July 2009 SSQQ
- Issue One
Written by Rick Archer
dON'T FORGET, SSQQ WILL BE CLOSED NEXT WEEK SO WE CAN REFINISH THE
OUR NEW JuLY Dance Classes begin on Sunday, JULY 5
NOTE FROM DARYL ARMSTRONG
"Well, this crowd sure likes to chat...My new email address has been
very busy indeed!
Everyone gives you and SSQQ high marks for all of the wonderful
People are spotting buildings and parking lots all over town -
sooner or later the right place will pop up.
As Jo Anne (my wife) and I drive around looking at places, it occurs
to me that someone at the studio might want to partner with us and
use the studio during the day. After all, the SSQQ operation
doesn't really kick in until 6 pm. Anyone with a 9 to 5 business
would be a perfect fit.
The benefits would be terrific....
1 - share the rent.
2 - a huge built-in clientele to market services to. A computer
store or a law office would be front and center to everyone who
3 - increased security for both businesses. We watch his/her back
at night, they watch our back during the day.
Since we have some time before your lease expires, maybe someone out
there might be able to plan ahead and join us.
A NARRATIVE ON BLIND JUSTICE
By Rick Archer
RICK ARCHER'S NOTE: Every now and then I have a rant. This
week's rant is 18 pages long. I can assure you it has nothing to do
with dance. It is a narrative on a concept known as "Blind
Justice". I worked hard on the article; I hope you will at least
read a page or so rather than click out immediately.
Lately I have been curious about the topic of "Blind Justice"...
people who wrongly convicted of something they didn't do.
While I was poking my nose around Amazon recently, I noticed that
the first two seasons of David Janssen's "The Fugitive" had been
released on DVD. It took less than a second to hit 'add to cart'.
"The Fugitive" was hands down my favorite TV show back in the
Sixties. As a high school teenager, all homework took a backseat
when "The Fugitive" was on. I doubt I ever missed an episode.
Indeed, while watching the reruns I am fascinated to realize I
actually remember some of the episodes.
Of course everyone my age remembers "The Fugitive", but for those
youngsters who are unfamiliar, a well respected Chicago surgeon Dr.
Richard Kimble comes home to discover that his wife has been
murdered. The police discover Kimble hovering over the victim and
accuse him of the murder. Kimble is tried, convicted, and sentenced
to death based on a perfect storm of circumstantial evidence.
Except that he is innocent.
On his way to Death Row, a train wreck freed Kimble who is now
forced to spend his life on the run.
"The Fugitive" ran for four years from 1963 to 1967. Each episode
was riveting. I notice the show won an award as the Best Dramatic
Series of the Sixties. Personally speaking, I think "The Fugitive"
is arguably the finest dramatic show ever to appear on television.
Each of the 120 episodes had a unique plot, often complex and
showing great creativity. For one thing, the show was very
entertaining. At times, the tension was absolutely gripping
(especially when Gerard was around!). Furthermore, "The Fugitive"
did a terrific job of making you actually think about justice, crime
and punishment in the same way that "Law and Order" does today.
As I have been taking my trip down Memory Lane, my favorite episode
so far was "A Corner of Hell".
At the start of the story, as usual, the
police were hot on Kimble's trail. Kimble jumped from a moving truck
and ran into the heavily forested countryside. Lt. Gerard, his
relentless pursuer, saw Kimble jump. Gerard was shocked when the
local police refused to help him chase Kimble into the woods. They
hesitated because this is moonshine country. It is much too
dangerous to enter without a virtual army. No telling what the
hillbillies might do to them.
Sure enough, the moonshiners hate all outsiders. They even rough
Kimble up a bit. But they ultimately warm up to Kimble when he
saves the life of Cody who has suffered an accident.
Meanwhile Gerard has elected to pursue Kimble on his own. Soon
after he enters the forest, he is captured and harassed by the
lawless moonshine group.
and a pretty Moonshine girl are left alone to keep an eye on
Gerard. That is when the girl notices Gerard's jacket is one the
ground. She steals his wallet and finds $300. Cody decides to
fight the pretty girl over possession of Gerard's money. During the
wrestling match, the girl trips and hits her head on a rock. Now
she slips into unconsciousness. Cody runs off just as Gerard
appears in an attempt to locate his missing wallet. He spots the
unconscious girl and gets down on his knees to check her condition.
Seconds later, the moonshine group shows up to find out what the
commotion is. They see Gerard leaning over the helpless limp body
of the girl. As an outsider, a cop, and a man wearing a store-bought
suit, Gerard already has three strikes against him. Now they take
the law into their own hands, wrongly accuse Gerard, and plan to
lynch him. Here comes the noose.
