Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Case of Preston Hughes III: Part 2 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. I presented Part 1 of his work in the last post. Part 2 begins immediately below.

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. How do you vote, sir?

I vote not guilty for these reasons.

Hughes was convicted based on the following:
  1. He confessed to the crime.
  2. Shandra Charles’ statement to Officer Hamilton naming ‘Preston’ as her attacker that night.
  3. Evidence in the case.
  4. Hughes’ criminal record.
Let’s examine each item.

Starting with the confessions, prima facie, at least one of the confessions is false since the two confessions differ wildly. As a skeptical juror, I would be inclined to toss both confessions away unless the physical evidence presented supports at least one of the statements made by the defendant or of course, if the defendant himself gets on the stand and confesses again in front of the jury – Hughes did the opposite, he recanted both confessions claiming coercion, and also the falsification of his signature across various documents using a copy machine. 

Let’s take a look at each confession and see if we can find one that closely matches what we know about the crime.

Confession #1:
Most obviously Hughes fails to mention stabbing the boy. A double homicide confession needs to detail two victims to be credible. Second item, Hughes states he stabbed Ms. Charles ‘6,8, may be 10 times’ which is inconsistent with the two stab wounds sustained by the victim.

The omission of Marcell Taylor from Hughes’ confession is remarkable on another level. If the police were coercing Hughes to confess wouldn’t they steer him in his statement to match the details of the crime? I wonder if it is  the case that Hughes did in fact make a statement, a fictional statement, to the police, even if he was innocent of the crime. Why would someone confess to a crime they didn’t commit? Our intuition tells us people would never confess if they are truly innocent. Empirical and experimental evidence tells us otherwise.

Consider that of the 271 citizens exonerated by the Innocence Project since 1994, an astounding 25% had confessed to the crime they were convicted of even though they were innocent as proven by a DNA test.

Recent research on the topic lands squarely on findings that show how unsettling it is to find out how commonplace it is for people to confess to acts they did not commit. A recent paper by Saul Kassin and Jennifer Perillo of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, found that 25% of the participants in the study falsely confessed when accused of an act they did not commit.

The Economist magazine, in article from their Aug 13th, 2011 issue quotes, the researcher, Dr Kassin suggesting, “... that participants may have the naive—though common—belief that the world is a just place, and that their innocence will emerge in the end, particularly in the case of the alleged video evidence[a video camera was prominently placed in the testing room with the participants]. One participant, for example, told him, “it made it easier [to sign the confession] because I had nothing to hide. The cameras would prove it.”

Hughes first statement to the police lacking key details of the crime, his voluntarily signing forms consenting to blood and a search of his apartment, suggest he may have been behaving as Dr. Kassin suggests above, believing it was best to say something to stop the interrogation, and that in the end his innocence would emerge since he did not commit the crime.  Hughes has consistently denied giving any statement and has over the last 23 years maintained that he was coerced into signing the typed confessions.

At the end of the day, if as jurors we are to believe the police , its mind boggling that the detectives would accept a confession to a double homicide that fails to account for two victims. As a juror, it would make me distrustful of their motives in the worst case, or of their competency in the grave matter of investigating a capitol murder in the best case.

Confession #2:
The second statement differs significantly from the first in that, (1) The motive, Hughes has moved from accidentally killing Ms. Charles in a case of mistaken identity, to killing her as the result of a sexual assault. (2), A fight occurs between him and Shandra. And, (3) The number of victims, Hughes’ second statement accounts for two victims now instead of just one.

Comparing the details of the confession to the crime scene, several details seem to be at odds:

First, In this confession, it states he stabbed Marcell Taylor in close proximity to Shandra but his body was found 10-15 yards away.

Second, the police report claims Hughes motive was sexual assault but the second statement description of the incident seems to suggest the alleged sex was consensual. In either case, where is the physical evidence that a sexual encounter would provide to an investigator?

Third, the statement describes a fight between the victim and her attacker. Again,  where is the evidence a close, intense physical encounter like this would produce such as blood on clothing, scratches and so forth?

Fourth, the fact of an outdoor crime scene itself. Hughes acknowledges he knew Shandra well, and she in fact visited his apartment on several occasions. Wouldn’t it be more prudent to assault Charles in his apartment where there would be no witnesses?  If she made a sexual advance towards him as this confession suggests, why wouldn’t Hughes have taken her to his apartment that was only 150 yards from the crime scene?

