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Framing the Guilty?

Preston Hughes is scheduled to be executed this month. Is he innocent of murder, as his defenders claim? Or did police frame a guilty man?

By Jordan Smith, Fri., Nov. 2, 2012

Preston Hughes
Preston Hughes

The police were not looking for LaShandra Charles and her cousin Marcell Taylor, but that's who they found.

It was around 11pm on Sept. 26, 1988, when a man flagged down two police officers near a Fuddruckers restaurant in far West Houston. The man was looking for his wife, whom he believed to be missing. As the trio searched the area, a Fuddruckers employee approached the officers to say that while walking home to a nearby apartment complex, he'd found a body in the woods behind the restaurant.

The cops walked to a large, overgrown field of tall trees dissected by a network of weed-choked trails. The restaurant parking lot was well-lit, but the field was not. The night was clear, and the officers used the moonlight to find their way along the trash-littered trail toward a fence at the far end of the property. There, police found a body – but not that of the person they'd been flagged down to find.

Instead, police found Charles, 15, and her 3-year-old cousin, Taylor. Taylor, who was lying facedown when the police found him, was dead. Charles was sprawled facedown just off the trail, not far from her cousin. Blood pooled under her head, staining the weeds on both sides of the trail. According to Houston police reports, her shorts and underwear were pulled halfway down and the leather strap she used for a belt was discarded nearby. Both Charles and Taylor had been stabbed through the neck. Whatever the weapon, its blade was long enough to cut clear through Taylor, leaving a gash where it emerged, just below the hairline on the back of his neck.

According to officer testimony, Charles was still alive. Sgt. Don Hamilton was on patrol when he got the call that two people had been found in the field. He rushed to the scene. Charles was having a hard time breathing, and her neck wound was "bleeding rather profusely," he testified the following spring; blood covered her face and matted her hair. Nonetheless, Hamilton said, she was able to speak. "I asked her ... 'What happened?'" testified Hamilton. "She replied, 'He tried to rape me.'" Who did, he asked. "She stated, 'Preston.'" She knew her assailant, Hamilton said Charles told him; as her voice grew weak, forcing him to bend down to hear her talk, she asked him to find her cousin. An ambulance finally took Charles to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

It took less than a day for police to find and arrest 22-year-old Preston Hughes III, secure two separate confessions from him, and find evidence in Hughes' nearby apartment that police said matched the crime. Hughes was charged with capital murder, and seven months later was sentenced to death.

Although the deaths of Charles and Taylor and the subsequent conviction of Hughes might appear a simple tale of prey and predator, the truth is far more complicated, says John Allen, a Cali­fornia-based blogger better known in cyberspace as The Skeptical Juror. Allen is adamant not only that Hughes is innocent, but also that he was framed by members of the Houston police, who planted evidence in his apartment; by the police crime lab, whose scientists did scant testing of the evidence; and by a deputy medical examiner who bent over backward during Hughes' trial to bolster the state's theory of the crime. Allen has written more than 60 stories about the case, and he charges that Hughes has never had defense counsel do enough on his behalf. "It shouldn't be this way," says Allen.

If Houston police did indeed corrupt the process, it may be quite difficult to determine whether Hughes is guilty or innocent. According to the New York-based Innocence Project, government misconduct is a leading cause of wrongful convictions. Equally problematic is when otherwise well-meaning police attempt, in effect, to "frame the guilty" – or those they believe to be guilty – thereby tainting legitimate evidence of guilt. In those circumstances, how can the system determine who should be punished – or in capital cases, deserve to die?

Hughes is scheduled to be executed Nov. 15.

Allen is determined to expose the corruption in Hughes' case, and to demonstrate his innocence, of which Allen says he is certain. "It's going to get done."

Two Confessions

With the amount of trash littering the trail where the bodies were found, it was difficult for police to determine what should be collected as evidence. Without Charles' alleged dying declaration, the case would likely have remained open for some time. Armed with a name, police moved quickly to the Lakehurst Apartments to secure a list of tenants. Although several apartment complexes abutted or were close to the field, police went only to Lakehurst, where, according to trial testimony, Hughes was the only resident named "Preston."

After 10 minutes, police said, Hughes answered the knock on his door. Hamilton testified that the apartment was dark, illuminated only by light coming in from the porch. The police did not search the apartment, nor did they even do a visual sweep for what might be in plain view (at that point, there was no justification for a search). But Sgt. Dennis Gafford testified that while standing in Hughes' living room, he did notice that a pair of metal-framed glasses were "stuffed" between two couch cushions. (Directly contradicting Hamilton's testimony, Gafford testified that the apartment was "well-lit," allowing him to spot the glasses.)

The officers were suspicious of Hughes because he was so calm and didn't ask many questions about why the police were there or why it was that they wanted him to accompany them to the station for a talk. "He ... didn't give us any reason to suspect anything that he said," Gafford testified. "It was a little bit odd that he never asked us why we were coming to his door asking him questions." Instead, Hughes agreed to go with them, noting only that he needed to leave for work at 5am.

At the station, police put Hughes in a small interview room alone until just after 4am, when they began their interrogation. Hughes acknowledged that he knew Charles, through his teenage cousin, and said that she'd been to his apartment before – a detail corroborated at trial by Charles' best friend, Evelyn Brown, who also knew Hughes and was the last to see Charles and Taylor alive on the night they were killed.

That Hughes knew Charles was apparently enough for police to decide to arrest him. They asked and received written consent to search his apartment and to collect biological samples. When they asked if he would waive his rights and continue talking to them, he agreed. He "hadn't done anything," Gafford recalled Hughes telling him. Even after Hughes explained how he knew Charles, he did not indicate knowledge about what had happened to her that night, Gafford said.

