The prisoner whose story led fellow inmates to raise funds for his defense

Private investigator Eileen Law and Judge Lawrence Wood: They believe James Kelly is innocent of murder.

As a retired judge, Lawrence Wood thought he'd seen all the angles, every lie a desperate man could cook up to save himself.

Then a letter arrived at Wood's West Chester office, about eight years ago, from a prisoner who'd passed the hat among inmates to help raise money to save his cellmate. It seemed everyone who'd heard about James Kelly's story became obsessed with proving he isn't a murderer.

"I told James as long as I had a breath left in my body that I'd try to get him out of jail," Wood said.

Wood, 80, is a 1961 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School who spent four years in the Navy. He left the bench in 2001 to ease back into private practice, part time. He wanted more time for hobbies, such as singing bass in the Opera Delaware with his wife.

Wood also wanted to devote himself to one of his pet causes: helping prisoners who, as he puts it, had been "screwed by the system."

That's why Wood received a letter from George Bussinger, an inmate at Somerset State Correctional Institute in Western Pennsylvania.

"I thought I should let you know about my roommate," he wrote.

Bussinger, who was reared in foster and juvenile homes around Philadelphia, said he was good at sizing people up.

As the cellmates would lie in their prison bunks, Kelly, a former city sanitation worker, would tell and retell the story of his 1996 conviction for killing Travis Hughston on Bambrey Street in Philadelphia on New Year's Day 1993.

The story kept Bussinger awake at night.

"I have been in jail for a while, and I pretty much know when a person is guilty and when they are not," Bussinger wrote to Wood. "I read my roommate's paperwork, the entire discovery, and he is innocent. . . . He's an old guy that has been locked up for years, and it's really sad."

In the ultimate selfless coda, Bussinger concluded that Kelly was more deserving of help than even he was.

When Wood told him they'd need to hire a private detective, Bussinger collected $1,000 from prisoners who knew Kelly. Wood hired Eileen Law, a Kennett Square detective, who, too, became focused on the case. Law has been threatened in North Philadelphia when she's walked the streets. She's talked her way into houses where she didn't belong. She always told someone where she was going, in case she didn't come back.

"Waiting 21 years"

On an overcast day in March, children played board games as couples held hands on mint-colored couches in the spacious visiting room of the Somerset Correctional Institute.

Kelly walked in wearing prison khakis, his short hair mottled with gray. He smiled.

"I've been waiting 21 years for a reporter to come here to listen to my story," he said.

Kelly is locked up for life for the murder of Hughston. Prosecutors said Kelly passed a handgun to the shooter, a man named Larry Mullins, and after the murder, both men ran away. Kelly insists he never met Hughston or Mullins - never even heard of them.

Kelly was 36 at the time. He had a young son and daughter and a common-law wife. Hughston and Mullins were both 21.

"I was no angel," he said, "but not a murderer."

Court records show Kelly had received probation for a 1978 robbery and simple-assault arrest. He was arrested for weapons possession that same year and also got probation in 1994 for retail theft.

Two months after the New Year's Day shooting, Kelly heard that police wanted to talk to him. So he went to Police Headquarters, alone, he said, to "clear things up." He offered an alibi: He was at his mother-in-law's house for a New Year's Day blessing with her, their pastor, and the pastor's family. The whole thing took just minutes, Kelly said. Police didn't charge him, and he said he never thought about it again.

Two years later, on July 7, 1995, Kelly was arrested. That brought relief to the dead man's family.

Catricia Hughston said she assumed police had captured the people who'd shot her son to death.

"That was it for us," Hughston said. "We survived and got through it. I raised his two sons and two daughters."

Looking back, Kelly said he remembers trusting his lawyer, Geoffrey Seay - perhaps too much.

"I was naive," Kelly said.

Wood fumes over mistakes he believes were made when Kelly was tried. He blames Seay for all of it.

Two prosecution witnesses put Kelly at the scene. One was an admitted crack addict who tried to recant her identification during the preliminary hearing. The other eyewitness, a man named Colie Baxter, identified Kelly from his car in the dark and was later unable to pick him out in a photo array.

