Huntsville's Infamous 1992 Wilson Murder Trial

Huntsville's Infamous 1992 Wilson Murder Trial

At almost exactly 9:30 p.m. on the evening of May 22, 1992, Huntsville police were notified by the 911 dispatcher of a possible burglary in progress with an injured victim at the scene. The location was Boulder Circle, an affluent neighborhood nestled among the mountains overlooking Huntsville, Alabama.

The Victim is Beaten to Death

Within minutes of arriving on the scene, police discovered the body of a male victim, identified as well-liked local ophthalmologist Dr. Jack Wilson, lying in the upstairs hallway. Wilson had been brutally murdered, apparently with a baseball bat found lying nearby.

Homicide detectives began searching every square inch of the house and grounds. A police dog was brought in to sniff out possible evidence police might not catch with the naked eye. As they began the tedious task of trying to determine what had happened, none of them realized they were about to become involved in the most notorious murder case in Huntsville's history.

Reconstructing the Events

By canvassing neighbors and reconstructing the events, police determined that Dr. Wilson left his office around 4 p.m. and came home. After changing his clothes, he went outside to his front yard where neighbors reported seeing him using a baseball bat to drive a political campaign sign in the ground at approximately 4:30 p.m. He then took a stepladder from the garage and carried it to the upstairs hallway where he removed a smoke detector that was later found lying on the bed, disassembled.

At this point, police theorized Wilson was surprised by someone who was already in the house. The unknown assailant grabbed the baseball bat and began beating the doctor. After the doctor collapsed to the floor, the assailant proceeded to stab him twice with a knife.

While the crime had originally been reported as a possible burglary, it had none of the typical signs: There were no open drawers, no ransacked closets, no overturned furniture. Without evidence of a break-in or theft, the case was beginning to look more like an “inside job.” Police theorized that it was someone who knew the doctor's habits and had access to his home that had killed him.

The Doctor's Wife Had an Alibi

Dr. Wilson's widow, Betty, was initially too distraught to be questioned, however, later investigation revealed she'd had lunch with her husband that day around noon. Dr. Wilson went back to his office and Betty spent much of the rest of her day shopping in preparation for a trip they'd planned to take the next morning. After attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that evening, she returned home at about 9:30-where she discovered her husband's body. She went to a neighbor's home and they called 911.

By using credit card receipts and eyewitnesses, the police were able to verify Betty Wilson's whereabouts for the entire day, except for one 30-minute period at around 2:30 p.m. and another between 5 and 5:30 p.m.

Other family members were checked out as well but all appeared to have solid alibis.

A Break in the Case

The first break for the investigators came when the Shelby County Sheriff's Office passed on a tip they'd received a week prior to the murder. A woman had called, concerned about her friend James White, whom while drunk, had bragged about plans to kill a doctor in Huntsville. While White's story was jumbled, what emerged was that he was supposedly infatuated with a woman named Peggy Lowe who'd recruited him to murder her twin sister's husband.

The caller admitted that she doubted the story. “White liked to talk big when he was drinking and lately he had been drunk almost all the time.” Nevertheless, she was concerned enough to pass what she'd heard on to police.

After the Huntsville Police learned of the tip it took only minutes to establish that Peggy Lowe was Betty Wilson's twin sister. Investigators decided it was time to pay James White a visit.

The Hitman Tells His Story

James Dennison White was a 42-year-old Vietnam veteran who had a history of mental disorders and antisocial behavior caused largely by drug and alcohol abuse. One of his last mental evaluations described him as suffering from delusions and the inability to separate fact from fantasy.

White had been incarcerated in a number of mental institutions as well as jail. While serving time for selling drugs, White escaped. He was captured almost a year later in Arkansas, where he was involved in kidnapping a man and his wife.

When questioned by detectives, White initially denied everything but slowly, as the evening and night wore on, he began to contradict himself, spinning a web of half-truths, lies, and fantasies. He first denied knowing Peggy Lowe-and then admitted to knowing her. He denied knowing Betty Wilson, then said he was going to do some work for her.

Gradually a pattern emerged. As White would get caught in a contradiction, he'd admit to that thing but continued to deny everything else. It was a type of behavior that was typical to most criminal investigations. Detectives understood from experience that getting White to admit the truth was going to be a long, drawn-out process.

White's Confession

Finally, just as the sun was peeking over the horizon, White broke down. Though it would take several months, as well as numerous subsequent confessions to get him to tell the whole story, White basically confessed to being hired by Peggy Lowe and Betty Wilson to kill Dr. Jack Wilson.

White claimed to have met Peggy Lowe at the elementary school where she worked and where he had worked as a part-time handyman. According to White, it was after he'd done some work at Betty Wilson's house that became infatuated with him and started spending hours on the phone with him. She gradually began to talk about her husband-and to hint that she would like to see him killed.

