Friday, May 2, 2014

The Framing of Robert Otis Coulson

This is the fifth post in the series Framing the Guilty, Framing the Innocent. For ease of navigation among the posts, use the Table of Contents.

Regarding the framing of Cesar Fierro, the State and People of Texas acknowledged that they had used the threat of torture to extract a confession. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled it to be a harmless error. Cesar Fierro went insane while isolated for decades in a minuscule cell.

Regarding the framing of Richard Ochoa and Richard Danziger, the State and People of Texas acknowledged that they extracted a false confession from an innocent man, then coerced that innocent man to falsely implicate an innocent friend. While under the care and custody of the State and People of Texas, that innocent friend had a piece of his skull driven into his brain by the steel-toed boot of another inmate.

In the case of Robert Otis Coulson, to be discussed herein, the State and People of Texas may have coerced a false confession from one innocent man, then had that innocent man falsely implicate his innocent friend. In other words, the case of Robert Otis Coulson may be strikingly parallel the case of Richard Danziger. There are differences, of course. Significantly, no one has proven that the confession and implication in the Coulson case were false. More significantly, Robert Coulson was administered lethal chemicals to his bloodstream rather than a steel-toed boot to his brain.

There is one other difference, and that difference is directly relevant to the framing of Larry Swearingen. Evidence was planted in both cases to help insure a conviction. I'll discuss the planting of evidence in the Coulson case in this post, and the planting of evidence in the Swearingen case in the next.

On 13 November 1992, the Houston Fire Department responded to a residential fire. Inside the house, the firefighters discovered a total of five bodies in three different rooms. Each body had been bound at the hands and feet. Each had been asphyxiated by a plastic bag secured over the head. Each had been doused with gasoline and set on fire.

Each victim was a relative of Robert Otis Coulson. Homeowners Otis and Mary Coulson were Robert's adoptive parents. Sarah Coulson and Robin Wentworth were Robert's adult sisters. Both were pregnant. Rick Wentworth was Robin's husband and Robert's brother-in-law. Not insignificantly, Rick was a 6-foot tall, 230 pound jailer for the Harris County Sheriff’s department.

The police theorized that Robert, the sole remaining family member, had single-handedly and sequentially murdered everyone in the house to secure a $600,000 inheritance. The State built its case on the multiple, muddled confessions of Robert's roommate Jared Althaus, on Robert's alleged preoccupation with the inheritance, and on a letter discovered on top of his father's desk.

Robert claimed that he had been scheduled to have dinner with his family at a Luby's restaurant. Jared dropped him off at the restaurant, but his family members did not arrive as planned. Robert called the house between 5:45 and 6:00 PM to see why they were late, but no one answered. Robert assumed there was confusion over the chosen restaurant. Jared returned as scheduled around 6:30 PM, and the two of them drove as planned to the Althaus' family farm for the weekend. Only after arriving at the farm did Robert learn that his family had been murdered.

The evidence supports Robert's claim of a scheduled dinner. The Coulson's neighbor reported that the four cars of the five victims had been in the Coulson driveway since 3:30 PM, meaning that all five victims had been present in the residence from that time. A friend of Robin's had called at 4:45 PM. Robin answered in a natural and normal sounding voice and explained they were on their way out for dinner. The fire was called in at 6:17 p.m.

In his initial police statement, Jared corroborated Robert's version of events. In his second police statement, Jared recanted his first statement and claimed that he dropped Robert off at his parent's house, picked him up a few hours later, and was unaware (at least initially) that Robert had murdered his family.

Between his second and third statements, the police tracked Jared to a motel where he had gone with his girlfriend. There the police conducted an unrecorded interview with Jared in the police car. The police made no written report of that interview. Immediately thereafter, Jared paged the homicide detectives to inform them he was returning to the station. Jared reached the station even before the police officers.

In the wee hours of the morning, after an all-night interrogation, Jared finally confessed that he had helped Robert plan the murders and had helped him carry them out. Jared claimed, however, that he was not at the house while Robert was murdering his family.

By 8:25 AM, Jared had completed a polygraph examination regarding the truthfulness of his confession. He failed that examination.

In exchange for Jared's guilty plea and testimony, the DA offered to recommend a sentence of 20 years rather than death. Jared testified so well for the State that he was sentenced to only 10 years. In fact, he testified so well that he served only 5 years for his alleged role in the brutal murders of 5 people.

Jared testified that Robert had, before the murders, called his parents and told them that he wanted to speak with them about a business deal. He arranged to have Robin and Rick Wentworth arrive around 5 PM, leaving himself enough time to kill his parents and his sister Sarah before Robin and Rick arrived.

Jared dropped Robert off near the house around 4:15 PM. He picked Robert up around 6 PM. Robert detailed the murders for him.

