Murder victim's daughter: wrong man convicted for father's death

Mitchell in the courtroom in 1992
Mitchell in the courtroom in 1992
Part of witness statement in 1990
Part of witness statement in 1990

PARAGOULD, AR (KAIT) - The daughter of a murder victim speaks out in favor of the man convicted of killing her father.

In 1992, Denver Mitchell was convicted of murdering Willard Williamson and sentenced to life in prison. But a recent ruling by the Arkansas Parole Board sheds new light on the case.

They say Mitchell has served long enough for a crime he possibly did not commit and Williamson's daughter, Ronda Beasley agrees.

"I think 23 years is long enough for stealing a truck and getting in a fight with an old man," Beasley told Region 8 News.

Region 8 News sat down exclusively with the Beasley about the parole board's decision. It's one she backs completely as she believes the man who murdered her father is still a free man.

"He's very sorry that he beat up dad, he's sorry he left him and he's sorry he stole the truck. He's always said that, he's never denied it," Beasley said about Mitchell.

In the 20-plus years that Denver Mitchell has been behind bars, Ronda Beasley has visited him multiple times.

"Just to try to encourage him," Beasley said when asked what they talked about.

Beasley encourages the man accused of murdering her father, Willard Williamson.

In 1992 Mitchell was sentenced to life in prison. It's a place Beasley, and now, the Arkansas Board of Parole say he doesn't belong.

"Before I met Denver, it just seemed so ridiculous," Beasley said.

As we reported Monday, the board recommended Governor Mike Beebe commute his sentence.

In fact, Beasley has had her doubts for years. Even in the courtroom 22-years ago as she listened to the testimony against Mitchell, she had her doubts.

"Anyone that's familiar with the case, that reads those transcripts...they know he didn't do it."

'Those transcripts' are interviews police conducted with two teens who tipped them off to Williamson's body that hot August night 22 years ago.

Court records show Ed Rogers, then 15 years old, confessed to the crime. His friend Lee Ward told police he witnessed the beating.

"And that lines up with the autopsy," Beasley said. "How he was choked. How his jaw was broken, Lee Ward said he heard his jaw pop. How he was hit with a tire iron. All that adds up to the autopsy."

At first, Rogers was charged with the murder but when Mitchell became a suspect, charges against Rogers, the former assistant police chief's son, were dropped.

Beasley trusted justice would prevail and she says Mitchell did too which is why he went to trial instead of accepting a plea bargain.

"He would have took the plea bargain but he was young and foolish and he said he was gonna trust the judicial system and I probably would have done the same thing," Beasley said.

When the verdict was handed down, Beasley was stunned.

"If you sat in that courtroom and you were listening to knew! It was just stupid. It was just so unfair."

Now 22 years later, she's still hoping justice will be served and Denver Mitchell will be released from prison.

"Do I want justice, yes? Do I want vengeance? No. They're not mine. I don't even think about the results other than I would love to see Denver free."

The daughter of a man beaten and left to die says the man who's serving the time did not do the crime and she's fighting to get him released.

"It's such a waste of taxpayer's money too when he could be out in society doing something with his life," Beasley said.

Included in the parole board's recommendation to commute Mitchell's sentence was a sworn statement from Beasley explaining why she believes the wrong man is in jail.

It's a statement that Mitchell's lawyer, Caran Curry, says was "very persuasive."

"He didn't do it! He did not do it."

Here is a timeline of the events that led up to Williamson's death and Mitchell's conviction according to court documents Region 8 News obtained. Following the timeline are links to the court documents themselves.

The Timeline

In 1990, during the early morning hours of Sunday, Aug. 19, Paragould police officers acting on a tip found Willard Williamson laying in the tall weeds near a train trestle.

The 74-year-old California man had been badly beaten and left for dead.

When officers touched him, Williamson went into convulsions.

He was taken to St. Bernards Hospital in Jonesboro for treatment.

The next day police interviewed the two boys who had tipped them off.

One of the boys, 15-year-old Ed Rogers, reportedly told police he beat Williamson with a rock after the elderly man made a sexual advance.

His friend, 13-year-old Lee Ward, was with Rogers at the time.

Ward told investigators Rogers "beat the heck out of that old man" and hurt him "really bad," according to court records.

Ward said Rogers threatened to kill him if he told anyone what happened.

On Thursday, Aug. 30, Williamson died of his injuries. He had never regained consciousness.