A short time later, while Betty had dropped the subject of her husband, she mentioned that her sister wanted to hire a “hit” man. White said, pretending to play along, he knew someone who'd do it for $20,000. Betty Lowe told him that was too much money since her sister was practically broke. Finally, they agreed on a price of $5,000. White told police Peggy Lowe gave him a plastic bag containing half the sum in small bills.

Gradually, as White's story evolved, it included phone calls between him and the sisters, the twins giving him a gun, a trip to Guntersville to pick up expense money inside a library book, and finally, meeting Betty Wilson in Huntsville to get more expense money.

The Day of the Crime

On the day of the murder, White claimed Betty Wilson met him in the parking lot of a nearby shopping center and drove him to her home where he waited for two hours until Dr. Wilson arrived. White maintained he was unarmed at the time. He later stated that his experiences in Vietnam had soured him on guns. Instead, he'd brought along a long rope. White said that although he remembered struggling with Wilson over the baseball bat, he did not remember killing the doctor.

After the murder, he said Betty Wilson came to the house, picked him up, and drove him back to the shopping center. He then retrieved his truck, drove back to Vincent, and went out drinking with his brother. As proof of his story, White led police to his home where a gun registered to Betty Wilson and a book from the Huntsville Public Library were found.

(Meanwhile, a source close to the case described White after he was brought back to Huntsville, as being in “physical agony, almost climbing the walls, and begging to be given his medicine.” The medicine-allegedly Lithium-was withheld because it was in a different bottle than it originally came in and White did not have a prescription for it.)

The Arrests are Made

While White was unsure about dates, times, and specific events and it would take time to sort the story out, detectives felt there was enough evidence to arrest the twin sisters. The news of Betty Wilson's arrest for the murder of her husband exploded like a bombshell in Huntsville. Not only was she a well-known socialite, but her husband's estate was rumored to be worth almost six million dollars.

Adding fuel to the fire was the report that Betty had helped host a fundraiser for a popular political figure the night before the murder. Huntsville is a small town, especially during political seasons. Gossip spread so quickly that daily newspapers were already out of date when they hit the streets.

By piercing the juicy tidbits together, a portrait of Betty Wilson as a cold-blooded murderess began to take shape. Rumor had it she'd always been a “gold digger”-and that she'd been heard cursing her husband. (Dr. Wilson suffered Crohn's disease-a chronic inflammation of the digestive tract that often leads to unpleasant bowel-related symptoms, which his wife allegedly found to be a huge turn-off.) Most damning, however, was the talk that centered on her alleged numerous sexual liaisons.

Political Ploys

When the news media caught up with the story, they pursued it with a vengeance. Newspapers, magazines, and television shows from across the country began following the story and reporters seemed to be competing against one another to see who could come up with the most salacious version of events. When members of the D.A.'s office and the sheriff's office began leaking information to the press, it became clear they were trying to leverage the case for political advantage.

The situation became even more politicized when the D.A. agreed to a controversial plea bargain for White, which would give him life, with parole possible in seven years, in exchange for helping convict the sisters. Pundits later claimed the plea bargain spelled the end of the D.A.'s political career.

Murder Charges For Betty Wilson and Peggy Lowe

At the hearing, the prosecution successfully argued that Betty Wilson being the beneficiary of her husband's will and the fact she'd engaged in sexual affairs was enough to prove motive for murder. James White's tape-recorded confession provided the evidence. After a brief hearing, both sisters were ordered to stand trial for murder.

Peggy Lowe was granted bond and released after her neighbors in Vincent put their homes up for security. Betty Wilson was denied bond and remained in the Madison County jail until her trial. A short time later, Dr. Wilson's family filed suit to deny Betty Wilson access to his estate.

Despite the posturing going on from all sides, many legal analysts began to doubt that the prosecution really had enough to convict. There was no eyewitness testimony to corroborate that James White and Betty Wilson had been together at any time and there was no physical evidence linking White to the crime scene. Another major headache for both sides was White's constantly changing stories in which he'd describe events one day and offer a completely different version the following week.

Manufactured Evidence?

Perhaps James White was thinking along similar lines because he suddenly recalled a fact that he claimed not to have remembered before. White said on the night of the crime, he'd changed clothes in the Wilson house and placed them in a plastic bag, along with the rope and knife, and hid them under a rock a few feet from the swimming pool. The bag was allegedly the same one in which he'd received the money from Peggy Lowe.

Although the clothes and bag were found exactly where White said they would be, forensic pathologists were never able to establish if they had been bloodstained, or if they actually belonged to White. Officials later explained the clothes not being found during the initial search because the police dog had been suffering from "allergies."

The clothes were to become one of the biggest mysteries of the case. No one seriously believed they could have been missed during the initial search. Even members of the Huntsville Police expressed skepticism-albeit off the record. Although he eventually was offered the plea deal, many believed White had gotten someone to plant the clothes in an attempt to bolster his credibility and escape the electric chair.

