On a sultry day last summer, a lifelong con died behind bars, revealing a terrible secret hidden for a decade. He had gotten away with murder.
Finally made public was a confession the inmate had shared with his attorney 10 years earlier, a confession to a killing for which another man, the victim’s husband, had served 13 1/2 years in prison.
His words, true or false, have resurrected an old crime and raised new questions about whether justice was denied a young man in a Nebraska courtroom more than three decades ago.
This is a tale of two men and a tragedy--the 1955 murder of Nancy Parker. Her husband, Darrel, confessed but quickly recanted and later claimed the confession had been coerced. Twenty-three years later and nearly a decade after Parker was freed, Death Row inmate Wesley Peery confessed on the condition his statement be released only after he died.
Pardons Board Meets Thursday
Peery’s death in July broke the seal of confidentiality, and although some still insist Parker is guilty, he hopes to clear his name. He has appealed to the Nebraska Board of Pardons, which meets Thursday, a day after the 33rd anniversary of the crime.
The three-member panel, which has been given a sealed transcript of Peery’s confession, will decide whether to pardon Parker, reject his request or hold a hearing with witnesses next year.
The confession was among two years of taped and written interviews Peery gave in hopes a book would be written about his exploits. In the interviews, he boasted of killing 12 people over four decades.
Lawyers for Peery and Parker are convinced an innocent man was sentenced to life in prison in 1956.
“It’s a horrible miscarriage of justice,” said attorney Stanley Cohen, who represented Peery and taped the interviews from 1978 to 1980. “It’s hard to imagine what somebody was going through spending 13 years-plus in prison and another 18 years after being released not being able to show he was wrongly convicted of a murder.”
But others discount Peery’s confession and maintain that justice prevailed.
“He did it. There’s no question in the world about it,” said Eugene Masters, retired head of detectives who questioned Parker. “They come up with this fairy tale and wait till the man’s dead.”
Parker, 57, released in 1969 after an appeals court said his rights had been violated, has remarried and is now parks supervisor in Moline, Ill. Other than expressing relief, Parker refused comment when contacted by telephone.
But his lawyer, Richard Bruckner, said Parker had told him “he knew . . . or hoped all the time he’d be cleared of this. He said, ‘All I want is a piece of paper--a complete pardon finally clearing my name. . . .’
“Sure he has bitterness,” Bruckner added. “But he says, ‘What good is that going to do?’ He has to go on with his life.”
Parker Found Wife’s Body
Parker’s experiences with the criminal justice system began Dec. 14, 1955, when he came home for lunch and found the partially clad body of Nancy Ellen, his wife of little more than a year, on their bed.
The 22-year-old woman had been strangled. Her hands were bound and she had been gagged with her husband’s handkerchiefs. Evidence showed she had been raped.
Peery, a co-worker of Parker’s who had a criminal record, was questioned because his Ford had been parked nearby that morning. But Peery said he often drove through the area taking his mother to work. Peery passed a polygraph test, Masters said.
Parker, in Iowa for his wife’s funeral, was summoned to help with the investigation. He was not told he was a suspect, Bruckner said. When he returned to Lincoln, he was hooked up to a lie detector and questioned by John Reid, a noted Chicago criminologist and polygraph expert.
Parker later testified he had no lawyer and gave no permission to be questioned. This all happened before the Supreme Court’s Miranda decision, which gave suspects the right to attorneys and a warning they can remain silent.
Parker testified he feared Reid, who sat knee-to-knee with him, grasped Parker by the chin, stroked his head “as if I were some kind of animal” and threatened he’d “fry” if he didn’t produce his wife’s missing watch. It never was found.
Parker said Reid accused his wife of “refusing me relations” and suggested she “was probably running around with another man.” Parker insisted his marriage was sound.
Parker testified that in several hours of questioning he repeatedly denied killing his wife.
But Masters, the retired detective, says Parker knew “all the details. He said he hit her in the left eye, which was true. He said he knocked the lamp off the table, which was true. . . . There were 13 things in the confession that no one in the world but he could know about.”
Bruckner, however, said Reid took details from investigators and fed them to Parker until he parroted them. “Reid just kept working on him. The words in the confession were John Reid’s, not his,” he said.
Reid is dead, but Fred Inbau, professor emeritus at Northwestern Law School who assisted him, insists talk of a forced confession is “a lot of nonsense.”
But in 1969, an appeals court said the confessions were “coerced and involuntary” and Reid’s “activities clearly went beyond approved standards.” It ordered Parker be given a new trial or freed. He was on parole until 1975.
Until his parole, Parker was imprisoned at the Nebraska State Penitentiary--where Peery eventually wound up on a rape conviction, which was later reversed.
Bruckner said Peery taunted Parker, saying: “ ‘Darrel, if your folks could put up money for my bond, I can lead you to the guy who killed your wife. I can tell you where the suitcases (belonging to Mrs. Parker) are.’ Darrel didn’t even know suitcases were missing.”
Peery had been in and out of prison since his teen-age years on charges including robbery and burglary. In 1976, he was sentenced to death for fatally shooting a woman in a coin shop.
“He was king when he had a gun,” said Cohen, who defended him in that case. “He had no conscience.”
While appealing the murder conviction, Peery said he hoped a book could be written that would provide income for his relatives after his death, and Cohen began taping interviews with his client.
Attorneys Asked about Slaying
Having heard rumors about Peery’s possible involvement in the Parker murder, the attorneys asked him. “He took credit for it right away,” Cohen said.
According to Cohen, Peery drew a blueprint of the Parker house with correctly placed furniture and recalled birthmarks on Mrs. Parker’s chest. He also provided one critical detail of the crime that had never been publicized.
Peery also said he’d taken Mrs. Parker’s watch and eventually fenced it.
Peery confessed to other murders, Cohen said, and in some sketchy checking of a few, “they turn out to be exactly what he says.”
“When he talked about the murders, he would smirk and smile and display a sense of pride,” added Toney Redman, Cohen’s partner and a distant cousin of Parker. “It’s kind of like a little kid bringing out his Cub Scout awards.”
The attorneys became convinced Peery was the killer, but they had sworn to withhold the information. “That was our agreement with him,” Cohen said. “Even though he was a murderer, that doesn’t mean my word isn’t any good.”
But Masters now asks: “Why on earth, if a couple of attorneys had this story, would they wait till the man’s dead?”
After Peery’s death at age 56, the attorneys talked with Bruckner, who has represented Parker for 24 years.
Bruckner said he’d always had a fantasy that he would “run down as they strapped (Peery) in the electric chair and say, ‘Clear yourself with God and tell me you did it.’ ”
Today, he has an ink-and-paper transcript.