Gerard is in deep trouble because he could not prove he saw a man
running from the scene of the crime (does that ring a bell?) Now he
is forced to turn to Kimble for help. Gerard sputters to Kimble,
"But I am innocent! There were no witnesses! These backwoods
hillbillies should at least be smart enough to see I had no
intention of hurting that girl!"
At this point, I was grinning head to toe. What a hoot! In case
you haven't been following the bouncing ball, this twist was a total
role reversal of the usual Kimble-Gerard interplay. Now that the
shoe was on the other foot, Gerard doesn't even realize he is
repeating Kimble's same protests of innocence practically line for
line. The irony was wonderful fun.
the show was over, I began to think about how easy it is to jump to
conclusions. It was this episode that made me begin to wonder just
how good our American Justice system really is.
By coincidence, the next day I happened to run across this news item
in the Chronicle's City and State section.
Wrongly suspected kidnapper struggles to move on
The Associated Press
June 20, 2009, 3:56PM
PHARR, Texas -- Wrongly suspected in the high-profile disappearance
of a 4-year-old girl last month, a former bus driver says the unfair
scrutiny in his small Texas town has torn his life apart.
Raul Ornelas, 40, was questioned and detained by the FBI in May
after someone snatched the girl whom he playfully told months ago:
"You're so pretty, I'm going to take you."
It seems that Ornelas drove the bus to the Head Start program the
After being identified as a suspect, Ornelas' name and description
were published on an Amber Alert -- even though he was already in
Later that day, another man was charged with the little girl's
kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault.
Ornelas said despite being cleared, the damage to his reputation had
been done. Parents pulled their children from his wife's day care in
Hidalgo, forcing the family business that opened in 1997 to shut
Ornelas said he is still looking for a job.
"It has devastated our family," Ornelas' wife, Leticia, told The
Monitor of McAllen.
John Johnson, who heads the FBI's McAllen office, told the newspaper
that authorities regret any negative consequences from the
"Of course, in hindsight we know he had nothing to do with it,"
Johnson said. "But at the time, we didn't know what we had. ...
We're talking about the life of a little girl, so we weren't going
It was pointed out to Johnson that Ornelas had already been located
when his name was published as a suspect on the updated Amber
Alert. Johnson said as the hours passed that day, investigators'
primary focus was on the search for the little girl and not on
publicizing updates on the status of the investigation.
"There were some delays in the information getting out" to the
public," Johnson said. "But in all fairness, I was completely
invested in the effort to find her."
Ornelas didn't look like the man who girl's sister said had taken
the 4-year-old. There was also no connection between Ornelas and the
pickup truck witnesses said she was thrown into, the newspaper
Ornelas said his attorneys have told him he has little recourse. He
said he has thought about moving his wife and three children
elsewhere for a fresh start.
"I just want my life back the way it was before," he said.
ARCHER'S COMMENT ON ORNELAS
This man's plight reminded me of a strange incident that happened to
me 15 years ago. On the advice of a lady who was taking dance
classes here, I enrolled my daughter Sam at Duchesne Academy, a
private girl's school in Memorial. It was a program called
"Pre-Kindergarten". Sam was only 4 years old.
Soon after her pre-K class started, Sam was invited to a birthday
party. The girls were a delight. I had a ball chasing them,
scaring them, letting them chase me, playing keep-away and so on. A
group of 10 girls and I played for a good hour and a half. That is
when I looked up and noticed three women were staring darts at me.
They each had their arms crossed, they each had frowns, and they
were clearly united in their disapproval.
Whoa. Believe me, I got the message. I stopped playing with the
girls on the spot.
A few months down the road, I learned of some birthday parties Sam
hadn't been invited to. I remember feeling a little hurt for my
daughter's sake, but there wasn't anything I could do about it.
About a year later, one day I gave Sam a ride to visit a school
friend. The kid's mother invited me in for coffee. The woman
mentioned she had heard a rumor from another mother that I was under
suspicion. My eyes grew large.
She added the woman had told her I hadn't actually done anything
wrong, but some of the mothers were 'worried about me'. I was
flabbergasted. My mind immediately flashed back to the three women
who were the likely source of the rumor. I turned crimson with
embarrassment. I was a suspected pervert. I was really upset.
Later on I mentioned the incident to my friend Tom. He nodded his
head in sympathy. Tom said, "Out here in Suburbia, people have
nothing better to do than talk. One guy got on their S-list. He
ended up moving because he couldn't figure out a way to stop the
whispers. It drove him crazy. Since then I am terrified of
rumors. I won't even drive the babysitter home alone. I make my
wife drive her home just because I don't want to take a chance."
