Slander Case Continued : Wisely Courtroom Saga: Never to End?

Times Staff Writer

Jailhouse lawyer Willie Wisely, sentenced last fall to life in prison for murder after seven years of legal maneuvering, is set to make a judicial encore, this time in federal court.

Wisely is asking for $2 million in damages from James Dunagan, an accomplice in the 1981 crime who testified against him in a 1982 trial.

The claim: Dunagan's testimony slandered Wisely.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall granted a fourth continuance in the case because of a delay in bringing Wisely, held in Folsom Prison, to the federal courthouse in Los Angeles for the trial.

'Nothing to Fear'

Dunagan testified that Wisely killed his stepfather, Robert Bray, by slowly lowering the cab of a diesel truck on the victim, suffocating him. On the strength of Dunagan's testimony, plus others who implicated him, Wisely was sentenced to die. But a series of appeals and other legal maneuvers left Wisely in Orange County Jail for six years, held in a double cell with special privileges won through his accomplishments in the law.

Dunagan, 32, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and served two years and eight months of a four-year sentence. He now works on an assembly line in Oregon.

"I have nothing to fear from this whole thing," Dunagan said Tuesday. He stands by his earlier testimony, according to court papers on file in the case.

In court Tuesday were two women who loom large in Wisely's life.

One was his wife, Gail Harrington Wisely, a law student who married Wisely while he was in jail. She was there to assist attorney Todd McWhorter.

And there, ready to testify, was Shella Swick, who said she was living with Wisely at the time of his arrest seven years ago. Swick, who also testified in Wisely's criminal trial, said she is sure he is innocent. She said she was surprised when she heard that his stepfather had died.

'I Know He's Innocent'

Swick, who said she and Wisely "will be forever friends," termed the death an "accident."

"I know he's innocent," Swick said. "I've know it for seven years. I don't like seeing him in jail for something that he never did."

McWhorter, Wisely's attorney of record, said the lawsuit is a "collateral attack" on the conviction, which is now being appealed.

Harrington said the statute of limitations for perjury has passed for Dunagan's testimony in the 1982 trial, meaning that if he wanted, he could retract his earlier testimony without fear of criminal prosecution.

Judge Marshall presided over last-minute disputes over the evidence.

The judge was skeptical of the relevance of Wisely expert George Frank, who McWhorter said would testify that Dunagan's version of how the cab crushed the victim is a "statistical impossibility." She cautioned McWhorter about his case.

"One of the things to keep in mind here is that we're not here to retry the criminal case," Marshall said.

Dunagan has been representing himself in the case--a performance for which Harrington showed grudging approval. "Willie taught him a lot," she explained.

"No," Dunagan responded later. "Willie's never taught me anything except crime."

Asked when the Wisely litigation will conclude, McWhorter said: "It's never going to end."

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