Mother's a devoted witness

Staff WriterFebruary 12, 2004 

WINDSOR--She sits in the middle of the courtroom gallery, listening intently, chewing a nail, taking notes furiously on a lime-green clipboard.

Every few minutes, she cranes around to look at the clock. Nothing that happens in this Bertie County courtroom gets by Jeanette Johnson.

"I write it all down," she says. "Every person on the stand. Every time a juror falls asleep, every time a deputy wakes one up. I write down the name of the deputy. I write down the time."

She scurries in and out of the court, conferring with lawyers, talking to the private eye.

But every once in a while, if there's a lull in testimony or if the lawyers approach the bench to discuss a point of law, you can catch Johnson, for once completely still, focusing her considerable energy on the young man at the defendant's table. Her son, Alan Gell.

Gell is on trial, for the second time, for the 1995 shooting death of Allen Ray Jenkins.

It has been more than five years since the first trial, when prosecutors won a conviction after withholding evidence that might have cleared Gell's name.

The young man sitting at the defense table has changed from when he was arrested in 1995 and sentenced to death in 1998. He was 20 at the time of the slaying -- a drug dealer, a thief and a punk. Now he is 29; he has behaved in prison, and he appears to have grown up. He sits quietly, patiently, waiting to see what this new trial will bring.

Gell has always said he didn't kill Jenkins. Scientific evidence and suppressed testimony suggest the crime occurred when Gell was out of town or in jail for stealing a truck.

Johnson, who is 48, says that on some level this retrial feels like yet another injustice. When Gell was awarded a new trial in December 2002 and taken off death row, he should have been released, she believes. Still, the trial is an opportunity, too -- for vindication.

Of course, there's no way of knowing what a jury might do.

On Tuesday, Johnson sat on the edge of the bench as her son testified. I asked her what it felt like, watching her son tell his story to the jury, with so very much at stake.

"He always wanted to have his say, even at the first trial," she said that evening. "I just told him to tell the truth. I was proud of him."

When I ask her how she manages to keep her composure, she struggles for the right words to explain.

Finally, she tells me that she learned self-control out of necessity. By her best calculation, her son was at Central Prison 458 weeks. She made the two-hour drive to visit him there 310 times.

She never cried in front of her son, she says.

"Can you imagine what it's like to have your boy on death row?" she asks. "Can you imagine what it's like to visit him there every Saturday and tell him, 'I love you, I'll see you next week,' when you never know if they're gonna call and say, 'He's up next -- it's time for his execution'?"

"But I never showed him. See, I needed to be strong for him."

You never stop being the mother, Johnson tells me.

"It's only when you get your back turned, when they can't see you," she says. "That's when the mama can cry."

Ruth Sheehan can be reached at 829-4828 or rsheehan@newsobserver.com

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