By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Ronald Gene Taylor's long night began one morning 15 years ago when he was awakened by the sound of police kicking in the neighbor's door.
Taylor was 33 years old at the time — a black man who had dropped out of high school, served time in prison for cocaine possession, forgery and burglary and was working construction, living alone in a small house in the Third Ward. By many conventions, he was the perfect suspect, and so it was that, having pulled on pants and a shirt, and having rushed outside to see what was happening to the neighbor, Taylor learned that the police had come for him. They pushed him into the car and whisked him off to the station.
At the station, he was taken to a cubicle in the sex crimes division and seated beside a detective named Julie Hardin. She began asking about a kidnapping and a rape, and Taylor started realizing the "nightmare situation" he was in: A married woman with whom he'd had a one-night affair had explained the event to her husband as a matter of force. Taylor tried to tell the detective otherwise, but he had no lawyer and was soon booked into the Harris County Jail, where he was held without bond.
While he was jailed, the detective continued to investigate him for other crimes, with the result that, after the married woman's story collapsed, Taylor found himself linked to another rape: A 39-year-old neighbor of Taylor's had been assaulted in her bed with a knife against her throat. Taylor claimed to know nothing of the crime, but also couldn't remember where he had been at the time it occurred, more than six weeks earlier. The detective, he recalls, "seemed just determined that I belonged in prison," and so back to his cell he went. The longer Taylor was jailed, the more disoriented he became, until at last, he began to wonder if the detective was right. "Did I do that?" he asked himself. Had he committed rape and simply forgotten about it? But "no, uh uh," he concluded. "I was raised by a woman." Rape was "just not something I could ever participate in."
So he began placing all of his hope for freedom in a trial, believing a trial would bring reason and fairness to his case. Two years passed before he got his day in court, however, and then "it was unbelievable," he remembers. "I could go on and on with things that don't make sense."
Taylor had expected his innocence to be established easily enough through a DNA test. The culprit was believed to have left DNA behind in a stain on the bedsheet, and this bedsheet had been taken into evidence and mentioned at arraignment, Taylor says, as part of the case against him. After Taylor provided his own DNA for comparison, however, the stain magically disappeared — or at least, Maurita Carrejo, an analyst in the Houston Police Department Crime Lab, claimed to have found no ejaculate upon the sheet and so to have conducted no DNA test.
Without such evidence, lawyers for the Innocence Project later wrote, "the prosecution's case rested almost entirely on the eyewitness testimony of the victim." Taylor had not understood how he had been spotted at the scene of the crime, and it turned out that the victim had identified him in stages. In her initial statement to police, according to the Project, the victim had said that she was "unable to see the perpetrator's features during the rape because it was dark in her room." As time passed, however, her memory had steadily improved, such that ten days after the attack, the victim was able to provide Detective Hardin "a new statement with more details." And when, six weeks out, Hardin showed up at the victim's house to offer a private viewing of a videotaped lineup, the victim "remembered" yet more and firmly named Taylor as her attacker. Now, at the trial, with the assault some two years distant, the victim again "provided new details," testifying that the darkness had actually been pierced by floodlamps from outside, allowing her to see quite clearly her rapist, Ronald Taylor.
The problems with this identification were quite handily dissected by Taylor's court-appointed lawyer. He spoke of the discrepancies between the victim's first statement and her last. He pointed out that the lineup had not been conducted in a controlled environment, and he even suggested the identity of a more likely culprit — a man who had been identified to police by the victim's daughter as "Chili Charlie." After that, Taylor was certain he would be released — "there wasn't any evidence, man. There wasn't any evidence!" — but once more, he had underestimated the ardor of the prosecution.
Detective Hardin testified that she had investigated this Chili Charlie and had excluded him as a suspect. Furthermore, just as Carrejo had claimed that the absence of semen was "not unusual" in a sexual assault, so Detective Hardin went on to attest that it was quite common for a victim to have an "ongoing remembrance of details." Prosecutor Vanessa Velasquez characterized the initial statement — when the victim said she was unable to see in the dark — as only a matter of "some detail" missing. As the Innocence Project quoted her closing argument, Velasquez admonished jurors not to set Taylor free simply because of missing details.