Baxter stands by his testimony.

"Ain't nothing wrong with my memory," Baxter said. "If it was another guy, it was a double."

Seay called a single witness. Kelly's alibi witnesses weren't summoned to the stand. Two other people who claimed they saw two men - neither of them Kelly - run from the murder scene were available to testify for the defense also but didn't, Wood said.

"Lord have mercy, we had so many witnesses," said Kelly's brother, Calvin Edwards. "[Seay's] philosophy was that he didn't need them. He convinced us that we were going to win this case."

Kelly said he wanted to testify in his own defense, but said Seay advised against it.

On Aug. 20, 1996, Kelly said, he learned innocence means nothing if you can't prove it. When the jurors came back, one woman had been crying, he said. She looked at him, then looked away.

"I knew it was over," he said.

The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office declined to comment on the case. Attempts to reach homicide investigators who handled the case were unsuccessful.

His girlfriend speaks

Kelly appealed his conviction several times but lost.

"The biggest mistake was that James was convicted and in the legal system," Wood said. "You pretty much get one shot or your goose is cooked."

Kelly's brother and mother helped pay Seay to appeal after his conviction but Wood said it was never filed.

"This guy, for my money, really screwed up James Kelly's case," Wood said. "He made a lot of mistakes and it cost James his life, in a sense."

Reached for comment, Seay said he didn't recall Kelly asking to testify or having any alibi witnesses.

"It wasn't my first homicide." Seay said. "I started in the D.A.'s office. I grew up around it because my father was a criminal defense attorney. I always try to get the least amount of exposure and try to get them acquitted."

Law, the private investigator, hasn't billed Wood and Kelly after the initial $1,000 collected years ago. She's spent more than 6,000 hours on the case, banging on doors across Philadelphia. She's tracked down numerous witnesses, including Tameka Ledbetter, the victim's girlfriend in 1993.

Ledbetter, who rushed out of her house to find Hughston dead on Bambrey Street, said she still gets upset when she thinks about the man convicted of killing her boyfriend.

When police arrived, she claims, she told them she'd seen another man, now dead, at the scene. She said she wished she'd been asked to testify.

"It was not [Kelly]," she said. "I know it was not him."

In Kelly's appeal, the courts ruled that Ledbetter's testimony "would not likely have changed the outcome of his trial" and also noted that Ledbetter was known to the defense and available at the time of the trial.

"To me," Wood said, "that's just more evidence of his attorney's incompetence."

Law talks weekly to Kelly. She gets emotional thinking about the inconsistencies she's discovered.

"Every time I'm thinking I have a bad day and I want to complain, I think about him. I'll be trying to prove his innocence until it's the last breath I take."

Kelly is about out of options, Wood said. They're still hoping to find grounds to appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

One of the men Wood and Law suspect of being involved is in federal prison for murder. Another is dead. Wood has asked Kelly to seek a pardon but Kelly won't even discuss it.

During an interview at a South Philadelphia diner, Bussinger said he is trying to go straight now that he's back home.

He wasn't sure whether he'd see Kelly again. Maybe in prison down the road, he joked. But then Bussinger looked out the diner's window, dipped his toast in runny eggs, and grew silent, letting the yolk drip as his eyes welled with tears.

"I have not forgotten you, Mr. Kelly. Never will," Bussinger said.

Kelly said that in his tiny cell at night, he dreams of a modest house, a steady job, and plenty of time for his many grandchildren. Maybe a steak dinner with Bussinger, his old cellmate.

"It's not hard to have hope," Kelly said. "I'm healthy. I can still think. I work here almost every day. My innocence is something I hold on to inside me. No one can take that from me, even if I die in here."

Wood's retirement remains on pause. He's a well-respected elder in Chester County's legal community. He holds out the possibility of receiving a phone call from Law with a new piece of evidence, or a confession letter landing on his desk.

Mostly, Wood just thinks of Kelly, persevering behind brick and razor wire, far out west.

"How he keeps his spirits up is beyond me," Wood said. "My admiration for the man is boundless."

narkj@phillynews.com

215-854-5916

@JasonNark