On November 14, 1996, Ellis Wayne Felker was executed in Georgia’s electric chair for the 1981 murder of college student Evelyn Joy Ludlam.
After the 19-year-old’s car was found abandoned, police learned from her landlady that Ludlam had left a note saying that she would be meeting with Felker on the day when she was last seen. Investigators stated that Felker, who had been convicted in 1976 of aggravated sodomy, invited Ludlam to meet with him under the pretense of a giving her a job at his leather shop.
Police began following Felker and — during the time he was under surveillance — the body of Ludlam was found floating in Scuffle Creek on December 8, 1981.
Investigators later determined that Ludlam, who had been working as a cocktail waitress while attending college in Warner Robins, Georgia, had been sexually assaulted and strangled to death.
Felker maintained his innocence in the killing, and there was considerable controversy about his case due to the fact that the conviction was based largely on circumstantial evidence.
An autopsy performed for the police initially determined that Ludlam had been dead for five days when found — which initially seemed to eliminate Felker as a suspect, due to the fact that he was under police surveillance during this period.
But the medical examiner, Dr. Whitaker, later testified at trial that factors including the air temperature, the state of decomposition of the body, and the fact that Ludlam had been found wearing the same clothes as when she was last seen, led him to conclude that Ludlam had died two weeks before her body was found. This would have been the time period before Felker was put under surveillance.
At trial, the prosecution relied on circumstantial evidence pointing to Felker having met with Ludlam — and physical evidence, including hair found on Ludlam’s clothes. The State Crime Lab said the hair might have been Felker’s, however, the type of microscopic test used is no longer considered scientifically reliable.
A Georgia jury convicted Felker in 1983 of the rape, murder, aggravated sodomy, and false imprisonment of Ludlam — and sentenced him to death.
After the conviction, it came to light that prosecutors had illegally withheld boxes upon boxes of evidence that could have possibly exonerated Felker, including possible DNA samples of the perpetrator and a signed confession made by another suspect who was intellectually disabled. Felker’s defense filed numerous appeal petitions during the following years.
Felker was originally scheduled to be executed in May 1996, but a stay was granted until the United States Supreme Court heard his habeas corpus appeal as a test of the new Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), which was enacted on April 24, 1996. The act cracked down on Death Row inmates and other state prisoners who file numerous appeals in federal court. The petition for an original writ of habeas corpus ended up being denied due to the fact that the court ruled that there was not sufficient new evidence.
In September 1996, Felker was granted a 40-day stay of execution so that a court could determine if government officials had violated the state open-records law in denying Felker access to records on his case. In late September, the Superior Court in Perry ruled that the government officials had complied sufficiently with Felker’s open records request, and he was executed on November 15.
He had continued to maintain his innocence until the end of his life.
For his last meal, Felker requested fish. In an unusual circumstance, correctional officer Rusty Brooks was dispatched with a fishing pole to the lake on the property of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison near Jackson to catch Felker’s final meal.
In July 2000, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Boston Globe, Macon Globe, and CBS News announced that they would pay for DNA testing in the Felker case, to try to determine if he was innocent. They also agreed to collaborate on how the results were publicized. And in a highly unusual move, Houston County Senior Superior Court Judge L. A. McConnell ordered evidence in Felker’s case to be made available for DNA testing — which is believed to be the first time in the United States that a court agreed to post-conviction DNA testing of a person executed after being convicted of rape and murder.
But after all that, the results were ruled inconclusive, and the court ruled that this finding alone would not have been enough to grant a new trial to Felker. It seems we’ll never know whether or not an innocent man was executed.
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Main photo: Ellis Wayne Felker [Provided]