Shandra’s Statement to the Police:
It was Ms. Charles conversation with Sgt. Hamilton that led to Hughes’ arrest, specifically her naming ‘Preston’ as the perpetrator.

Several details are unsettling if a man is to be convicted of a capital crime based on this conversation.

First, Sgt. Hamilton admits that he had trouble understanding Ms. Charles and notes that he was unsure of her response to several questions. His uncertainty is  especially pronounced when the answers involved proper nouns like her and her cousin’s name, or the name of the apartment complex of her attacker. Considering the weight of this last piece of evidence played in the arrest of Hughes, let's look through the apartment complex name with more care.

Hamilton reports hearing Shandra say ‘Lakeside’ when asked where her attacker lived.  If we believe Hughes is the murderer then what she meant to say was  ‘LakeHurst’ because this is the name of the complex that Hughes lived in nearby. Based on this assumption, Hamilton was mistaken in interpreting Shandra's statement.  'Lakeside', to 'LakeHurst' isn't much of a stretch but what complicates the matter is the fact that the 'Lakewood Village' apartment complex was also near the crime scene. At this stage we now have two viable apartment complexes to search for the murderer.  But   per the police reports, the investigation focused only on the Lakehurst apartments, most likely because the LakeHurst security guards happened to be on the scene at the time. There is no mention in the reports of other complexes including the Lakewood apartments being included in the investigation. One out of two, a fifty-fifty chance the apartment complex Shandra Charles meant to communicate was actually searched.  Wouldn’t a scrupulous investigator pursue all possible avenues based on the information available?

If Hamilton misunderstood the name of the apartment complex, can we be sure he understood the attacker's name correctly as 'Preston' ? What do we make of the Charles' unintelligible response when asked about the last name? Can we be sure beyond a reasonable doubt that the police correctly identified the murderer based on Shandra's conversation with Hamilton?

Hard Evidence Presented at Trial:
There was no hard evidence presented at the trial that linked Hughes to the crime which is bewildering when you consider the amount of evidence that was collected.  Mull over the fact that this was a double homicide stabbing, Hughes must have been in close contact with the victims, yet the State did not present any hair, fiber, or fluid evidence to the jury linking Hughes’ cloths, shoes or even his knife with the victims. It makes the State’s case difficult to accept.

The testing of the knife in the court room is mindboggling considering a man’s life is at stake. This is in my mind, is represents a truly cavalier attitude on the part of the prosecution as the judge noted in the case and makes it difficult to trust the prosecution’s case.

Hughes Previous Sexual Assault Conviction
This is a difficult matter.  Hughes states that he ‘plead out’ this charge even though he was innocent of the crime. Do we believe this, especially considering the assault of Shandra Charles would be the second time this charge had been leveled at Hughes within a three year period?

Putting myself in place of a juror, I would be inclined to at least maintain some doubt about the conviction, and side with Hughes. First reason, Hughes serves no jail time, but is released on probation for sexually assaulting a 13 year old girl and then of threatening her with a gun after she filed a complaint with the police. In a law and order state like Texas, I don’t believe the state would release a violent criminal unless the prosecution’s case was exceptionally weak.   Second, Hughes was 20 at the time, so the possibility that the relationship with his accuser was consensual is plausible. Lastly, as a young man without the resources to defend himself, it’s highly probable that he would take a plea deal like to this since it involved no jail time rather than risk a trial.

As a juror, I find reasonable doubt in the state’s case.

23 years later….
Do I believe Hughes actually committed this crime?  At this stage, after researching this case, I will admit to having grave doubts about the reliability of Hughes’ conviction.  During the appeals process, Hughes has challenged his conviction, as is usually the case in capital murder cases, on procedural and technical legal issues without success. Based on my research including an interview with his mother, no new evidence has been introduced nor has any retesting of evidence occurred in the intervening years. Hughes has contacted the Texas Chapter of the Innocence Project though it’s not clear if his case has gained any traction. If the evidence is still available at the Houston police department for testing, this is could be his best bet at revealing the truth about his innocence.

What has time revealed during the last 23 years?

