No one would blame a wrongfully convicted person for losing hope in humanity. But for Montana Innocence Project client Kelly Worthan, being wrongfully convicted reinforced what was already his prevailing characteristic: compassion.
Worthan was wrongfully convicted in 2004 of Sexual Intercourse Without Consent, Incest, and Tampering With Witnesses and Informants. District Judge Lint sealed the case on April 10, 2020. We cannot discuss the details of the wrongful conviction; although, we look forward to sharing the overwhelming evidence of Kelly’s innocence with you in the future. For now, we want to introduce you to Kelly. He is a father, a humanitarian, a lover of the outdoors, and criminal justice reform advocate with an unwavering desire to help others.
Kelly was born in Colorado but primarily was raised in Whitehall, Montana, about 25 miles outside of Butte. Like many who grew up in Montana, he was exposed to hunting, fishing, and camping at an early age. His step-dad was a ranch hand, and his mom worked at local businesses. After high school, he immediately enlisted in the Army.
“You couldn’t deter me from joining the military,” Kelly said. “If you offered me the greatest job in the world, I would say, ‘Nope, I’m going into the military.’”
Kelly said he always felt the need to prove himself, and the military seemed like a good place to do that. Also, having participated in individual sports in high school like cross country and wrestling, he liked that the military provided the opportunity to excel individually while also being on a team.
“The military was a great place to grow up, and I miss it just as much as anything else,” Kelly said. “If I had the opportunity, I’d go back in a heartbeat.”
Kelly spent almost a decade as a paratrooper stationed at Fort Bragg with the 82nd Airborne Division and later with the 3rd Special Forces Group.
“June of 1993 I became a father,” Kelly said.
Kelly has three children: two girls and one boy. He had his first at 21.
“I was just a kid myself,” Kelly said. “There’s times when you think you should’ve waited longer, but then again, I wouldn’t take it back for the world.”
The moment he became a father, Kelly almost passed out from a combination of excitement and nervousness.
“The doctor was saying, ‘You go ahead and sit down,’” Kelly said. “I was scared, but it didn’t take me long to enjoy it.”
Coming back to Montana
In Kelly’s ninth year with the Army, he wanted to explore other career opportunities. He became a fleet manager and broker for the trucking industry. But after moving from North Carolina, to Texas, to Arkansas, and then back to North Carolina, he craved stability for himself and his young family. So Kelly pursued a job where he could settle back home in Montana.
“I wanted my family to experience my childhood–especially my children,” Kelly said. “Most of my fondest memories growing up here was spending time with my family camping or hunting. I felt that’s what really drew us close, and that’s what I wanted to do here with my family to help bring us close.”
Kelly originally intended to move near the Ruby Valley, which has a special place in his heart because it was one of his mom’s favorite camping spots. But the job offer was in Missoula. Although Kelly had not spent much time in Missoula as a child, he now considers it his favorite place in the state.
“I fell in love with the city,” Kelly said. “I love diversity, and Missoula is very diverse as far as Montana towns or cities go. And as far as I’m concerned, I wouldn’t live in any other place in Montana.”
The Worthans moved to Montana in November 2002, and Kelly was wrongfully accused the following April. In June 2004, he was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 130 years. His children were still little at the time.
“I enjoyed the time [being a parent], but it was cut short,” Kelly said. “That’s a very emotional thing for me. We were always told we were doing things right from others around us in the way we were interacting with our children and the way our children interacted with people. That was one thing, especially my wife, was always praised on. How well behaved our children were.”
While we cannot discuss the details of Kelly’s wrongful conviction, the circumstances strained his relationship with his children. He does not currently have a relationship with his three children, but he remains close with his step-son Morgan who is now in his 30s.
“Even though me and his mother are not together anymore, he still wants to have a relationship,” Kelly said. “It’s awesome. Something to look forward to. I know that it might be out of the realm of possibility to have that relationship with my other children, but I would like to try to maybe someday. That’s something that’s wait and see where things go. It’s scary. I think about it, but I try not to think about it because it’s very depressing.”
“I don’t live in the moment”
Kelly describes being wrongfully convicted as a “nightmare,” but he relies on his memories of the past and his hopes for the future to get him through each day.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t live in the moment,” Kelly said. “I don’t live this life. I don’t know if this is healthy or just a survival thing, but I live in my past, or I live in what the future could be. There are times where I do have to look at reality, but I try to blur it out.”
Kelly said that when he was first wrongfully incarcerated, he felt compelled to assert his innocence to his peers and the staff at the prison, but he no longer does that. He said that some people acknowledge how he is not capable of the crimes he was wrongfully convicted of but that others perceive him as self-centered.
