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Jailhouse Lawyer Wisely Gets Life Without Parole

December 29, 1987|JERRY HICKS | Times Staff Writer

Willie Ray Wisely, whose maneuvers as a jailhouse lawyer helped to keep him in 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 trying to put statements on the record when Superior Court Judge Manuel A. Ramirez declared the sentencing over and left the bench Monday morning. Wisely managed to kiss 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 in the Santa Ana courtroom as deputies handcuffed him.

On Ramirez's orders, Wisely was sent to the state reception center at Chino Monday afternoon. Wisely tried unsuccessfully to get that order postponed at an unrelated civil hearing in the afternoon before Superior Court Judge Donald A. McCartin.

Wisely's absence from the jail for the first time since August, 1981, was welcome news to Orange County sheriff's deputies who are responsible for the jail's operation.

"Thank God," one deputy said. "It's about four years later than it should have been, but thank God that cry baby is finally gone."

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. The Sheriff's Department has consistently denied those allegations.

After the trial of a lawsuit earlier this year over his own housing conditions at the jail, Wisely was awarded $5,050. He still has several contempt-of-court accusations pending against jail officials in another civil case.

He secretly married Harrington in the attorney/bonds room at the jail last year after slipping in a minister as a witness to be interviewed in connection with Wisely's murder case. Through court motions he obtained his own eight-man double cell, equipped with a computer and a private telephone so he could work on his case.

Said one deputy sheriff: "Let's just say Willie did not endear himself to any of the jail deputies."

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 rig while he was repairing it on a Huntington Beach street.

Wisely's co-defendant, James Dunagan, who served a four-year sentence as a result of a plea bargain, testified that Wisely sneaked up on Bray and lowered the cab. Dunagan said Wisely wanted Bray dead so he could inherit his property and because Bray had learned about Wisely's involvement in criminal activities.

Wisely's death verdict was thrown out by the trial judge, the late Superior Court Judge 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 sentence of life without parole.

Even prosecutors and county attorneys who have opposed Wisely in court had expressed praise for his knowledge of the law and judicial procedures. On Monday, Judge Ramirez granted several Wisely requests that information be stricken from a pre-sentence probation report for lack of corroborating information.

But Ramirez also denied a battery of Wisely motions. After it appeared that Wisely had run out of arguments, Ramirez upheld his murder conviction and the jury's finding that he had lain in wait to commit the killing.

Ramirez noted Wisely's past 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.

Ramirez also said that Wisely was "extremely articulate" but that he had lived primarily a life of crime without ever having any regular employment.

Harrington said upon leaving the courtroom that Ramirez's handling of her husband's case was "pathetic."

'Willie Will Be Back'

"Willie will be back," she said outside the courtroom later. "You can be certain about that. If he is not killed in prison, he will be back."

Actually, Wisely will be back even sooner than anyone expected. Judge McCartin set a Jan. 22 date for a hearing on Wisely's contempt motions against jail officials.

The county counsel's office had hoped to dispose of the motions Monday, but McCartin granted Wisely's request for a continuance so that he could bring in witnesses.

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