitness testimony of Pursley, Green and Hardin. The judge ordered a new trial for reasons not specified, though it appeared there were concerns that potential jurors had been improperly dismissed.

On retrial, the prosecution case was bolstered by the testimony of Reed’s prison cellmate, William S. McLean, Jr., who said Reed had confessed to him. The prosecution said Reed had confided details to McLean that only the killer would know, including that Wadle had a tampon in place during the attack.

Reed again was convicted and sentenced to die.

As Reed filed appeals of the second conviction, questions emerged about the testimony of the cellmate, McLean. The tampon that the victim was wearing had been inserted days later at the hospital, when Wadle began menstruating, according to a motion that Reed’s attorneys filed to challenge the conviction.

And although prosecutors had denied that McLean had been promised anything for his testimony, the defense produced a letter that McLean had written to prosecutors, after the trial, complaining “you have brockin your ple bargin with me.”

Ten years after the second conviction, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit awarded Reed a third trial, ruling that prosecutors had failed to show that they had legitimate non-racial reasons for dismissing each of the five potential black jurors at the second trial.

The court did not address the questions about McLean’s testimony, such as how he came to falsely testify about the tampon, and whether he had been promised anything in exchange for his testimony.

Now more than three decades after the crime, DNA testing had been able to establish that Reed was not the source of semen recovered from Wadle’s pubic area. Prosecutors nevertheless went forward, though this time they did not seek the death penalty.

At the 2011 retrial, prosecutors bolstered their case with testimony from the victim of the sexual assault for which Reed was first arrested, as well as from an accomplice in a burglary who testified Reed pretended to be checking the victim’s air filter.

Again Reed was convicted, and sentenced to life in prison, a decision upheld on direct appeal.

Reed’s post-conviction petition was denied on Oct. 30.