Well, that's how I learned my lesson. My days of playing with kids
were over. For the past fifteen years, I treat kids like
rattlesnakes - I don't go anywhere near them!
But then maybe I didn't learn my lesson after all.
When I read the story about Ornelas whose life was ruined over a
stupid joke... "You're so pretty, I'm going to take you"... I felt
sick to my stomach.
You see, I have said the exact same thing! My cleaning lady brings
her grandson James with her to my house on Tuesdays during the
summer. Her 11-year old grandson is a great kid! James is all boy;
he watches kung fu movies, practices basketball in my backyard, and
reads Hardy Boy mystery novels. He sits quietly on the couch and
never makes a fuss. James is handsome, smart, alert, and remarkably
polite. Who wouldn't want a kid like that?
Every time the two of them get ready to go, I tell my housekeeper
one of these days I am going to steal that kid! Of course, I don't
mean it. But it is a FACT that I have literally told my housekeeper
twenty or thirty different times of my intention to grab her
grandson when she isn't looking. And if - god forbid - someone
should actually kidnap that little boy, who would blame the police
for knocking on my door?
As I read the story of Raul Ornelas over and over again, I thought
to myself, "How could I be so stupid?"
There are a lot of people out there who rush to judgment. Thanks to
some well-meaning but not particularly sensitive cops, just one
small mistake had ruined the man's life when a lot of people heard
his name on the Amber Report. Apparently there was no second Amber
Report to say 'oops, sorry, wrong guy'.
The cruel fate of Raul Ornelas made me feel both very lucky and very
There but for the grace of God go I.
Two days after reading about Ornelas, I was back at Andy's, my
favorite neighborhood coffee shop, for breakfast. Four of the
biggest uniformed police officers walked in. Andy's is very popular
with the men in blue. I see them there all the time. For some
reason I always feel anxious when they come in and look at me.
Every time a policeman comes into Andy's, I always immediately
wonder if he is going to question me for some crime. I don't have a
guilty conscience. The only criminal thing I have ever done in my
life was snitch some candy in the Eighth Grade. I got caught, I got
chewed out and that was the end of my crime wave. I have nothing to
In fact, the policemen are always nice to me at Andy's. They return
my quiet greetings with smiles or nods of their own and they never
seem to be on guard around me. Not once have they questioned me for
anything other than to ask for help with a crossword puzzle clue
they couldn't get. So why do I always feel guilty when I see a
policeman? I have never figured it out.
Today with Fugitive reruns and Raul Ornelas in the back of my mind,
I made my way to the Chronicle's City and State section. My eyes
immediately focused on the story of George Rodriguez.
GEORGE RODRIGUEZ - $35 million for wrongful conviction?
City says it should pay nothing to imprisoned man
By MARY FLOOD
June 23, 2009, 9:18PM
Lawyers for a man wrongly convicted in a sexual assault case asked
jurors on Tuesday to make the city of Houston pay George Rodriguez
$35 million, while a city attorney asked they give him nothing.
A packed federal courtroom gallery heard the three and a half hours
of final arguments in the first civil lawsuit taking on the troubled
city of Houston crime lab. The suit is being closely watched,
especially by the local defense bar.
"The city of Houston destroyed that man's life," said attorney Mark
Wawro, pointing to his client Rodriguez. "We're asking you to put
responsibility for that human tragedy where it belongs."
Rodriguez, who along with another of his lawyers sometimes teared up
during the final arguments, spent 17 years in prison after being
wrongfully convicted in the 1987 kidnapping and sexual assault of a
A Houston Police Department crime lab analyst lied in Rodriguez's
trial about body fluids from the crime scene, saying evidence
excluded another suspect, but not Rodriguez. DNA evidence later
cleared Rodriguez and pointed to the other suspect.
Wawro asked that the jury not feel sorry for Rodriguez, despite all
the personal losses he suffered, but compensate him by holding the
city responsible for a chronically undertrained and undersupervised
crime lab staff.
"The city's effort to trick you into believing everybody else is
responsible for what happened to George Rodriguez is highly
offensive," he told the five woman and three men on the jury.
City denies responsibility
City attorneys have said it was not city policies or then-Police
Chief Lee P. Brown that was responsible for the wrongful conviction.
Instead they've blamed the ex-city employee and suggested the trial
prosecutor and defense attorney had a part.
The jury has to find that the lab employee's false testimony
substantially caused the conviction. It also has to find the city
had a custom of inadequately training and supervising lab workers.
And the jury must find Brown was indifferent to the violations of
the constitutional right to a fair trial that could result.