“A lot of those people probably know, and they’re jealous,” Kelly said. “At least that’s how I perceive it. Like they say, misery loves company, and this place is full of misery. So there’s plenty of room for company here, and that’s the sad part.”
Kelly has used his time in prison to explore hobbies he said he likely would not have pursued like crocheting, poetry, and language studies. But on the particularly hard days, Kelly finds himself considering whether incarceration would be easier if he were actually guilty.
“That’s how a lot of people do cope with it,” Kelly said. “They can come to the understanding of, ‘Well, I’m here, and I’ve got to deal with it.’ But for me, it’s a daily battle. But I try not to be a negative output. I try to be cheerful no matter who it is. Even if they’re aggressive or condescending, I try to greet it with understanding and calmness.”
“I don’t like to see people suffer”
Kelly spent his entire career in the military helping people and has continued his humanitarian efforts during his wrongful incarceration. He worked in the infirmary with older adults and people with disabilities mostly assisting people in their last days of life.
“I tried to make those days better knowing that someone was there for them even though they’re in here,” Kelly said. “I don’t like to see people suffer no matter who they are. I think everybody needs to be loved. Especially in their last days. Especially when you’re in that vulnerable state. I don’t want to feel sorry for them. I don’t want to use that word. But I want to feel compassion. Compassion, you know. I think we need a little bit more of that.”
People often ask Kelly what he is going to do if he gets out. He usually says he would like to work with the VA, but his answer recently changed.
“If I was to walk out of here tomorrow, I’d take some time to help the folks that have been behind me and helped me out through all of this,” Kelly said. “I’d take time for that, and then I’d do my best effort to see what I could do to go to Ukraine. However they feel they could use my skills best. For me personally, I see history repeating itself from the first and second World Wars. It kind of bothers me. It bothers me a lot because I hate bullies.”
Kelly is a natural helper, but his experience being wrongfully convicted has strengthened his desire to help people in need even more.
“You just want to help everybody, and you know you can’t,” Kelly said. “It’s hard to explain. You want to understand people’s stories. You just want to help people when you know there’s injustice in their lives. But you can’t help everybody, and it hurts. Especially in here seeing injustice in everything.”
Reflections on the criminal legal system
Prior to his wrongful conviction, Kelly acknowledges that he was close-minded about the criminal legal system. Until he experienced it himself, he thought it worked just fine.
“I’m guilty of doing what most people do: I’d read a name in a newspaper, and think ‘Yep, they’re guilty,’” Kelly said. “I was ignorant to it. I had no clue. I had no understanding. Since being involved in it, it’s broken. It’s unjust. It’s scary. Someone can say something, and you’re guilty until proven innocent. That’s the way it is.”
Kelly has even witnessed his peers in prison conflate assertions about someone’s guilt in a newspaper with the truth.
“They sit there and say, ‘Everything they said about me is bullshit and lies,’” Kelly said. “But then they’ll sit there and read something and say it’s true because they read it.”
He attributes this to how many people are conditioned to blindly trust the criminal legal system.
“It’s so imprinted in our minds from the time that we’re little that the justice system is perfect, and it’s right no matter what,” Kelly said. “Even if you do see the flaws, you try to excuse them. From the time you’re little, you’re trained that if a police officer says it or if a fireman says it, it’s true. And it’s not. They’re people. They perceive things, and they say things that are not exactly true.”
Kelly spends time reading about legal systems in other countries. He admires the Scandanavian approach to criminal justice, which emphasizes treatment and humane prison conditions.
“And apparently it’s working because they have one of the lowest recidivism and crime rates in the world,” Kelly said. “So they must be doing something right.”
Kelly said he doesn’t know how to fix the criminal legal system in America but that applying a more individualized approach to accountability would be a good place to start.
“I always believe in second chances for everybody,” Kelly said. “I don’t care who you are. That’s what we need is second chances, and we don’t seem to have that. It’s once you’re convicted, you’re convicted for life. There is a few that do break that, but they are still oppressed after that. And there are some people who need that constant supervision, but I don’t think it’s for everybody. I don’t think one method fits everybody.”
“I just want to be able to live my life free”
The Montana Innocence Project began representing Kelly in 2019. His petition for post-conviction relief was filed two years ago. We are still waiting for a ruling.
“The ultimate hope is complete exoneration and to bring justice to not only me but for my whole family,” Kelly said. “I just want that corrected. I just want my name cleared off. I don’t want anything more. I just want to be able to live my life free and try to regain what I lost. And like I said, I want to repay those who stood behind me and do what I can to help them. Whatever I can do to repay that. It’s a debt I can never repay, but I’ll do my best.”