Monday, January 30, 2012

The Case of Preston Hughes III: Part 1 of 2

[Addendum, 16 November 2012: Preston Hughes III was executed yesterday. He was innocent. Previously, the author of this guest post requested that his last name be withheld. He now asks that I identify him by his full name, Al Fontova. Given that he helped in the effort to save Preston Hughes, even as the execution drew near, I am pleased to act on his request.]

I have a standing offer to make this blog available to anyone who wants to present a well-reasoned analysis of a criminal case. While a number of people have expressed interest, Al [last name withheld by request] is the first person to actually do the research, analysis, and writing necessary to submit a presentable post. Without further ado, I offer the case of Preston Hughes III as prepared and presented by Guest Blogger Al.


Preston Hughes III has been on Texas’ death row for the last 23 years, convicted of a double murder in 1988 of a 15 year old girl and her 3 year old cousin.

For your consideration, the case against Preston Hughes III - 

During the night of September 26th, 1988, two patrol officers were flagged down by a man frantically searching for his missing wife in a wooded lot located in West Houston.  The man and his wife were traversing the lot using a trail that residents of several nearby apartment complexes use on a regular basis in their travels to get to and from their apartments and the businesses nearby.  As the pair walked across the lot, they felt the presence of a stranger in the tall grass that they believed was stalking them, they became spooked, ran down the trail, out of the wooded area and became separated. The man had been searching for some time for his wife when he spotted the two patrolmen.

The officers began to search the area, and as they entered the parking lot of a Fuddruckers restaurant near the lot where the woman was last seen (this is the address of the crime scene per the police report: 2475 S Kirkwood Rd Houston, TX 77077), an employee of the restaurant, ran up to the policemen yelling, “she’s back in there in the woods”.  The policemen entered the wooded lot, walking down a well worn path in the grass, finding a young female, down face first in the grass, and unconscious.  The young woman was bleeding but still alive.  The policemen continued to walk down the path searching for a suspect, and 10-15 yards away from the young woman they found a small boy, three years old, bleeding from multiple stab wounds to the chest and neck. Resuscitation efforts failed, the boy was dead.  The time was approximately 11.30pm on September 26th, 1988.

The young woman found in the wooded area was not the wife of the man who had flagged down the police officers who it turns out, had hitched a ride with some friends after becoming separated from her husband. The young woman was 15 year old Shandra Charles and the three old boy was her cousin.

More police officers were dispatched to the scene to search for the perpetrator. Sgt. Hamilton, who would play a key role in identifying a suspect, arrived on the scene soon after the victims were found. Hamilton states in the report that he felt the young woman was having trouble breathing and asked her if she would like help turning over onto to her back. The woman said she would, so Hamilton helped her do just that.

At approximately 11.43pm Hamilton held the following conversation with the victim paraphrased from Hamilton’s police report:
Hamilton: “What happen?”
Charles: “He tried to rape me”
Hamilton: “Who tried to rape you?”
Charles: “Preston”
Hamilton: “Do you know him?”
Charles: “Yes”
Hamilton: “What is the name ..?”
Charles: “Preston”
Hamilton: “What is his full name?”
Charles: “Response is unintelligible to Hamilton”
Hamilton: “Where does he live?”
Charles: “Lakeside”
Hamilton: “What is your name?”
Charles: Hamilton hears:  “LaShandra” or possibly “LaShanda”
Charles: “My Cousin..!”  Charles is visibly upset & distressed.
Hamilton: He picks up she is talking about the boy found nearby who must be her cousin.
Charles: “Marshell” or “Marcell”
Hamilton: He understands this is the boy’s name.
At 11.55pm, an ambulance arrives on the scene. A paramedic on the ambulance would be the only other person listed in the police reports documented to hear Shandra speak that night, stating that her heard her say “…my cousin”.  It is unclear if the paramedic heard her speak at the same time as Hamilton or if this occurred possibly later in the night on the way to the hospital. Shandra Charles is pronounced dead at the local hospital sometime between 11.55pm and 12.54 am.

Two homicide detectives, Gafford and Bloyd, arrive on the scene sometime just after midnight.  Based on Hamilton’s conversation with Shandra, the detectives make the decision to focus their efforts in searching the Lakehurst complex. The detectives, interview two part-time security officers from the nearby Lakehurst apartments (not to be confused with the LakeWood Village apartments which the police reports lists as also being close to the crime scene) who happened to be at the crime scene after noticing all the commotion near the complex.

