A California man regained his freedom recently after spending two decades in prison for a crime he did not commit. Another man who was wrongfully convicted died of cancer earlier this year.
According to the California Innocence Project website, Horace Roberts was convicted in 1998 after the prosecutor brought forth seemingly undisputable evidence that connected Roberts to the murder of a woman. A watch was found next to the body of the victim, and they concluded it was Roberts’.
It wasn’t until after 15 years that DNA technology would prove that the watch did not belong to him. Instead, it belonged to a family member of the victim that had enough reasons to want her dead.
Terry Cheek did not report for work on the night of April 13, 1998, and four days later, her strangled dead body was found in the rocks on the Shore of Corona Lake. Her two daughters and husband were the last people to see her alive. When a murder investigation was launched, Roberts’ name featured prominently as a prime suspect because he was having an affair with Terry before her death.
Ashamed of his conduct, Roberts denied the affair to his colleagues and the police, but that only roped him in further. Investigators believed that if he was lying about the relationship, then he was lying about something else as well. They concluded that it was a clear sign Roberts was trying to cover up the murder.
His case seemed pretty decided from the beginning, and after only three jury trials, Roberts was convicted. His inconsistent statements, lies, and the fact that his truck was found near the crime scene all worked against Roberts’ testimony.
There was also the watch found at the crime scene believed to be his, and a purse in Roberts’ possession that one of Terry’s daughters thought her mom had on the night of her disappearance.
Roberts’ case was almost concluded before it started. He didn’t stand a chance against the prosecution and was convicted of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 15 years behind bars. Despite his bleak situation, Roberts did not give up. He held on to the belief that he would one day be free again.
In prison, Roberts heard a fellow inmate talk about the California Innocence Project (CIP) in 2003. He promptly filed a request for the non-profit organization to take up his case, and luckily for him, they accepted. CIP got to work immediately to prove that Roberts was wrongfully convicted.
The organization ordered DNA testing on the watch found by Terry’s body, the rope used to strangle her, and scrappings found under her nails. No DNA was detected on the rope, and the skin under her fingernails was found to belong to an unidentified male.
However, the watch samples came back negative, proving that the evidence did not belong to Roberts. It was linked instead to the eldest son of Terry’s husband, named Googie Harris Jr.
Armed with the new findings, the CIP filed a petition to have Roberts exonerated in 2012, but the judge turned it down. That did not deter the group, and by last year, they requested DNA testing on all the pieces of evidence, including Terry’s clothes.
With enough DNA findings to search an extensive database, the unknown man was identified as 52-year-old Joaquin Leal, a nephew of Terry’s husband who also happens to be a convicted sex offender.
The two men were arrested on suspicions of murder, and their bail was set at $1 million each.
CIP’s Director, Justin Brooks, summed up the situation:
"Googie Harris set Roberts up. It’s the oldest story there is in the murder business. Husband kills wife who is cheating on him. The twist in this case is that the husband then set up the lover to go to prison for the rest of his life.”
On October 2, 2018, the District Attorney agreed to revoke Horace Roberts's conviction. Members of the CIP picked him up from prison the next day and took him to San Diego. After the change of clothes, Roberts drank a Pepsi for the first time in years.
One week later, he was reunited with his family in South Carolina while the district attorney's investigation continued. On October 12, 2018, the Riverside District Attorney finally exonerated Roberts of all charges brought against him.
Meanwhile, Roberts is eligible for state compensation per the Section 1485.55 of the California Penal Code. The law provides that wrongfully convicted prisoners like Roberts can receive $140 per day for each day they spend in prison.
Horace Roberts is the 29th person the California Innocence Project has released since the Project was created in 1999.
Sadly, Roberts is only one of many people who have their freedom snatched from them unjustly. Another man, Johnnie Lindsey, spent 26 years in prison for a series of rapes at Dallas’ White Rock Lake in the early 1980s.
Lindsey became a free man in 2008 after DNA tests exonerated him and received a $2.2million payout. After his release, Lindsey, also a music enthusiast, decided to dedicate his life to helping others.
In an interview with Dallas News earlier this year, Lindsey said:
“What do I want to be remembered for? For my music and that I made a difference in other people’s lives and in people’s lives less fortunate than my own.”
Lindsey became a voice for criminal justice reform and helped increase how much the state paid those who were wrongfully convicted. He also made a lot of donations and spent time mentoring kids in the juvenile justice system
Before Lindsey succumbed to cancer at the age of 65 in February, he was surrounded by family, friends, fellow exonerated inmates, clergy, politicians, and lawyers who had felt his impact one way or another.
In March, 61-year-old Lawrence McKinney was also finally awarded $1 million from the state of Tennessee. McKinney had been wrongfully convicted of rape and burglary charges and spent more than 30 years in prison before his exoneration and release in 2009.
Meanwhile, the recent arrest of 94-year-old Juanita Fitzgerald in Florida is causing outrage online. The senior was arrested and sent to jail because she stopped paying rent at a nursing home where she had been residing for the last couple of years.