Jimmy Wilson, a University of Montana defensive back who spent 25 months in a Los Angeles jail before he was acquitted of 2007 murder charges, is drawing attention from NFL teams that believe he may be a worthy late-round draft pick or a priority undrafted free agent.
"I don't think teams doubt that I have the physical ability to play in the NFL and they like my style of play," Wilson said Sunday. "They want to know whether I have my personal life on a positive track. They can't get a feel by just reading about my story in the newspapers. I think teams have been pleasantly surprised once they meet me and get to know me."
The remarkable story of Wilson had its tragic chapter on June 2, 2007. Wilson's confrontation with an alleged abusive boyfriend of his aunt resulted in the death of the boyfriend, Kevin Smoot, who was fatally wounded by a rifle shot after the two men scuffled.
On that fateful day, Wilson had stopped at the Lancaster, Calif., home of his grandmother before his scheduled drive to Missoula, Mont., to begin summer workouts. Before his departure, Wilson said his aunt, Opal Davis, called the house to complain that Smoot had been abusive, including urinating on her during a domestic dispute. Wilson said he drove to his aunt's home with the intent of bringing her and two children fathered by Smoot back to his grandmother's home.
Wilson said an intoxicated Smoot came out of the garage with a rifle. A struggle ensued, the rifle discharged and Smoot ran from the scene, believing he was being shot at. When he heard his aunt scream, he said he turned and realized Smoot was dead.
Instead of waiting for police, Wilson said he panicked and fled, driving all night to Montana before he realized he had made a huge mistake in leaving the scene. He called an attorney and returned to Los Angeles to turn himself in to authorities.
Wilson was charged with first-degree murder in a case prosecutors described as homicidal street justice. He sat in jail until his trial in November 2008 resulted in a hung jury with an 11-1 vote in favor of his acquittal. The judge declared a mistrial, but prosecutors re-filed the charges, adding voluntary manslaughter to the first-degree murder charge.
Wilson returned to jail for an additional eight months before the second trial, in which a 12-person jury that deliberated less than a day on July 10, 2009, acquitted him on both charges.
"The longest two years of my life," said Wilson, "but thankful that 23 out of 24 jurors in two trials believed I was [not guilty]."
Wilson's five-year window of eligibility for NCAA football had lapsed, but he petitioned the NCAA for a sixth season of eligibility, which was granted in 2010. Three years had passed between his junior and senior seasons. He was moved from cornerback to safety and he was an honorable mention All-Big Sky Conference player.
Wilson has been described as a hard-hitting defender with coverage skills. Former Tennessee Titans secondary coach Tim Hauck, who played 12 years as a safety in the NFL, was an assistant at Montana when Wilson played for the Grizzlies before the incident.
"He was going to be the guy that made the play that helped you win games," Hauck told the New York Times in January. "You looked at him and you thought, this kid may get an NFL shot."
Nine teams reportedly attended his pro day in March. Wilson, who measured 5-feet-11 and 193 pounds, ran the 40 twice at 4.52 and 4.49 seconds. He had a 35-inch vertical jump, a 9-11 broad jump and did 19 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press. He had a 4.29-second shuttle.
Wilson has been anxious to tell his story to teams, even when he's not pressed for details. He explained why he and his grandmother did not simply call police to handle the alleged domestic abuse that was inflicted upon Davis by Smoot.
"It was a bad relationship but I knew the man, he was still the father of those two kids and I think she felt once he sobered up in a couple of hours it would be OK," Wilson said. "But him urinating on her, that was just inhuman. I just thought I needed to get her and the children away from him. She didn't want the cops called. Her being a foster child, she always worried about those kids being taken away from her and becoming foster children themselves."
Wilson's agent is Ken Staninger, who has a reputation for being selective in representing low-profile and high-character football players. His highest-profile player over 31 years has been Mark Rypien, former Super Bowl MVP quarterback of the Washington Redskins. Wilson brings a different profile to his clientele list.
"Jimmy and I met four times before I agreed it was a good fit," Staninger said. "I'm fortunate there are so many guys who are coaching here at Montana that have been through the NFL and have given their blessing to me on Jimmy. A lot of these coaches have put their reputation on the line when they talk to [NFL] teams about Jimmy. I really like the kid. He's grateful for a second chance and he deserves it."
Wilson, who will be 25 in July, understands that a good number of teams will not consider him or simply have categorized him as a potential undrafted free agent. For a man who was jailed for 25 months on charges he was eventually acquitted of, the irony that his hopes of making the NFL this year could be dashed because of the lockout has not been lost on him. Teams will be allowed to draft but not sign any rookies if the lockout remains in effect.
"That's why I'm praying I'll be drafted," Wilson said. "At least I'll know where my opportunity will come. Either way, I'm determined."
Chris Mortensen is ESPN's senior NFL analyst.