Hughes’ Criminal Record
During the sentencing phase of a capitol cases, the chief concern placed before the juror is the question of whether there is a probability that the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence in the future that would constitute a continuing threat to society.  In Hughes’ case, his previous conviction of sexual, and aggravated assault must have weighed heavily on the jury’s decision to impose a capitol sentence.  As stated previously in this post, I found it exceptionally peculiar that the prosecutor would plead Hughes out to a sentence of ten years probation, no jail time, for the rape and assault of a thirteen year old girl. What else can we learn about this case?

In interviewing Hughes’ mother, she stated that the woman who accused Hughes of rape, had a history of using rape accusations as a weapon. She explained that she had learned the woman had also accused an uncle of rape shortly after Hughes was accuse.  The woman’s mother was skeptical as to the validity of her daughter’s accusations in both cases.  I was not able to verify the second rape allegation online or find any other source for this information.  I will say I found Hughes’ mother to be credible.

Along with rape, Hughes was also accused of assaulting the woman with a deadly weapon, of shooting a gun in her direction from his car, to dissuade her from pressing forward with the rape case. The author of this blog makes a convincing case that it is unlikely the shooting occurred at all. The author notes the shooting occurred in broad daylight on a busy street, but no witnesses materialized, that no bullets were recovered from an apartment into which the shoots were directed.  Lastly, the author observes that Hughes had an alibi for the time of the shooting that was corroborated by two witnesses but apparently dismissed by the district attorney.

As to the question of why Hughes received no prison time for these crimes, an article in the Houston Chronicle has the prosecutor, Pam Derbyshire, addressing this question directly. To paraphrase, she explains that Hughes was placed on probation based the wishes of the victim and her family. She goes on to say, the judge, taking into consideration the victim’s wishes and the fact that Hughes had no prior criminal record, decided to grant Hughes a second chance.

As an outside observer, I find this result incredulous. From the victim’s point of view, how comfortable would you be having Hughes on the street? Again, at the risk of sounding repetitive, from the state’s perspective, how common is it in Texas, to grant child rapists second chances even if they have no prior record? How often does Texas concede a sentence of probation to men who shoot at thirteen year old woman, to dissuade them from testifying in a criminal case? Weigh these questions against the likelihood Hughes took the prosecution’s plea deal to avoid a trial.

Hughes has successfully appealed and overturned one of these convictions, the conviction for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The judge in the appellate decision ruled that Hughes was not properly warned by the judge as to the consequences of pleading guilty. The appellate judge did rule that the admonishments Hughes received related to the rape conviction were legally proper, hence this conviction still stands. Had the sexual assault conviction been reversed as well, it is likely he would have been able to successfully argue that these prior convictions were improperly considered at the punishment phase of his trial which could have resulted in his sentence being commuted.

Houston Police Department
Considering twenty years have passed, I became very curious to see if I could identify a pattern of police misconduct over the years, of coerced confessions or the systematic mishandling of evidence as has been seen in Hughes’ case.

You don’t need to look far or hard to uncover evidence of the Houston crime lab’s incompetence, during the time Hughes’ case was investigated and the years that followed. James Bolding, the crime lab manager who tested Hughes’ knife in the courtroom during his trial, resigned in 2003, according to several articles in the Houston Chronicle, to avoid being fired. An internal, two year, $5.3million study commissioned by the HPD found a pattern of systematic incompetence at the crime lab during Bolding’s tenure, resulting in the police and prosecutors agreeing to review 600 more cases for errors. The retested has resulted in several high profile exonerations including the release of a man wrongly imprisoned for 17 years.

Looking at the issue of coerced confessions, I was able to identify at least one case in which a Houston police officer admits to coercing a suspect into confessing. This crime occurred about 6 months after the murders of Shandra and Marcell, on April 26th, 1989. The details of the case come from Roger Rodela vs. Texas, an appellate court decision with details of the case.

Rodela was suspected along with Robert Salazar of killing a woman in Houston. In his confession, Rodela admits to serving as a look-out while Salazar murdered the victim.  The arresting officer, Sgt Kennedy, during a conversation over drinks with the judge working Rodela’s case, Judge Shaver, made several statements that Shaver understood to be an admission by Kennedy that he had struck and coerced Rodela into confessing.  Shaver reported this information to the Houston PD’s Special Crimes Unit, provided a sworn affidavit, and recused him self from Rodela’s trial. What’s interesting is that the appellate document notes that Rodela’s confession was taken by Sgt. Silva, and Sgt. Gafford, the same detectives that secured Hughes’ first confession.  Rodela’s case would be remanded back to the trial court as a result.  