Rick Morris, a lawyer for the city, argued that the city had no
regular policy that kept the lab understaffed, but it was because
the city had hit hard times. He said the city did have a policy
against employees lying, though, and the lab worker broke that
"Don't be a jury that feels so impassioned with sympathy for the
wrongs done to Mr. Rodriguez that you compound the wrong by making
Chief Brown a scapegoat," Morris said, frequently pointing to Brown,
who sat at the city's legal defense table.
Morris asked if the jury did decide to compensate Rodriguez, it stay
at $1 million and not make the man and his lawyers rich.
The jury is scheduled to continue deliberations Wednesday morning.
RICK ARCHER'S NOTE: A few days have passed since I read the
article above. Now the verdict is in - the Jury awarded Rodriguez
As I read Rodriguez' sad tale, I could have sworn I remembered
another case just like this. So after I was done at Andy's, I went
home and clicked the Chronicle archives. Sure enough, there it
was, another story about a wrongly convicted man in Houston, Texas,
RICARDO RACHELL - Man freed by DNA wonders what to do next
By LISE OLSEN, DANE SCHILLER AND ROMA KHANNA
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Dec. 14, 2008, 3:18PM
RICARDO RACHELL: A TIMELINE
Oct. 20, 2002: A stranger tells an 8-year-old boy he will pay him if
he helps the stranger remove trash. Instead, he sexually assaults
Oct. 21, 2002: The next day, the boy identifies Ricardo Rachell as
his attacker. Rachell is arrested and charged with aggravated sexual
assault of a child.
Nov. 22, 2002: The Houston Chronicle reports another 8-year-old boy
is assaulted, lured with the promise of making money selling
newspapers. Rachell is already in jail.
Oct, 25, 2003: A 10-year-old boy is molested, according to the
newspaper, who also says he was promised money for chores. Police
say at least three boys have been similarly assaulted. Rachell is
still in jail.
June 5, 2003: A jury convicts Rachell and sentences him to 40 years
Sept. 30 2004: The 11th Court of Appeals affirms the verdict.
April 2007: Rachell contines to challenge his conviction and an an
attorney is appointed to represent him.
March 2008: The District Attorney's office requests the testing of
November 2008: The DA's office discovers the DNA test results
Dec. 12: Judge Susan Brown of the 185th District Court orders
Rachell released from custody.
Cleared of child sex assault, a Houston man is trying to adjust to
freedom. Ricardo Rachell says he's 'going to stay inside a lot'
Ricardo Rachell leaves the Harris County Jail on Dec. 12, having
spent years urging prosecutors to investigate attacks that continued
after he was imprisoned in an 8-year-old's sexual assault.
Fresh from six years in prison for a crime he didn't commit,
51-year-old Ricardo Rachell -- who some neighbors called "Scary Man"
for his disfigured face -- is beginning life anew in the same part
of Houston where he was falsely accused of being a child predator.
"It is not easy, but I handle it. I fend for myself," Rachell said
in an exclusive interview Saturday with the Houston Chronicle, less
than 24 hours after walking out of the Harris County jail following
a rare exoneration.
His first night of freedom didn't bring any drinking, partying, star
gazing or even a long walk. Instead, Rachell stayed inside with
Robert Trimmer, his 82-year-old stepfather, and spent much of the
night watching television.
"I didn't have anywhere else to go," Rachell said as he sat on a
couch in Trimmer's living room in south Houston, where he likes the
curtains closed because he fears the streets. He also worries those
who wrongfully put him away will again try to snatch him up.
A facial deformity made him a figure of fear to some after a shotgun
blast ripped away nearly half of his face in the mid 1990s.
His family didn't expect him to live, but the disfigurement, which
causes Rachell to drool and slur his speech, paled when compared to
what life still had in store.
In 2003, he was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 40 years in
prison for sexually assaulting an 8-year-old boy.
From the beginning he insisted he was innocent. But the Harris
County District Attorney's Office announced last week that DNA
evidence collected at the time of the crime had only now been tested
and cleared him.
"I knew all the time he was innocent," recalled Trimmer, who raised
Rachell, and who has gone blind from glaucoma in the years since the
conviction. "It is so sad."
Disfigured in shooting
Rachell grew up an attractive man, though he was sometimes teased
for being slow at school. He'd never held a steady job -- even a gig
as a busboy at a steakhouse didn't work out.
After the shooting, Rachell often draped a towel around his neck so
he could wipe his mouth. It also allowed him to hide his wounds so,
even if for just a few seconds, he looked like everyone else.
Rachell said he was shot on a Sunday in broad daylight after a man
accused him of being on his property. Apparently, neither was ever
Rachell had a pair of convictions from the early 1980s -- one a
misdemeanor marijuana charge and the other for breaking and
But he'd had no trouble with the law for 20 years when police
arrested him for sexually assaulting an 8-year-old boy on Oct. 20,
According to records, the child testified that he was playing
hide-and-go-seek with another boy when a man on a bike asked if they
wanted to make $10 cleaning up trash.
