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Some Would Call Her a Prisoner of Love

June 02, 1990|JERRY HICKS

SANTA ANA — When Gail Harrington's husband, convicted murderer Willie Ray Wisely, was finally sent to Folsom Prison two years ago, she left behind everything--her family in Newport Beach, college, her job--to be near him.

She got a small, one-bedroom apartment in the tiny town of Folsom on the American River, less than a mile from the prison, and rode her bicycle five days a week to spend time with him.

She stayed the full six hours allowed. She wrote him every day. And she found a job as a law clerk in nearby Sacramento to support herself.

"It's tough, but we knew it would be," the 28-year-old Harrington said.

It has been even tougher than they thought. Wisely has had so much trouble adjusting to life at Folsom that they've twice shipped him out for disciplinary reasons.

Now 37, Wisely gained notoriety as the jailhouse lawyer who took on Sheriff Brad Gates over living conditions at the Orange County Jail. Wisely had been his own lawyer when he was tried and found guilty of the 1981 murder of his stepfather, Robert E. Bray, in Huntington Beach. Prosecutors had accused Wisely of rigging Bray's truck so the cab fell on him while he worked underneath it. The motive, prosecutors say: Wisely thought he would inherit Bray's money.

Wisely may not have won his case, but he gained a reputation for his prolific number of legal motions, both on his own case and on jail conditions. He spent more than six years at the Orange County Jail while his motions were pending, more than any other inmate in its history until serial killer Randy Steven Kraft came along.

Wisely managed to persuade a judge to let him set up his own legal shop at the Orange County Jail, with his own eight-man cell with an attached day room. He had his own television, his own computer and his own telephone. At Folsom, he was placed in a small, two-man cell with another inmate.

Wisely's first offense at Folsom was listed as assault on an inmate. Harrington claims Wisely had made her a necklace, and an argument ensued when it was confiscated as contraband. At most, she believes, he only pushed a guard as he tried to squeeze past him when told to leave his cell. And recently, marijuana was found in his cell. Wisely claims it was his cellmate's.

For the assault incident, he was sent last summer to Corcoran, a high-power facility (Charles Manson once lived there) that specializes in inmates who are problems at other facilities. Wisely spent six months there in "the shoe"--a Security Housing Unit. Among inmates, it's commonly called "the hole."

He was returned to Folsom last fall. But now he is back in Corcoran for the marijuana incident, and Harrington doesn't know when he will return to Folsom. She's left there alone.

Wisely has been in the "hole" at Folsom and Corcoran so much, in fact, that in two years, he and Harrington have only managed one conjugal visit. Other married inmates are permitted conjugal visits at least once every two months, she said.

But now, living conditions and even the status of their marriage is secondary for Harrington. She's more concerned about his efforts to win a new trial.

Harrington was a high school student when Wisely was convicted. But legal motions on his behalf, one of which led prosecutors to drop the death penalty jurors had given him, kept him at the Orange County Jail year after year. During that time, Harrington went to college and then to Western State University School of Law.

She was in law school when she visited the jail to be interviewed by Wisely for a law clerk position the courts had granted him. She was hired. They fell in love.

On Christmas Eve, 1986, she surreptitiously slipped a minister into the attorney/bonds section of the jail with her, where she could visit as Wisely's law clerk, and she and Wisely were married.

The next year she was arrested and accused of slipping drugs to an inmate on Wisely's behalf. She protested that she was innocent, and prosecutors eventually dropped the charges after admitting they couldn't prove a case against her.

Everything she has done has been for Wisely.

And, she says, "it's not just because I love the guy.

"If for some reason we're not able to hang on to this marriage, I know I will still be working on his case. Getting this man free is my goal in life. He is innocent. He's been in jail 10 years for something he didn't do."

Prosecutors disagree. Assistant Dist. Atty. Edgar A. Freeman calls Wisely a "great con man" and "a dangerous sociopath." Wisely had been in prison at San Quentin on a drug-related conviction and was in the Los Angeles County Jail awaiting armed-robbery charges when arrested in his stepfather's death. He has admitted his role in the robbery.

But that's not the man Harrington sees.

"Willie is warm, intelligent and very kind," she insists.

They sustain a marriage, Harrington says, by "not dwelling on the things we don't have."

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