The Lakehurst security officers provide the Detectives with a current list of tenants and by 2.30am the officers are knocking on the door of the only “Preston” on the lessee list. After waiting at the apartment door for 8 minutes or so, a man answers the door, confirming his first name as ‘Preston’, last name as ‘Hughes’. Hughes answers a few more questions, and voluntarily agrees to accompany the detectives to the police station for further questioning.

At 4.30am,on the morning of September 27th, Gaffordarrests Hughes after discovering the following: (1) Hughes knew Shandra Charles and had some kind of relationship with her, (2) Hughes was at this time, serving a sentence of 10 years probation for the sexual and aggravated assault of a 13 year old girl in 1985; and (3) Hughes’ proximity to the murder scene since his apartment was located about 150 yards away from the crime.

Two Confessions
Detective Gafford begins questioning Hughes at 4.10am at the police station. Hughes repeatedly states he is innocent of these crimes and tells Gafford he has not seen Charles in two months. At 5.30am Hughes signs a voluntary consent form to have his apartment searched by the police stating, “I told you, I don’t have nothing to hide.” The interrogation continues and within an hour Hughes breaks down and confesses to the double murder.

A summary of Hughes’ first confession based on the police report:
On the night of the murders, he was walking on the path between the Lakehurst apartments and the Fuddruckers.  At the time, he was carrying a knife on his belt as protection against the family of a woman who claimed she was recently sexually assaulted by Hughes.
The statement continues noting that as he was walking across the dark, wooded lot, he was tapped on the shoulder by someone standing behind him. Fearing it was the family of the fore mentioned woman he panicked, pulled the knife from his belt, turned quickly, stating that he ‘stabbed high and low a couple of times’ before realizing it was Ms. Charles. Hughes goes on saying that he was now ‘scarred  and crazy’ and kept stabbing Shandra ‘6,8, possibly 10 times’, after which he ran to his apartment.

Along with signing each page of this three page confession, the police report details that Hughes would also go on to sign a form to voluntarily provide blood and urine samples before leaving the interrogation room to go to the county jail for processing.

At 11.45am that morning, less than six hours after the confession, Sgt. Yanchak, and Sgt. Fergusson, two homicide detectives working the day shift and conducting a follow-up investigation, check Hughes out of the Men’s jail for further questioning.  The two detectives had  noted while reviewing Hughes’ prior statement that he had failed to provide any details surrounding the death of the second victim, Marcell Taylor.

At 1.15pm, the two detectives take the following statement from Hughes summarized from their police report:
Hughes states he was walking across the wooded lot when he met Shandra on the trail, noting that her cousin was with her at this time. Shandra made sexual advances towards Hughes, sex occurred after which she asked to borrow $50.00 from Hughes. Hughes declined to provide any money. She then became angry and threatened to go to the police to claim she had been raped by Hughes. The confrontation escalated as Shandra became angry and hit Hughes with her fists.  Hughes says fought back, striking her in the throat.  Angered, he pulled his knife from its sheath on his belt, and began to stab Shandra repeatedly.  As he was stabbing Shandra, the boy ran between him and her; and it was at this time that he stabbed the child.  Hughes then says he went home to his apartment.
The police report makes no attempt to reconcile these two remarkably different accounts of the crime.

Evidence Gathered from Hughes' Apartment
  • Pair of prescription silver rim glasses found between cushions of couch (the glasses are alleged to belong to Ms. Charles)
  • Pair of blue jeans
  • 1 blue short sleeve shirt
  • 1 blue short sleeve shirt with gold wrist watch in pocket
  • 1 U. S. Army knife and sheath. The knife was found in a cardboard box at the bottom of a closet, the knife and sheath were separated.
  • Maroon pullover shirt
  • Small clear plastic bag containing green leafy substance, probably marijuana. Interestingly, the police reports are inconsistent, some officer’s report makes mention of marijuana, other reports do not list this item of evidence.
The police also took possession of Hughes’ white tennis shoes according to the police report when he was at the station.  These shoes were allegedly worn during the crime.