The next day police re-interviewed Ward and Rogers.

The boys reportedly told virtually the same stories they had told 11 days before.

Following the interviews, police arrested Rogers and charged him with capital murder.

On Sept. 10 Municipal Judge Andy Fulkerson set Rogers' bond at $100,000.

Later that day the boy was freed on a signature bond signed by his father Jack Rogers, who was a 23-year veteran of the Paragould Police Department and the former assistant police chief.

In July of 1991 Denver Mitchell's cousin was arrested in Illinois.

In exchange for leniency, he claimed his cousin had beaten an old man in Arkansas and stolen his truck.

Acting on that information, Prosecuting Attorney Randy Philhours filed a motion in November to drop the murder charges against Rogers.

The boy was allowed to go free.

The following January, Illinois State Police found Mitchell, who was then 20, and questioned him.

Mitchell admitted he had hitched a ride with Williamson in Texas and the two had stopped in Paragould on Saturday, Aug. 18, 1990.

He told investigators they had been drinking whiskey when the older man made a sexual advance.

Mitchell admitted he punched and kicked Williamson in the face.

But, he swore that Williamson was alive when he stole the man's truck and went home to Illinois.

Following the interview, police arrested Mitchell and charged his murder. He was ordered held without bond.

On November 25, 1992, Mitchell's murder trial began.

On the witness stand Ed Rogers claimed he had been coerced by an Arkansas State Police investigator into confessing to the crime.

Ward also changed his story on the stand. He claimed it had all been a lie.

Mitchell stuck to his story adding, "I don't see how he could have died from the conflict we had together."

After four hours of deliberation the jury returned a verdict of guilty.

Mitchell was sentenced to life in prison.

In 1993 the Arkansas State Supreme Court upheld the conviction.

Commutation Recommended

On March 7, 2014, the Arkansas Parole Board recommended to Governor Mike Beebe that Mitchell's sentence be commuted.

In the official document, which was signed by all five members of the board, it was stated that Mitchell "has served long enough for a crime he possible did not commit."

The parole board also stated the "case needs to be fully investigated; may be the wrong person is incarcerated due to evidence in the file."

A decision will not be made for a considerable length of time.

Matt DeCample, a spokesperson for Gov. Beebe, told Region 8 News it "usually takes a couple of months after the recommendation is made for the file to be fully processed and received by our office."

Once the file arrives at the governor's office, DeCample said the governor has "240 days to take action on it."

One of those pressing for Mitchell's release from prison is Ronda Beasley.

Her father was Willard Williamson.

In a signed affidavit, Beasley states unequivocally "Denver Mitchell, Jr. did not kill my father."

Beasley explains in her statement why both Mitchell and Rogers may have mistakenly thought her father had made a sexual advance.

She also claims she asked to be a witness in Mitchell's trial, but his court-appointed public defender Jon Williams did not speak with before the trial and did not submit her name to the prosecution during the discovery process.

After the Sentence

In his commutation application, Mitchell told the parole board he was saved in 1995.

He also stated he has been an active participant in the Life Skills program, which he describes as a "voluntary Christ-centered program that promotes transformation from the inside out."

Mitchell claims he has served as an instructor and counselor for the program, where he encourages "other inmates to learn how to make positive decisions in their life and to cultivate a relationship with God and their families."

Region 8 News attempted to find Ed Rogers.

In 1996, according to a local newspaper, Rogers was accused with three others of breaking into the Paragould Police Department's training facility and stealing pepper spray and ammunition clips before setting the building on fire.

The charges against him were later dropped.

Paragould police say Rogers has been involved "in at least two, maybe three" incidents in the last decade.

At the time of his last arrest, Rogers gave his home address as Walnut Ridge.

Region 8 News attempted to confirm this, but Lawrence County Sheriff Jody Dotson was unavailable at the time we called his office.

We will continue to reach out to Rogers for his side of the story.

Information for this story was obtained from the following legal documents from the Arkansas Parole Board and Denver Mitchell's attorney, Caran Curry:

Arkansas Parole Board's Recommendation for Commutation

Denver Mitchell's attorney's Binder 1, regarding his counsel during trial

Denver Mitchell's attorney's Binder 2, containing documentation

Denver Mitchell's attorney's Binder 3, containing Arkansas State Police reports

Denver Mitchell's attorney's Binder 4, containing articles on the case

Denver Mitchell's attorney's Binder 5, containing Lee Ward's statement to police

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