A Media Feeding Frenzy

By this time the case of the "Evil Twins" had captured national attention. The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, and People magazine ran lengthy articles. Tabloid TV shows including "Hard Copy" and "Inside Edition" ran features stories. When two national television networks expressed interest in making a movie, agents descended on Huntsville and bought up movie rights from most of the parties involved.

As summer wore on, even the most impartial observers began to take sides. Never in the history of Huntsville had a case generated so much controversy and news coverage. Due to the publicity, the judge ordered the trial venue moved to Tuscaloosa.

The Trial of Betty Wilson

When Betty Wilson's murder trial finally began, the case boiled down to one simple question: Who was telling the truth, Betty Wilson or James White?

  • The prosecution argued it was a case of murder for hire. The defense said the fact that White did not carry a weapon with him made the story suspect.
  • The prosecution argued White's testimony was credible. The defense argued White had changed his confessions so many times it could not be believed. They further argued that he had molded his testimony to fit the prosecution's case in order to escape a possible death sentence.
  • The prosecution argued White's testimony was corroborated by records of phone calls and the library book. The defense maintained there were other explanations that could introduce reasonable doubt.
  • The prosecution argued the gun was given to White by Betty Wilson and Peggy Lowe. The defense claimed he stole the gun and offered the fact that the empty box the gun came in, along with shells, was found in the home afterward.
  • The prosecution offered a witness who claimed to have seen "James White and Betty Wilson near the murder scene within 30 minutes of one another." The defense argued the witness was not credible because she'd been unable to pick White out of a lineup.
  • The prosecution claimed the timeline proved their case. The defense argued the timeline did not fit.
  • The prosecution offered a witness who testified that Betty Wilson had talked about wanting to kill her husband. The defense argued the story was not credible because it had happened almost six years earlier and the woman had continued to be friends with Betty Wilson.
  • The defense offered a witness who stated she'd received a message from Dr. Wilson on her answering machine after the alleged time of death. The prosecution argued the call could have been made earlier.

Painted With a Damning Brush

Regardless of the hard evidence, everyone agreed that the central focus of the prosecution's case was to depict Betty Wilson as a cold, immoral woman who wanted her husband dead. To prove this they paraded a stream of witnesses who testified about hearing her curse and belittle her husband. Other witnesses testified to having knowledge of Betty Wilson taking men to her home for sexual liaisons.

Perhaps the most dramatic part of the trial came when a black former city employee took the stand and testified to having had relations with the defendant. Although the prosecution denied playing the race card, observers of the trial all agreed it had the same effect.

The case went to the jury at 12:28 on Tuesday, March 2, 1993. After deliberating the rest of the day and much of the following day, the jury returned a guilty verdict. (Jurors later revealed the deciding factor in their decision was the telephone records.) Betty Wilson was sentenced to life imprisonment, without the possibility of parole.

The Trial of Peggy Lowe

Six months later, Peggy Lowe stood trial for her alleged part in the murder for hire. Much of the evidence was a near repeat of that used during her sister's trial, with the same witnesses making the same testimony. New to the case, however, was testimony by expert witnesses who stated it was possible that two people might have been involved in the murder. Citing the lack of blood splatters on the walls, the experts theorized the murder probably occurred some other place than the hallway and was caused by something other than a baseball bat.

For the defense, the most crucial moment likely occurred when White testified that Betty Wilson picked him up at the murder scene between 6 and 6:30 p.m. on the day in question-a full hour later than he had previously testified. If the jurors believed this version of White's story, it would have been impossible for Betty Wilson to have participated.

The biggest difference in the trials, however, were the women being tried. While Betty Wilson was vilified as the quintessential Jezabel, Lowe was portrayed as a virtuous, compassionate, church-going woman who was constantly helping people less fortunate. While it had been difficult to get people to testify as character witnesses for Betty Wilson, the jurors in Lowe's trial heard from a steady parade of witnesses extolling her virtues.

It took only two hours and 11 minutes of deliberation for the jury to find Peggy Lowe not guilty. In this trial, jurors cited White's lack of credibility as the major deciding factor. According to the Associated Press, Lowe said of the verdict, "I asked the Lord to send me a good lawyer and he did," while the prosecutor explained ruefully that trying to convict her had been akin to “fighting God.”

The Aftermath

Although Peggy Lowe can never be tried again thanks to the rules of double jeopardy, the fact remains that it's almost impossible for one sister to be innocent of the crime and the other guilty. Betty Wilson is serving out her sentence of life without parole at the Julia Tutwiler Prison in Wetumpka, Alabama. She works in the sewing department and spends her free time writing to her supporters. She has since remarried. Her sister served as her maid of honor for the prison ceremony and the two remain close. Her case is being appealed. Both sisters continue to maintain their innocence.

James White is serving a life sentence at an institution in Springville, Alabama, where he is attending trade school and receiving counseling for drug and alcohol abuse. In 1994, he recanted his story of the twins' involvement but later pled the Fifth Amendment when questioned about it in court. He will be eligible for parole in the year 2020.

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