The man, who wore a scarf over his face, asked the boys to meet him,
according to court documents. But when they did, he spirited the
victim away on his bicycle to an empty house. The child later
testified that man undressed him and tried to sodomize him.
Afterward, the attacker put a knife to the child's throat,
threatened him and left. Crying and shaking, the child made his way
to a store, where a stranger found him and took him home.
The next morning, the victim's mother saw Rachell riding his bike on
Cullen Boulevard. She later drove her son to the spot and asked if
Rachell was his attacker. Both her child and his younger friend
later identified him for police.
Rachell was arrested.
"God dog it, they railroaded him," his cousin Annette Russell, 45,
said in an interview. "He didn't do it, and he kept saying he didn't
As an adult, he stayed close to his mother and stepfather. His
circumstances and appearance made him easy to blame, frightening to
children, his family members said.
Yet Rachell immediately and consistently insisted on his innocence
both before and after his trial in 2003. He was convicted despite
two jurors' questions about the mother's role in helping the victim
From prison, where his cell was about as big as a bathroom in the
home where he now lives, Rachell repeatedly wrote letters to his own
mother, the late Frances Trimmer, saying: "I didn't do it."
His mother sent him newspaper articles about serial attacks on
children in the same area by a man on a bicycle.
At the time, police said they were still looking for a man who they
believed had assaulted at least four children, according to news
Rachell immediately sent the clippings to his lawyer, insisting on
That argument became part of his appeals. All were rejected.
Even now, no one has been able to explain why the DNA testing was
not done years ago.
The boy believed his attacker had never ejaculated, according to a
statement he gave a medical professional. In fact, two of Rachell's
defense attorneys last week said they thought there were no DNA
samples to test.
Yet in a sworn statement dated September 12, 2007, his first defense
attorney, Ronald Hayes, admitted he never filed a motion asking for
such evidence, records show.
"However, I know that prosecutors are under a continuing obligation
to provide exculpatory evidence," Hayes wrote. "Further I was aware
that the State did not have any DNA evidence or other physical
evidence to support the claim of sexual assault."
Court records do show that an oral-swab specimen, a sexual assault
kit and a bag of clothing were collected and retained in the Houston
Police Department Property Room as part of the case file.
Citing the possibility of future litigation, HPD declined comment
about the case Friday.
Another suspect found
In the last year, Rachell, with the help of other inmates,
repeatedly wrote to the court complaining about how long it was
taking for the physical evidence to be reviewed and DNA evidence to
He asked for new attorneys. He even filed a misconduct complaint
about the judge.
In the end, the results proved him right; Rachell was innocent. The
recently tested DNA points to another suspect, a man the district
attorney's office refuses to identify, except to say he is in
Rachell said he is bitter about the time he spent in prison and
angry with the boy's mother. He has no issue with the boy
"I have no anger for him at all," Rachell said. "None at all."
Rachell's mother and stepfather never stopped believing in him. But
his mother died before he could be freed.
Now, Rachell returns to live with his stepfather, a retired liquor
store owner, until he can find his own way.
"I am going to take about six months to decide what to do," Rachell
said. "I am going to stay inside a lot."
He said his case should remind people others are sitting in prison
after being wrongfully convicted. Under state law, if he get a full
pardon, he could qualify for about $300,000 in compensation.
Six years of wrongful imprisonment added another burden to a life
that was never easy.
"I did not think it would be possible that he would be back, not
after they gave him 40 years," Trimmer said. "This boy has had a
hard time his whole life."
HOUSTON CHRONICLE's RICK CASEY COMMENTS ON THE RODRIGUEZ AND RACHELL
Lykos' feat: using the active voice
By RICK CASEY
Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
March 14, 2009, 6:04PM
There are places and institutions where what District Attorney Pat
Lykos did last week would seem normal.
But this is Harris County, Texas. And the institution is the
District Attorney's Office.
So what Lykos did verged on the revolutionary.
She not only admitted mistakes, she used the active voice.
In a report detailing the sorry series of errors that led to the
false child rape conviction of Ricardo Rachell and his more than
five years in prison, she didn't conclude by burrowing into the
conventional refuge of bureaucrats, the passive voice. As in:
"Mistakes were made."
Instead, she detailed the specifics and named names of prosecutors,
defense attorneys and police officers who ignored evidence
supporting Rachell's innocence.
And she apologized to Rachell and the public.
Granted, it's easier to apologize for mistakes made during your
predecessor's tenure. Another test will come when inevitably, given
the size the caseload of the Harris County District Attorney's
office, her own staff makes a mistake.