Soon after arriving at the house, Robert lured his mother into a garage bedroom on the pretense that he wanted to share a surprise with her about the business deal. He tried to immobilize her with a stun gun, but the stun gun didn't work. As she struggled, he assured her that he just needed money, that he was not going to hurt anyone, and that he was just going to tie her up. He smothered her with a pillow before binding her hands and feet.

Robert had no difficulty disposing of his father, whom he described to Jared as a "wimp".

Robert then went to Sarah's room. Once again he used the stun gun in an effort to immobilize her, but once again the stun gun didn't work. As Robert was binding Sarah's hands and feet, he told her that he needed money and that nothing would happen to her. She thanked him for sparing her baby. He then put a plastic bag over her head and zip-corded it closed.

While Robert was still in Sarah's room, Robin and Rick arrived early. Rick jimmied the locked screen door and entered. Robert attempted to speak with each of them alone, one after the other, but failed to separate them. Robert therefore threatened them with a gun. He told them that Jared was in the other room and would kill the parents if either Rick or Robin failed to cooperate.

Robert feared the gun would make too much noise if he used it. He therefore retrieved a crowbar from the garage. He hit each of them on the back of the head with that crowbar, striking Rick several times. He bound them, gagged them, and tied bags over their heads.

Robert had planned to remove all the bags and zip cords to make it appear as if each of the victims had died of smoke inhalation. However, while pouring gas over the bodies, the water heater ignited the fumes in the garage bedroom where he had doused his parents. Robert therefore lit the remaining three bodies on fire using matches.

After Jared picked up Robert around 6 PM, Jared drove hither and yon as Robert disposed of evidence by throwing it out the passenger window. In this fashion, Robert disposed of a crowbar, a gas can, a stun gun, a pistol, a backpack, the clothing he had worn, and a pair of sunglasses.

Four days after the murders, Jared helped the police locate the evidence Robert had thrown from the car. As part of the search, the police employed helicopters, dive teams, dogs, and mounted search teams. They recovered a crowbar, a gas can, a sweatshirt, a cap, a backpack, a ski-mask, and the slide mechanism from a gun.

Forensic examinations could link none of items to either Robert or the crime. There was, for example, no blood, hair, or fingerprints on the crowbar to tie it to Robert or to any of the victims. Jared claimed that he had purchased most of those items. All efforts to confirm Jared's claims about when and where he had purchased them failed.

Other aspects of Jared's confession also failed to comport. Jared testified that Robert suffocated his mother with a pillow. No pillow as found near the body, and no fibers were found in Mary Coulson's airway. Jared testified that the water heater caused an explosion that disrupted Robert's plans. Arson investigators for both the prosecution and the defense testified that the no such explosion occurred. Jared testified that Robin and Rick surprised Robert by arriving early around 4:15 PM. The neighbor testified that all the cars were in the driveway by 3:30 PM.

Soon after the murders, the police examined Robert's person, clothing, and the alleged getaway car for any sign of a struggle, or burnt skin, or singed hair, or gasoline fumes, or anything else that might link him to the murders. They found nothing.

I do not know whether or not Robert Otis Coulson murdered his five family members, but I believe he did not. I suspect the police extracted a false confession from Jared Althaus by threatening him with a death sentence, just as the police extracted a false confession from Richard Ochoa by threatening him with a death sentence. I suspect the police tailored Jared's confession to fit their theory of the crime, just as the police tailored Ochoa's confession to fit their theory of the crime.

I am particularly suspicious of Jared's claim that Robert told him that Robin and Rick appeared earlier than expected, and that Rick jimmied the screen door to gain entrance. I suspect that even the police doubted that Robert could have so easily murdered all five separately and sequentially if all five had been in the house when Robert arrived. I suspect that the police discovered the screen door had been jimmied and needed an explanation for that as well. Jared's final story was the best they could manage, even though the timing conflicted with the observations of the neighbor.

I suspect further that the gun was nothing more than an invention to make more credible Robert's ability to single-handedly murder the five victims separately and sequentially. It made no difference to the police that they could not link Robert or Jared to any purchase or ownership of a handgun. They found the slide mechanism of a pistol during their extensive search for evidence, and they incorporated that tidbit into Jared's confession.

I suspect the murders may have instead been a case of mistaken identity. Neighbor Charlotte Diemer feared that the attack on the Coulson home may have been intended for her and her family. Four days prior to the murder, she received a death threat by telephone. She reported the threat to the police. She pointed out to the firemen that the Coulson house was quite similar to hers. The two houses were located near one another, on the same street, on the same side side of the street. Each had a "For Sale" sign in the yard. Each had a realtor lockbox on the front door. The police and arson reports indicate no follow-up on the threat against Ms. Diemer's family. The State withheld the threat from the defense for more than a year, until the trial was well under way and an arson investigator mentioned Ms. Diemer's concern.