Alternative Suspect
During the course of my interview with Hughes’ mother, she relayed the possibility of an alternative suspect.
Douglas Swanson was an acquaintance of Hughes at the time of the crime. Swanson lived in a different apartment complex than Hughes but his apartment was located within walking distance of the crime scene. Preceding the night of the murders, Swanson had vowed to get even with Hughes, after Hughes had embarrassed Swanson in front of several young women Swanson was flirting at the Fuddrucker’s restaurant next to the crime scene.

The night of the murders, Swanson was seen by a witness, a hairdresser with a salon nearby, with the two victims, in the vicinity of the crime scene. The witness told Hughes’ mother that she was sure it was Swanson because he usually wore a rolled white towel around his neck. The night of the murders, the man she saw with the two victims had a towel around his neck.

Shortly after the murders, Swanson disappeared from Houston.  Hughes’ mother tracked Swanson down and found him living with a relative in Tyler, Texas. She travelled to Tyler, found Swanson, and had a brief conversation with Swanson, asking him to return to Houston, to help straighten out this matter. She reported that Swanson appeared anxious to see her and was visibly uncomfortable during their conversation.

Swanson’s whereabouts, and her suspicions were conveyed by Hughes’ mother to the Houston police but the detectives or later on, the court investigators never explored Swanson as an alternative suspect.

Swanson is currently serving a Life Sentence in Texas for a string of 14 crimes committed in April and May of 1991.  Four of his fourteen convictions are for the crime of sexual assault with a deadly weapon.

This author opposes the execution of Preston Hughes III.


I'm interested in your feedback regarding Guest Blogger Al's effort. Feel free to comment on his writing, presentation, or analysis. I withhold my observations until you have had an opportunity to comment.

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Anonymous said...

Good article worthy of appearing on The Skeptical Juror blog.

About the case, I would have to acquit him not because I would not consider him guilty; to me Shandra's statement as well as the fact that her glasses were recovered from his apartment are pretty darn evidence of guilt, but I don't think he is guilty "beyond reasonable doubt".

I would definitely not pay any attention to Preston's previous criminal record as it appears bogus at best.

Anonymous said...

About the glasses found in Hughes apartment, Hughes claims they were planted by the police. I thought about it, and what struck me as strange is:(1) Say Hughes did commit the crime,and the motive was sexual assault as the police report details, why would he assault her out in the open instead of his apartment since the glasses suggest he would have had the opportunity to do so in private? (2) If the police did plant evidence, why not plant something more damning like an article of clothing with the victim's blood?


Anonymous said...

I didn't mention the glasses in my comments (on the first post) because I wasn't sure how certain was the identification of the glasses as Sandra's. However, it appears that no one denies the identification. Together with the other factors, there seems to be fairly good evidence of Hughes' guilt (although not beyond reasonable doubt.)

Regarding why Hughes committed the crime outside, if he did it, the most likely response would simply be that he did it on impulse. After all, Sandra knew Hughes and had visited him in the past without any such events, so it would not be too surprising if she had made such a visit on the day in question, especially since her friends said that she in fact was visiting someone in that apartment complex that day.

Anonymous said...

Respectfully, I'm not seeing the 'good' evidence that you are seeing.

Maybe if Hughes denied a relationship with the victim, the glasses would serve as evidence he knew the victim and had seen her sometime before the crime. But he did not hide his relationship from the police. The glasses also appear in some police reports but not in others. I'm not sure what this means, but as a juror it would put me ill at ease.

Your point about the crime being committed outside being the result of an impulsive action is well taken. But I still can't past it. The location itself suggests that the crime was committed on impulse but it was done so because the dark lot presented an opportunity to the assailant he wouldn't likely have at another time. Again, if the glasses suggest Shandra was in Hughes apartment that night why wouldn't he assault her there instead of in a public location?

sean said...

He assaulted her outside so there would be no eve since in his apartment and the cops would never know who did it .

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