Still, the report (which is linked to this
www.chron.com), represents a strong step
toward changing the culture of an office that not only sent innocent
people to prison, but also went into flights of irrational fantasy
to avoid admitting errors.
Take the case of George Rodriguez, who was convicted of the 1987
rape of a 14-year-old girl who mistakenly identified him as one of
A key piece of supporting evidence was a pubic hair found in the
victim's panties. This was before DNA, but a Houston police crime
lab specialist testified wrongly that the hair eliminated another
suspect, Ysidro Yanez, but not Rodriguez.
Rodriguez spent 17 years in prison before DNA tests indicated that
the hair belonged to Yanez, who by that time was in prison for
another crime. The statute of limitations precluded charging Yanez
with the rape.
But then-District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal didn't apologize.
Instead, his prosecutors asked that Rodriguez be kept in jail under
a $30,000 bail, which his family could not afford, while the
District Attorney's Office considered trying him a second time. The
judge denied the request and freed Rodriguez.
Rosenthal's office cooked up a fanciful theory, as told to me at the
time by a prosecutor: Yanez had previously had sex with someone in
the room, and the victim's panties picked up one of his hairs when
they were thrown on the floor.
Fortunately, even Rosenthal didn't want to send his prosecutors to a
jury with that argument, especially when evidence showed that the
girl was kidnapped in Yanez's car and work records showed Rodriguez
to be at his job at the time of the rape. Still, Rosenthal refused
to admit that Rodriguez was innocent.
Once his conviction was thrown out, the law said Rodriguez was
innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But the
District Attorney's Office said he wasn't innocent until it was
proved he couldn't possibly have done it.
I have never fully understood why it is so hard for prosecutors to
admit a mistake. (Lykos has never been a prosecutor.)
Perhaps the cost of being wrong is too painful. Perhaps the psychic
energy required to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt
requires the abandonment of all doubt, oneself. Perhaps it's the
erroneous notion that admitting a mistake shakes public confidence
in the system. But the reality is that we can't have confidence in
any large system that doesn't have its own system for discovering
its inevitable mistakes, learning from them and taking actions to
avoid making them again.
That's why the Lykos report boosts confidence in the Harris County
District Attorney's Office.
RICK ARCHER'S NOTE:
Finding the Ricardo Rachell story confirmed that there wasn't just
one, but two wrong conviction stories floating in the news.
Something bothered me. Were there any others?
I typed "wrongful conviction" into the Houston Chronicle archives.
Put on your seat belts for this one...
WRONGFULLY CONVICTED: Witness errors lead juries astray
DNA undoes the mistakes on the stand during trials
By ROMA KHANNA
March 26, 2009, 12:56AM
Six Houston men whose cases were investigated by Houston police were
wrongfully convicted on bad eyewitness identification.
1 - Kevin Byrd: served 12 years for rape.
2 - Ricardo Rachell: served five years for sexual assault of a
3 - Anthony Robinson: served 10 years for rape.
4 - George Rodriguez: served 17 years for rape and kidnapping.
5 - Josiah Sutton: served five years for rape.
6 - Ronald Taylor: served 12 years for rape.
Most wrongful convictions in Texas stem from mistaken eyewitness
identifications, errors that experts say could have been avoided -
or even eliminated - with more sophisticated lineup techniques,
according to a report released Wednesday.
Since 1994, DNA evidence has exonerated 39 men convicted in Texas of
crimes ranging from kidnapping to murder, according to a report
Wednesday by the Justice Project, a nonprofit focused on criminal
Six of the cases occurred in Harris County. Each was investigated by
the Houston Police Department. Each was built on flawed eyewitness
"Eyewitness identification is the leading cause of wrongful
convictions in Texas and across the country," said Edwin Colfax,
Texas director of the Justice Project, which analyzed the factors
that contributed to the wrongful convictions.
"But of law enforcement agencies across Texas, only a tiny fraction
have any written policies for these critical investigative
procedures and only a tiny fraction have implemented best
practices," he said.
In many of these cases, not only was eyewitness testimony wrong, but
DNA evidence was faulty or absent altogether. Three of the Houston
cases contained flawed forensics from the HPD crime lab.
Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt has said he plans to issue written
instructions on lineup procedures, but for now, HPD has none.
Mistaken eyewitnesses have played a role in all of the Houston DNA
exonerations since 1994, including the most recent of Ricardo
Rachell, who was released from prison in December after tests proved
he was not guilty of the 2002 sexual assault of an 8-year-old boy.
The victim's identification of Rachell, who has a severe facial
deformity, served as the primary evidence at trial.
ARCHER'S NOTE: WHAT EXACTLY WAS GOING ON AT THE HOUSTON CRIME LAB?