From the crime scene:
  • The victims’ clothing including shorts, shirts, panties
  • Jewelry from the victims
  • Finger nail clippings and a vaginal swab
  • A Busch beer can found near the victims which appeared to be recently left there
  • Small amounts of money from the victims and a piece of paper with a phone number
  • White shoulder strap which was used as a belt by Ms. Charles
  • Palm prints from the victims
What else do we know in this case:
  • Shandra Charles was last seen alive by her friend at 9.30pm on the night of the murder while visiting the LakeHurst apartments.
  • Ms. Charles was found with her shorts unbuttoned, and lowered off her hip. Her belt, originally believed to be a white strap to a purse was found away from her body, at the feet of Marcell Taylor.
  • The victims both died of injuries to the aorta and jugular veins.  Based on the police reports, Ms. Charles had a one stab wound to the left side of her chest as well as one stab wound to the neck. Marcell Taylor had 2 wounds in the left side of his chest and one more possibly in the neck, or ear.
  • The bodies were found approximately 10-15 yards apart.
  • Shandra Charles died sometime between 11.55pm and 12.54am on the night of September 27th based on information in the police reports.
  • Time of the crime is not assessed in any of the police reports. A coroner’s report if it exists, is unavailable online.
  • Forensic research found online related to knife wounds indicates that there is a wide variance in the time victims can live after being stabbed. One study noted that victims suffering wounds to the heart can live for up to an hour and can be capable of vigorous activity.  A loose guess at the time of crime using the one hour time window stated above and Shandra’s time death would place the time of the murders sometime near 11pm.
  • Hughes has no alibi.  He had been drinking that night with his friends after work from 6.30 to 8pm.  He then caught a bus and cab to get home, and though there is no documentation in the police report, it’s likely he arrived at his apartment near 10.30pm. that night.
  • Shandra and Marcell suffered no defensive wounds to the hands or arms. Interestingly, one study found online, notes that only 46% of stabbing victims suffer defensive wounds during an attack.
  • Alternative suspects: The police did not pursue any investigation outside of Hughes.
  • Motive per the police report was the sexual assault of Ms. Charles.
  • Hughes’ criminal record suggests he has a history of violent crime towards young girls.  
  • Hughes has repeatedly claimed he is innocent of these crimes over the years.
The Trial
Documentation related to Hughes’ original trial is sparse. Based on the appellate documents and testimony listed on Hughes’ web site, Hughes recanted his confessions, stating that he had involuntarily signed the statements because he was in fear of his life at the time.

Despite the numerous articles of evidence collected, the hard evidence presented at trial was meager. James Bolding from the Houston crime lab, tested the knife along with one of Hughes’ tennis shoes, in the court room, while the jury was excused from the room.  These tests were inconclusive, finding possibly animal but no human blood on the knife.  It’s unclear if the sheath was tested as well. In responding to the forensic testing of evidence in his courtroom, the judge chastised the prosecution for their ‘cavalier attitude’  but none the less, allowed the knife to be entered into the trial and presented as the murder weapon.

The remaining evidence gathered in the case was either not tested (finger nail clippings from Shandra Charles, the victims’ clothing, the suspect’s clothing, a vaginal swab) or the tests proved inconclusive. About this situation, the prosecutor, in his closing arguments remarks: “Where's the scientific evidence? Where is it at?" We did the best we could. It's inconclusive, I agree.”


Guest Blogger Al requested that I present his article in two parts. I will therefore temporarily withhold Part 2 in which he provides his analysis. For now, comments are open for your observations and for your deliberation of the case.

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Anonymous said...

Based on several analyses of the frequency of the name "Preston", it seems there were most likely around 4 Prestons in Houston at the time.

The police report is credible with respect to the claim that Shandra attributed the name Preston to her attacker, since if this were invented to frame Preston Hughes, the police would presumably have said that she gave the full name Preston Hughes, instead of just the first name.

Neither confession is believable. Both confessions look like an attempt to satisfy the desire of the police for a confession while giving some slightly excusing factors to Preston, and the difference seems to be because of the need to explain the death of the child. Nonetheless, his willingness to confess at all is weak evidence against his innocence, and if he is guilty, the fact that he did not give an honest account would be explained by his desire to give mitigating factors, and his recantation by the fact that he realized the police had no proof.

It wasn't clear how we know that Preston knew Shandra in the past -- if this is merely from the confessions, it does not strengthen the case, otherwise it is evidence against Preston's innocence.

