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Pardoned Prisoner Savors First Full Day of Freedom

September 30, 1995 GMT

AURORA, Mo. (AP) _ Johnny Lee Wilson slept late, watched pro wrestling and reacquainted himself with family and friends Saturday, his first day of freedom since winning a pardon after spending 8 1/2 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

``I just want to spend some time with my family and stay right where I’m at for a while,″ he said.

A cheering crowd welcomed Wilson home following his release from the state prison in Jefferson City. Gov. Mel Carnahan pardoned Wilson, saying investigators manipulated the mentally retarded man into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit _ the 1986 slaying of 79-year-old Pauline Martz.

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Wilson, 30, stopped for a Big Mac and fries, then rode back to his Ozarks hometown of 6,500 in a motor home with relatives and friends. He wiped away tears as he exchanged hugs and handshakes with about 200 well-wishers.

``I never thought I had many friends,″ he said. ``But arriving home and realizing how many people were there, it was the most marvelous day of my life.″

Wilson was 20 when Martz, a close friend and bridge partner of his grandmother, was found beaten, bound and gagged in her burned house. Wilson was arrested five days later. He was eventually sentenced to life in prison without a chance for parole.

Wilson later professed his innocence. Charges that his confession was coerced, and that Kansas inmate Chris Brownfield confessed to the crime in 1988, helped bring the case national attention.

Wilson said he still doesn’t know why he confessed. He has an IQ of 76 and low verbal skills.

``I didn’t think the governor would do it,″ Wilson said of the pardon. ``But when it actually came through, I was really shocked. He’s a great man. I thank him a lot.″

Former Jasper County Circuit Judge L. Thomas Elliston, who sentenced Wilson, criticized the governor.

``I just hope that some innocent elderly lady out in the county doesn’t have to pay the ultimate price for this,″ Elliston said.