One theme that sifts through these stories together is the
Chronicle's reference to the "troubled City of Houston crime lab."
I have heard on many occasions that something awful happened in the
Houston crime lab several years ago. So I typed in "houston crime
lab". I quickly discovered that the George Rodriguez case was the
incident that led to an investigation of Houston's crime lab.
Here is an excerpt from a Chronicle story - September 19, 2006 - on
investigations into the Houston Crime Lab.
"Michael Bromwich was hired in March 2005, more than two years after
problems first were exposed at the lab.
Before then, news reports and other smaller inquiries revealed that
some of the analysts at the HPD lab were undertrained and had
performed shoddy work for years with little oversight. Errors were
uncovered in analyses from several of the lab's disciplines,
including DNA, serology and ballistics, and two men were released
from prison after errors in the work used to convict them were
The release of the second man -- George Rodriguez, who served more
than 17 years for a rape and kidnapping he did not commit --
prompted Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt to hire Micheal Bromwich,
a former U.S. inspector general who once investigated problems at
the FBI crime lab.
Bromwich and his team of lawyers and scientists have reviewed about
2,300 cases from the Houston Police Department crime lab's
disciplines, including DNA profiling, blood-type analyses called
serology tests, firearms tests and drug tests.
The team has identified 93 cases in which DNA or serology tests had
"major issues" that raise doubts about HPD analysts' conclusions.
"It's a troubling thought that there could have been a significant
number of defendants in prison based on shoddy, inadequate and
flawed serology work and that people are seemingly reluctant to find
out the truth about their cases," Bromwich said.
Among the DNA cases cited as problematic by the Bromwich team are
those of three inmates now on death row: Franklin Dewayne Alix, Juan
Carlos Alvarez and Gilmar Alex Guevara. The investigators said HPD
analysts failed to report exculpatory findings and, instead, said
tests that did not implicate Alix were inconclusive."
RICK ARCHER'S NOTE: As most of you know, Harris County sends more
people to death row than any other county in the United States. For
that matter, the State of Texas is the nation's leader in sending
people to death row. Not surprisingly, Texas also leads in actual
I am not arguing the merits of capital punishment here. However, I
am definitely opposed to executing innocent victims. What is
appalling is that Texas is the national leader in the number of
people whose convictions have been cleared by DNA testing. Since
1994, DNA evidence has exonerated 39 men convicted in Texas of
crimes ranging from kidnapping to murder, according to a report
Wednesday by the Justice Project, a nonprofit organization focused
on criminal justice reform.
One of those 39 men did not live to hear the good news. While a
student at Texas Tech University in 1985, Michael Cole was convicted
of raping fellow student Michele Mallin. Police zeroed in on Cole,
though he did not fit the profile of the person who had raped
several women in the Lubbock area. Mallin had identified him as her
attacker in a rigged lineup, underscoring the problems with
eyewitness identification procedures. But in 2009 Ms Mallin joined
Cole's family in seeking post-mortem exoneration for him after DNA
evidence cleared Cole and fingered another person, who ultimately
confessed to the crime.
Tragically, it was too late for Cole. He died of asthma behind
bars while serving a 25-year sentence.
Considering how frequently our State puts the wrong guys in prison,
you have to wonder if - like the mythical Richard Kimble - there
are innocent people from Harris County on Texas Death Row today.
You think to yourself, no, that isn't possible. Surely our local
justice system doesn't convict the wrong people of murder. I am
pleased to report that I did not uncover any Chronicle stories of
Harris County wrongful convictions that led to Death Row.
But it almost happened up in Conroe. In 1986, Clarence Brandley
missed being executed by six days. In a tragic miscarriage of
justice, this man was nearly put to death for a crime he did not
And to this day, the Clarence Brandley story still makes me furious.
In 1980, Clarence Brandley was an African-American janitor who was
convicted of the murder of a 16-year-old white high school student
in the city of Conroe, TX.
Three white high school janitors were threatened by the Texas
Rangers into testifying that they had seen Clarence Brandley, their
black custodial supervisor, walking into the restroom area of the
high school where the victim had entered only minutes before she had
James Keeshan, a powerful local prosecutor, handled the case. He
was able to obtain a death sentence against Brandley, even though
the practical evidence against him was slim. Brandley was convicted
and sentenced to death based on the inferential testimony that since
he was the last person seen near her, then he must have killed her.
Don Boney, a human rights activist from Houston, was convinced
something was not quite right about the Brandley case. He persuaded
Houston attorney Mike De Geurin to look into the matter.