There is one factor however which is very strong evidence of Preston's guilt, namely the coincidence between his name and the fact that he was a previously convited sexual offender. As stated, there were probably only about 3 other Prestons in Houston at the time, and it is quite likely that none of them were convicted sexual offenders. The probability of such a convict committing a similar crime is without doubt many times the probability of a random person committing such a crime, putting much more suspicion on Preston Hughes than on the other Prestons probably in Houston.

The fact that Shandra's friends testified that she had been visiting the LakeHurst apartments that night strengthens this evidence, leading to my conclusion that it is very likely that Preston Hughes committed this crime. Nonetheless, since this evidence would basically collapse if it turned out that the police misheard the name "Preston," (it seems she was not speaking very clearly, if the first name sound like "Lashandra"), or if they made up this attribution (although this is surely unlikely), I would tend to vote in favor of not guilty unless clearer scientific evidence were found.


Anonymous said...

I looked at census data from 1990 to see how common 'Preston' was as a first and last name. As first name, 'Preston' doesn't appear until the 80th percentile which makes it pretty uncommon, as a surname, its much more common of course.

Based on the 1990 census data, I came up with a just over 1,000 potential men living in Houston with the first name Preston, assuming the distribution of first names was the same in Houston as it is nationally. I imagine there are regional differences but with sample sizes this large, the difference probably isn't magnitudes in size. I simply took the percentage of the file with 'Preston' as first name multiplied by the population of Houston in 1990. It would be great to understand how you came to your estimate.

About Hughes relationship with Shandra, I should have included more information. I understand that they were friends, and there is a mention of her visiting Hughes' apartment on several occasions preceding the murders.


Anonymous said...

You're right, I tried to do the same thing but it turns out I made a simple mistake with the figures, the correct value is much as you said.

This of course greatly weakens the evidence in favor of the guilt of Preston Hughes, but seeing that Shandra most likely knew personally just one or two men with the name of Preston, the evidence of her identification remains significant.

After more thought to the question of whether the identification of her words could be mistaken, I think it is extremely unlikely that the police invented the identification, since we are given nothing else that led them to the man -- they would have had to purposely pick him by chance, as it were, if it wasn't true that she said this. On the other hand, it does seem there is a real possibility that the police misunderstood her, although it isn't easy to think of a similar sounding name.

The fact that Shandra visited Hughes in the past, and that she visited that apartment complex in the night in question, strengthens the evidence against him to some extent, although it is hard to measure this.

All things considered, I continue to think it is more likely than not that Preston Hughes committed the crime, but I would continue to vote not guilty as the evidence remains insufficiently convincing.

Anonymous said...

I do not believe Shandra said Preston. My belief is the police search their database to see who lived in the area with a record of rape and assault. Guess what Preston lives in the area and is on probation let's get him.

The reason Preston was on probation is because a jealous 13 year old was lying about her age she claimed to be 19 when she dated Preston's cousin and Preston. When this 13 year old heard Preston was join the Army with another female as a couple, then this so call 19 year old is now 13 and cries rape. Everyone believed she was 19 because she was working at McDonalds. This is how Preston was charged of rape and assault. So this was a closed case for the Police they got who they think committed this crime now they have to make Preston sign false statements.

I don't understand if the victims were stabbed several times why wasn't there more blood on Preston clothings if he committed this crime.

There was another young man who lived in the apartment across the street from Fuddruckers who abruptly left Houston after the crime,he was known to frequently hangout at the Fuddruckers and was an aquaintance of Shandra and Preston. This person had words with Preston weeks before the crime and his last words to Preston was he will get even with him for embarassing him in front of some females in Fuddruckers.

This person left word with his cousin to tell anyone who ask of his whereabouts he is in California...but he was not in California he was in Tyler, Texas. He just left his job without giving notice, he had his cousin lie about his whereabouts and he was charge with rape in 1991 in Tyler Texas.

During Preston trial, the lawyers were informed of this person, but said they could not bring him in for questioning. This person worked as a securtiy guard at a downtown hotel. I guess being of law enforcement you can get away with murder. I want to know why he left Houston and went into hiding in Tyler Texas..... Believe me there is more to this than you can imagine!!! Preston should not be on Death Row..

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