By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Denise Crawford looked at her new client and saw a defendant more desperate than most. After six months in jail, Desmond Haye had been ushered in for trial as a young man without much defense -- or even a defense attorney, for that matter.
State District Judge Jeannine Barr delayed the trial for two days, but Haye's first lawyer never showed up. Exasperated, she wound up appointing Crawford to defend him in June 2003.
A former prosecutor, Crawford anticipated another long story of despair and innocence spun by a street-savvy prisoner. Instead, she was silently impressed. "He had a calm about him -- I know I wouldn't be as calm if I was looking at potential life in prison," she remembers. "He was polite, a well-spoken young man."
To hear Haye tell it, the police just showed up at his Alief home that January and, for no reason, took him in as the gunman in gaudy hip-hop apparel who had robbed a Handy Stop check-cashing outlet five weeks earlier. He had his alibi: Haye and his wife both swore he was taking her to work rather than holding up some convenience store on Fondren.
He was anxious to be tried, sure that he could convince a jury that a terrible mistake had been made. But others were also eager for trial. Police and prosecutors were certain that they had this one right. They had a store clerk's ID of the robber, and a surveillance camera had caught the perpetrator on tape.
When trial ultimately was reset for November 17, Crawford told her enthusiastic client that the date was also her birthday. Haye looked at her and smiled.
"Well, Ms. Crawford, I think you're going to have a very happy birthday. Everything is going to work out," Haye said.
"I hope you're right, Desmond," she told him. "I just hope you're right."
As it turned out, things did work out, and then again they didn't. A flawed police investigation kept Desmond Haye in jail for nearly a year for a crime he didn't commit.
The mother of a three-month-old baby and a ten-year-old boy was shot to death in a related convenience store robbery.
And a veteran officer with 20 years on the force also was killed in that robbery, which might not have happened if police had had the right guy in jail instead of Desmond Haye.
Desmond Haye sits erect, hands together, a broad smile dissolving into disbelief as he tells of the naive notions he shared with his wife, Melissa McDaniel. Their parents had used work and sacrifice to achieve modest success; this couple was certain they could do it as well.
Haye, now 26, was two years old when his father and mother came from Jamaica to America with their six children. Mom took a job at a dry cleaner. Dad worked his way up to a managerial post at a prominent Galleria-area hotel.
Melissa and Desmond, students at Willowridge High School, met as neighbors in the Chasewood area of far south Houston. Four years after his graduation in 1996, their daughter, Niya, was born.
By early 2002, their goal had turned to buying their first house, in Alief. It was a difficult lease-purchase arrangement, but they knew they could afford it by struggling early on, as they had for eight months. McDaniel worked as a clerk at JCPenney; Haye was clearing about $1,200 a month by holding down two jobs. He'd always enjoyed math in school, and was applying those skills to doing work for RGIS Inventory Specialists in the evenings. His brother also relied on him during the day for his landscaping service.
As a kid, Desmond had done yard work and cut lawns, then bused tables and handled kitchen duties at places such as Steak and Ale and the Willowisp Country Club in nearby Missouri City. He also had a stint working for a medical group, tallying up weekly insurance receipts that could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
He admits he'd also screwed up. He says a friend borrowed money from him, telling Haye that he had gotten lucky in scratch-off lottery games and that Haye could redeem the few hundred dollars in winnings.
Haye did. He was arrested for lottery fraud when he tried to cash in his second winner. The tickets had been taken in a burglary, it turned out. "Boy, that was stupid," he says. "Some kind of friend "
The district attorney's office had offered probation, although Haye was still considering a trial. That was his only real dilemma on the morning of January 9, 2003. He and his wife were eating breakfast when the doorbell rang.
Haye looked out at the squad car parked in front.
Are you Desmond Haye? The officer asked.
Will you step outside?Desmond wanted to know what it was about, what he was being accused of doing.
We'll tell you when we get downtown, the officer replied, just before Haye felt the handcuffs on his wrists.
Haye says he felt confident that this misunderstanding could be cleared up as soon as he talked to the authorities. But nobody had any questions -- or much of anything else -- to confront him with.