As De Geurin spent more time looking into the particulars of the
case and Brandley's trial, he became convinced that an innocent man
was on death row. De Geurin and Boney began a campaign to uncover
the truth behind the murder (and the plot to railroad Brandley)
before Brandley faced the executioner. Unfortunately, the Texas
judicial system threw up roadblocks every step of the way.
Along the way, all kinds of evidence clearing Brandley was
suppressed. For example, 11 months after Brandley was convicted,
his appellate lawyers discovered that valuable evidence had
disappeared while in the custody of the prosecution -- including a
Caucasian pubic hair and other hairs recovered from Ferguson's body
that were neither hers nor Brandley's.
Also missing were photographs taken of Brandley on the day of the
crime showing that he was not wearing the belt that the prosecution
claimed had been the murder weapon. The missing evidence was all the
more troubling in light of the pretrial destruction of the
Brandley's attorneys listed the willful destruction and
disappearance of this potentially exculpatory (clearing of guilt or blame)
evidence in Brandley's appellate briefs, but the Texas Court of
Criminal Appeals completely ignored their points. Instead the Court
of Appeals affirmed the conviction and death sentence in 1985
without even mentioning the issue in their summary.
Then a huge break occurred. A woman, Brenda Medina, saw a show on
TV about Brandley. That was the first time she had ever heard of
the case. That is when she remembered how an ex-boyfriend,
Robinson, had told her in 1980 that he had committed such a crime.
Medina said she had not believed Robinson at the time, but now it
made sense. One problem - the Conroe district attorney refused to
believe her. Nor did the DA bother telling Brandley's attorneys
about Medina's important testimony.
Brandley's execution date was drawing closer. Despite an
accumulation of new evidence, Judge Coker recommended that Brandley
be denied a new trial -- a recommendation perfunctorily accepted by
the Court of Criminal Appeals on December 22, 1986.
Fortunately DeGeurin had enlisted some powerful help. Civil rights
activists had coalesced and raised $80,000 to help finance further
efforts on Brandley's behalf. James McCloskey, of Centurion
Ministries in Princeton, New Jersey, took on the case.
a private investigator, McCloskey soon obtained a video-taped
statement from Gary Acerman, one of the janitors, stating that James
Dexter Robinson had killed the girl and that he had seen Robinson
place her clothes in a Dumpster where they were found. A few days
later Acerman mysteriously changed his mind and recanted that video
statement. However it was too late. The cat was out of the bag.
Two new witnesses came forward attesting that they had heard Acerman
say he knew who killed the girl, that it was not Brandley, but that
he would never tell who did it.
Based on these statements, Coker finally relented and granted a
stay. Brandley's execution date was only six days away. Try to
imagine just how frightened and despairing this man must have been.
As the date of his death grew neared, Brandley had to be scared out
of his mind with worry.
On October 9, 1987, Judge Pickett recommended that the Court of
Criminal Appeals grant Brandley a new trial, declaring: "The litany
of events graphically described by the witnesses, some of it
chilling and shocking, leads me to the conclusion the pervasive
shadow of darkness has obscured the light of fundamental decency and
release, Brandley was involved in further legal proceedings over
child support payments that had accrued over his time in jail.
Brandley asked exactly how he was supposed to pay child support when
he was being illegally detained in the Texas prison system. Tough,
said the court, you still owe the money.
turned around and filed a $120 million lawsuit against various Texas
state agencies over his wrongful imprisonment. That would have
helped with the child support problems, but he lost. The lawsuit
was rejected on the grounds of sovereign immunity (a legal doctrine
denying citizens the power to sue governments for wrongful acts).
The officials involved in the case were not disciplined, nor did
they apologize. Prosecutors in the case still insist they convicted
the right man. As late as 2002, 22 years after the crime,
prosecutors still maintained that Brandley was guilty.
They have not apologized for his wrongful imprisonment, nor have
they filed charges against any other suspects.
In fact, no investigation into Acerman or Robinson has ever been
carried out despite the strong evidence against them. The likely
true killers of this young girl remain free today.
RICK ARCHER'S CONCLUSION
I studied these different Chronicle stories, I found myself feeling
ashamed of my city. As Shakespeare would say, something is rotten
While the Chronicle points out all the problems in the crime lab, it
seemed to me the paper was very careful not to directly print the
names of the people who were likely responsible. The Chronicle
stories were so vague they make me wonder just exactly which local
law officials are the good guys and which ones are the bad guys. It
is clear that someone was incompetent. That is a given. What I
don't know is if there is an actual presence of evil such as what
existed in the Brandley story.
After finishing this story, it has finally occurred to me why I have
my small anxiety attacks when the police come around - in this city,
even innocent people are at risk.
And that's a wrap. Only 18 pages this week.
End of July 2009 SSQQ Newsletter Issue One