Crime lab, poor police work had a role in wrongful imprisonment
Oct. 14, 2007
By Roma Khanna, Houston Chronicle
Hours after the 1993 attack on a woman asleep in her Third Ward home, her daughter gave police what she believed was the street name of the rapist: "Chilli Charlie."
And it wasn't Ronald Gene Taylor's street name.
It belonged instead to Roosevelt Carroll, a known sex offender who lived less than a mile from the victim and was known to local police in the 1980s and 1990s as "Chilli Chetter."
But officers focused on Taylor, the wrong man, arresting him 14 years ago for a crime DNA tests now show was likely committed by Carroll.
"She told them exactly who it was all those years ago," said Nina Morrison, of the Innocence Project, which seeks to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, and which represents Taylor. "But the police dismissed it and focused on Ronnie Taylor."
It was the first in a string of errors that led to Taylor's wrongful imprisonment.
As the case against Taylor unraveled, leading to his release from prison last week, weaknesses throughout the investigation have become clear, according to a review of police and court documents.
Chief among the problems was faulty work from the Houston Police Department's troubled crime lab. But also present were hallmarks common to wrongful convictions such as officers' hasty dismissal of other suspects, a problematic victim identification and a case built on little evidence.
"I don't know who all fell short," Taylor said. "But someone — or someones — fell short, and I was gone for 14 years."
In the early morning hours of May 28, 1993, a 39-year-old woman awoke to find a man on top of her and a knife to her throat.
The man raped her in a darkened bedroom, while three of her children slept nearby, and then fled. The victim called police, who quickly developed a profile of her attacker.
Soon after, the woman viewed a lineup, but she did not recognize anyone. Police arranged a second lineup, including Taylor, who a neighbor said was in the area that night.
The victim was unable to view that lineup in person, so officers videotaped it. She identified Taylor as her attacker after twice viewing the tape in her home with HPD Officer Julie Hardin and no one else, a process that Taylor's lawyers called "unnecessarily suggestive."
Taylor was charged July 14, 1993, and waited in jail for nearly two years before trial.
"I've set here for over one year without bond on charges I didn't commit," Taylor said in a handwritten note to state District Judge Denise Collins in which he asserted his innocence and pleaded for a trial to prove it. "As each day passes it gets harder and harder."
Taylor's case went to trial in April 1995.
Prosecutor Vanessa Velasquez, now a state district judge, built a case almost entirely from the victim's identification.
Velasquez did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
The victim told jurors that she had felt the features of the man's face in her dark room during the attack.
"The door to the room was closed but not closed all the way, so I could see the shadow of the person," she testified. "I was able to take my hands and run across his face, his head, along his ears, his nose, his mouth."
She also told jurors her attacker had a missing tooth and that she caught a glimpse of him as he fled, details she initially had not mentioned to police. Taylor's trial attorney, Shelton Sparks, questioned the victim's new recollections.
"Did you ever indicate (in your statement) about the individual running into the refrigerator?" Sparks asked.
"I don't remember if I told Officer Hardin about that or not," she replied.
When asked, the woman pointed to Taylor and told jurors he was her attacker.
False victim identifications are common in wrongful convictions.
Also key to the case was body fluid analyses, known as serology, from the HPD crime lab.
Serologist Maurita Carrejo told jurors about her findings.
"Do you recall analyzing the bedsheet?" Velasquez asked.
"Yes, I do," Carrejo replied.
"Did you find any semen?" Velasquez asked.
"I did not," Carrejo testified.
The analyst went on to testify that it is not uncommon to find no semen after a rape and that forensics could not eliminate Taylor as a suspect.
Carrejo worked at the HPD from 1993 to 1996 before leaving forensic science. "It wasn't the place for me," she said.
She did not recall Taylor's case when contacted last week but questioned whether the new evidence exonerated him. She agreed it might after hearing about the other suspect, Carroll.
"I guess I am happy for the man," she said, "but I have no recollection of his case."
Her testimony, however, figured heavily in jurors' deliberations and is something that some today still remember.
After two days of testimony and arguments, the panel of five men and seven women began deliberations. Five hours later, they sent Collins a message.
"We, the jury, are deadlocked, " read a note from foreman James D. Franklin. "Not guilty: 5. Guilty: 7."
Among those unconvinced of Taylor's guilt was Chester Behler, a cable repairman.
"I could not understand how someone in the dark could use their hand and be able to describe this person," Behler said last week. "I wondered back then if — and I really believe now — that the cops made her believe that he was the one."
Other jurors focused on Carrejo's faulty testimony.
They asked the judge, in two subsequent notes, for Carrejo's testimony and a copy of her report.
"Everybody wanted to make sure their decision was based on the information provided," juror Jerry Weatherbee said. "We kept going back and forth."
Some were swayed by the strength of Hardin's testimony, Behler said, which eventually persuaded him to convict.
Lab scandal unfolds
In their second day of deliberations, jurors reached a consensus and found Taylor guilty. Collins sentenced him to 60 years in prison, beginning a 12-year quest for exoneration.
While Taylor served his sentence, mostly at Tennessee Colony prison, a forensics scandal was unfolding in Houston.
Thousands of crime lab cases came under scrutiny after news reports and an independent audit in 2002 exposed its shoddy work, poorly trained analysts and inadequate resources. Two men were exonerated and errors were found in the work of several lab divisions, including those that test illegal drugs, firearms and serology — the testing that helped convict Taylor.
The crime lab scandal was ongoing when lawyers from the Innocence Project requested that the bedsheet and other items from the crime scene be reanalyzed.
New tests, performed by a private lab, detected semen on the sheet where Carrejo said there was none. DNA testing yielded the profile of another man — Carroll — discrediting Carrejo's work.
"The HPD laboratory gravely erred," Taylor's lawyers wrote in court papers filed last week. "Had the semen stain been properly analyzed at that time, it could have established Mr. Taylor's innocence at the outset of his case."
The DNA profile found on the sheet was entered into a database of DNA profiles, which produced a hit for Carroll.
A search of his criminal history reveals that Carroll, currently serving a 15-year sentence for failing to register as a sex offender, has twice been convicted of rapes similar to the 1993 attack.
It also reveals the street name by which officers knew him: Chilli Chetter.
The victim's daughter told officers that she saw a man who she thought was named Chilli Charlie the night of the attack at a nearby bar where the two women had played pool. The daughter said "Charlie" was wearing clothes that fit her mother's description of her attacker.
Hardin, the HPD officer, told jurors that she had eliminated Charlie as a suspect — a fact that Taylor's trial counsel disputed and one that, in the light of Carroll's implication in the crime, seems unlikely, Taylor's lawyers said.
Hardin said she checked out the Charlie lead with locals at a neighborhood bar, who told her Chilli Charlie was older than the 20- to 30-year-old she sought.
With that, Hardin concluded that Chilli Charlie, who had been convicted in another rape, "wasn't the right person." She never linked the street name to a person. Attempts to reach Hardin for comment were unsuccessful.
In closing arguments, Taylor's lawyer said evidence pointed to this other man.
"Chilli Charlie slipped through the window and sexually assaulted (the victim)," he said.
Twelve years later, he was proved right.