Mass family murders are quite rare, as are death threats to an entire family. The probability is near zero that death threats against an entire family would be soon followed by murders of a neighboring family, unless those two events were related.

I do not believe that Robert Coulson killed his family, but I cannot prove he did not. I can, however, prove that the police planted an envelope on the desk of Robert's father, and that the State and People of Texas used that envelope to help convince a jury that Robert Coulson was a murderer.

The envelope was an old Aetna letter-sized envelope with notations about a prior loan to Robert Coulson. The State claimed that the envelope was proof that Robert was expected at the house to discuss a business opportunity. Jared had incorporated this alleged business opportunity into his final confession.

(Please keep that last point in mind, that Jared claimed Robert used an alleged business opportunity to lure his family to the house. If the envelope was planted, and I will soon show that it was, then there was no evidence whatsoever that Robert lured anyone anywhere with any business opportunity. It seems as if the State manufactured the testimonial evidence just as they manufactured the physical evidence.)

The State argued that the father, Otis Coulson, had pulled the envelope from his other papers and placed it on the top of his desk in preparation for the impending discussion about a business opportunity. During its closing argument, the State asked the jurors to remember that the envelope was found "on the table in the den apart from anything else because [Otis] is expecting his son to come over and talk to him about a business deal."

It is clear that the jurors believed the envelope to be significant. During deliberations, they twice asked to see the "envelope that was on the desk." The first request was during the guilt / innocence phase of the trial. They voted guilty. The second was during the penalty phase of the trial. They voted death.

During the appeal process, the State once again emphasized the importance of the envelope, noting that it "was discovered on top of Otis Coulson's desk on the night of the murders. As such, it corroborates Jared Althaus' testimony that the Appellant [Robert Coulson] called his father to arrange a meeting for the night of the murders to discuss his business deal."

The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed that the envelope was significant. They wrote that the importance of the envelope was not what was written on it, but its location "on Otis Coulson's desk on the night of the murders. This fact tended to show that Otis Coulson was expecting to discuss Appellant’s business plans around the time of the murders."

Without further ado, I will now prove that the envelope was planted. More accurately and less impressively, I will now summarize and simplify the remarkable proof developed by Robert Coulson's defense team during the appellate process.

Buckle up. Here we go.

The photo below shows the envelope resting in plain view on top of Otis Coulson's desk.


There's the envelope, just in front of the lamp, just to the left of the calculator. The yellow exhibit sticker at the lower right of the image was apparently added by Robert's defense team for their presentation of the evidence. It does not correspond with the exhibit numbering at Robert's trial.

Two of three such similar photos were shown to the jury to convince them that Robert Coulson used the ploy of a business opportunity to lure his entire surviving family to the Coulson home on the day of the murder. During the trial, Officer Halling testified that she had taken the photographs on the night of the murders. She testified further that the photographs accurately portrayed the conditions of the room as she found it.

Officer Halling would later concede, under oath during an evidentiary hearing, that neither claim was true. She did not take the photographs of the envelope on the table. The envelope was not on the table when she photographed the room on the night of the murders. She claimed during that evidentiary hearing that she did not perjure herself during that capital murder trial of Robert Otis Coulson. She claimed instead that she simply made an honest mistake.

No harm, no foul.

The photo is suspicious on its face, and should have been noted as such by Robert's trial attorneys. Portions of the envelope are still a pristine white while most of the envelope is covered with soot. The soot pattern suggests that the envelope was elsewhere during the fire, mostly exposed, partially covered.

After Robert's conviction and sentence of death, his appellate attorneys submitted an open records request to the Houston police department. Such requests had only recently been allowed by state law. As part of the response to that open records request, Robert's defense team received the photo below.


Holy withheld evidence, Batman! The envelope is not on the desk. Perhaps it was removed before this photograph. Perhaps it was added after the previous photograph.

To help resolve the conundrum, I rotated, scaled, and cropped the two images to provide a head-to-head comparison. I provide the result below.

ex1 and 9.jpeg

As you can see, the answer is that the envelope was added after the first photograph was taken. The composite image makes clear also that the envelope was not on the desk during the fire. If the envelope had been on the desk, there would be a soot-free rectangle on the desk pad marking the location of the envelope. There is no such soot-free region on the pad.

A video of the crime scene taken on the night of the murders confirms that the envelope was not on the desk at the time of the murders. How then did the envelope end up on the desk?

During an evidentiary hearing granted in response to this new evidence, Officer Verbitsky testified under oath that he had been called to the crime scene the morning after the murders to take additional photographs. He was the person who took the photograph of the envelope on the desk. As it turns out, he was also the person who took the video of the crime scene on the night of the murders. In that video, the envelope is not on the desk. The envelope appeared sometime after he took the video on the night of the murder, sometime after Officer Haller took her photographs on the night of the murder.

