‘Jail-House Lawyer’ Gets Life Sentence

Times Staff Writer

Willie Ray Wisely, whose maneuvers as a jail-house lawyer helped to keep him in the Orange County Jail instead of prison for more than six years, finally was sentenced Monday to life without parole for the 1981 murder of his stepfather.

The 35-year-old Wisely was still speaking at his hearing in Orange County Superior Court when Judge Manuel A. Ramirez declared the sentencing over and left the bench. Wisely managed to get in a kiss from his wife and legal assistant, law student Gail Harrington, before deputy marshals led him away.

“You can’t get much more of an abuse of discretion by a judge than this,” Wisely called out as deputies handcuffed him.

On Ramirez’s orders, Wisely was sent to the state reception center at Chino on Monday afternoon for transfer to a state prison.


Wisely has gained considerable media coverage in recent years for his accusations that jail deputies violate inmates’ rights and constantly beat and verbally abuse them. He recently won a federal lawsuit over his own jail housing conditions and was awarded $5,050. He still has several contempt-of-court accusations pending against jail officials in another civil case.

Wisely, who represented himself at his trial, was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder and was given a death verdict in 1982 for the March 9, 1981, murder of Robert Bray of Huntington Beach. Bray was crushed to death under the cab of his tractor-trailer truck while working on it.

Wisely’s death verdict was thrown out by the Superior Court trial judge, the late Kenneth E. Lae, because of new state Supreme Court rulings on jury instructions.

For several years, prosecutors fought Wisely unsuccessfully in appellate court in an attempt to get Lae’s decision reversed. Earlier this year, prosecutors decided to drop the death penalty fight. That reduced the jury’s decision to an automatic life term without parole for Wisely.


Ramirez noted Wisely’s criminal record--which includes numerous burglaries, robberies and forgeries--and said the Bray killing showed Wisely’s “increasingly serious criminal conduct.” The murder showed a great deal of “criminal sophistication or professionalism,” the judge added.

Earlier this year the case became even more sensational when it was revealed that Wisely had secretly married Harrington, 25, an American Civil Liberties Union law clerk who had been assisting him, and because of allegations she had smuggled drugs into the Orange County Jail.

In September she pleaded innocent to four felony counts of smuggling small amounts of cocaine and marijuana into the jail during July and August. The couple say they were secretly married by a Baptist minister in the jail on Christmas Eve, 1986. They revealed the marriage after a jailer reported he caught them fondling each other in Wisely’s two-cell suite.