No trace of blood was found on the knife, and it did not match the wounds on the victims.
No trace of blood was found on the knife, and it did not match the wounds on the victims.

Yet, by 7:15am, Hughes had given to the police the first of two statements confessing to the murder. He'd stabbed Charles, he said, because he thought he was being followed on the trail through the field, possibly by the husband of a woman he'd been seeing. He was "fucked up," presumably from drinking with friends after he got off work that day, and when he felt Charles touch him on the shoulder as he walked, he turned around and "just started sticking with the knife," he said. "I swung the knife 6 ... 8 ... probably 10 times and then just took off running toward my apartment," reads the first confession. Hughes made no mention of Taylor.

According to police it wasn't until after they'd obtained the initial confession that they searched Hughes' apartment. There they say they collected the glasses Gafford had spotted, wedged down in the couch cushions; a U.S. Army knife, with its sheath; and a pair of jeans and two shirts that were strewn on Hughes' bedroom floor.

At the same time, then-Assistant Harris County Medical Examiner Vladimir Parun­gao was performing autopsies on Charles and Taylor. Their injuries were brutal and bloody and made with a sharp weapon without a blunted edge, likely a double-edge knife. Taylor had been stabbed twice, once through the neck and once through the scapula, wounds that penetrated clear through his chest and out through his back. Charles' injuries were equally fatal; she had one four-inch-deep stab wound to the chest, and one nearly four-inch-deep wound that completely severed both the carotid artery and jugular vein in the left side of her neck. Semen was also collected on a vaginal swab, though there was nothing in Parungao's report to suggest she was raped.

When the officers returned from the search, they again interrogated Hughes. This time, Hughes dumped the story about being followed, and instead said that he'd been approached by Charles and Taylor and that Charles had seduced him into sexual contact and "grinding." She tried to extort him for money, he said, and when he refused, she slapped him. That's when he knifed her, "six or eight or ten times," reads the second statement. Taylor began to cry and ran between the two of them so Hughes stabbed him too, though he couldn't recall how many times. He got home and hid the knife after confirming there was no blood on it. He checked the score of the football game and went to bed, according to the confession.

A Juror's Skepticism

Hughes subsequently recanted, claiming that the police had coerced him into confessing by hitting him and threatening him. Although the Houston police had the capability of video recording interrogations even in 1988, Sgt. D.A. Ferguson chose not to do so. "I guess it really comes down to personal preference," he testified. The judge allowed the confessions into evidence. And so it went too with Hughes' attempts to have excluded the items picked up at his apartment; the search warrant the police had was invalid, he argued to the judge. Hughes did not fight biological testing – no matter how rudimentary it would have been – perhaps in part because the police never did collect any DNA or blood samples from him. After they got the confession, they figured they didn't need anything else, Gafford ­testified.

Hughes' trial attorney, Ellis McCullough, failed to mount much of a defense. He made no opening statement, did not call a medical or forensic expert to counter the state's theory of the crime – including, most notably, that Charles could somehow have carried on a conversation with police while bleeding out at the throat from massive wounds – and failed to call much more than character witnesses. In other words, he provided no compelling road map for jurors that might lead away from Hughes or seriously challenge the state's evidence of guilt.

But that's not because the evidence isn't there to do so, says Skeptical Juror Allen. "They framed him," Allen says. "The police framed him; the lab framed him."

Allen, a retired engineer, has become an amateur sleuth – a "forensic data analyst," he calls it – combing through police and trial records, looking for cases of wrongful conviction and writing about those cases from the "perspective of a juror." He came by his new moniker honestly; Allen has been called for jury duty more than a dozen times and has served as a juror in four cases – a drive-by shooting, a murder, an assault, and a multivictim, multicount child molestation case. It was the last one that prompted him to become more deeply involved in the criminal justice system. The six-day trial was illuminating for him; there was scant evidence of the man's guilt, and Allen believed that once the jurors began to deliberate, it would be a slam-dunk, not-guilty vote. Yet when the jury first voted, it was 11-1 for guilty.

Allen believed that the nature of the allegations was overwhelming the jurors' duty to evaluate only the actual evidence and consider only the law. The jurors deliberated for longer than the trial had lasted, and were ultimately hung. Allen knew the state would retry the case, so he approached the defense and offered to help by dissecting the evidence from a juror's point of view. The lawyer accepted, and Allen pored over the files, "looking for things that might have been missed," he says. The man was retried and again the jury was hung; the state declined to go for a third try.

"The whole experience transformed me," Allen says. He no longer believed that the criminal justice system is a level playing field; he had been convinced that it is stacked for the state, that jurors are easily swayed by emotion, and that innocent people can be convicted. "That converted me from a skeptical juror to The Skeptical Juror," he says. Allen has written four books, each a blend of nonfiction and fiction, and posts regularly to his website, www.skepticaljuror.com. He says he delves only into cases in which he believes the defendant is innocent.

Last winter he was doing research when he stumbled upon some information about Hughes' case. In particular, he found testimony from James Bolding, then the chief of serology for the notorious Houston Police Department crime lab. Bolding testified at Hughes' trial that the first time he'd tested Hughes' knife was in the courtroom, just before taking the stand. "I thought, that's so outrageous, so absurd," Allen recalls.

Still, the case against Hughes seemed strong, despite the courtroom hijinks. It wasn't until March, after a guest blogger penned a two-part piece on Hughes' case, that Allen really took notice. Since March, Allen has written about little else, and in the process he's come to believe he has uncovered previously overlooked evidence that casts serious doubt on the state's case.

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