Sergeants Ross and Atchetee were in charge of the crime scene on the night of the murders and during the day after the murders. Sergeant Ross testified under oath at the evidentiary hearing that her partner, Sergeant Atchetee, found the envelope. She testified that she was not in the office when Atchetee found it, that she was in another room. According to the police reports, however, Sergeant Ross was the person who called Officer Verbitsky back to the house to take additional photos of the desk.

(I have not been able to determine whether this Sergeant Ross of the Houston PD homicide squad was also the Sergeant Theresa Ross of the Houston PD homicide squad who testified that Preston Hughes' confession was freely given.)

Sergeant Atchetee testified under oath at the evidentiary hearing that he was the person who found the envelope and placed it on the desk. He testified further that the envelope was not on the desk when he first observed the desk.

Somehow, neither Sergeant Atchetee nor Ross, nor anyone in the Houston Police Department, nor anyone working for the State and People of Texas, ever informed Robert's defense team of this clearly inculpatory evidence.

Sergeant Atchetee then claimed, for the first time ever, that he had picked up the stack of papers from on the left side of the desk, thumbed through them, found the envelope with Robert Coulson's name on it, removed that single envelope from the stack of papers, returned the stack of papers to the desk, then placed the envelope on the desk to be photographed and collected into evidence. Atchetee testified further that the envelope was not on the top of the stack; that he did not find any other papers in the stack that had any value to the case; that he did not tell Officer Verbitsky where he found the envelope; that he just showed the envelope to Verbitsky as it was sitting by itself on the desk; and that he told Verbitsky to photograph the envelope and take it into evidence.

When asked how the envelope could have been so heavily sooted if it had been buried in the stack of papers, Atchetee testified that he had no idea.

None whatsoever.

Sergeant Atchetee first claimed that he removed the envelope from the stack of papers during his testimony at the evidentiary hearing. He certainly did not make that claim to the defense before trial. He certainly did not make it during trial. The State and People of Texas did not make it for him in any of the many pleadings prior to the evidentiary hearing.

The first time Coulson's attorneys ever heard of Atchetee's remarkable discovery was during the evidentiary hearing. Caught off guard, the appellate attorneys were unprepared to thoroughly impeach Atchetee and his testimony.

The court ruled that Atchetee did have cause to consider the envelope as potentially significant. The court ruled that Atchetee therefore did have cause to have the envelope photographed and taken into evidence. The court ruled that the evidence had not been manufactured. The court affirmed the conviction. The court ruled that that Robert Otis Coulson must still die with a needle in his arm.

After losing the appeal, Coulson's attorneys built an even more compelling case that Sergeant Atchetee perjured himself. (I believe the sooted nature of the envelope should have been sufficient.)

The attorneys pointed first to the stack of papers on the left side of the desk, the stack amidst which Atchetee swore he had found the envelope. The photographs show that the stack of papers is identically situated before and after the appearance of the envelope atop of the desk. It is impossible, they argued, that Atchetee could have lifted the stack of papers from the desk, thumbed through the papers, found one document he believed to be relevant, removed the document, and returned the stack of papers to the desk without leaving nary a hint that it had been moved and manipulated.

The attorneys pointed out also that the envelope would not have been relevant if it had been found in the stack of papers. In that case, it would have been nothing more than one of many old documents. Recall that the the State and the appellate courts explained that it was the position of the envelope that mattered, not its content.

Finally, while pouring again through all the videos and photographs provided both before and after trial, they discovered the likely source of the envelope, and it certainly wasn't the undisturbed stack of papers. The envelope was almost certainly taken from a filing cabinet drawer. Consider the photograph below.


Look inside the upper left drawer. There is a white rectangle there. The rest of the drawer is sooted. Something was covering the soot-free rectangle during the fire. That something was almost certainly the envelope that later appeared on the desk, that later proved Robert Coulson had lured his family to the house so that he could murder them. The size and soot pattern of the envelope corresponded nicely with whatever document was removed from the cabinet drawer, after the fire, while Sergeants Ross and Atchetee were in charge of the crime scene.

With this additional evidence in hand, Coulson's attorneys appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court found that the envelope was placed on top of the desk on the day after the murders and that the photograph of the envelope on the desk was false evidence. From their ruling: 
We agree that the state evidentiary hearing … sufficiently establishes that the evidence regarding the location of the envelope was “false.” We also agree that this knowledge may be imputed from the police to the prosecution.
Then the Court threw in their twist. They declared that the manufactured evidence was nothing more than a harmless error.

Robert Otis Coulson was executed on 25 June 2002, forever framed by the State and People of Texas. "I'm innocent," he said just before they injected the lethal cocktail into his vein. "I had absolutely nothing to do with my family's murder. I want to thank the people who supported me. I hope they will continue the fight. That's all."