This is a story that breathes life into an old saw: No good deed goes unpunished. It also proves that you can't believe everything you read in the papers or see on the evening news -- even if it comes straight from the horse's mouth, as they say.
On the morning of February 25, a rapist assaulted a 23-year-old woman at the Kingwood Lake Apartments. Like other residents of the apartments, David Mullane heard about the assault that evening when he ran into the manager of the complex, who was posting notices about the crime.
"Anything I can do to help?" Mullane asked. Anything would be appreciated, he was told.
At first Mullane thought a bunch of flowers would be an appropriate act of kindness. But being practical, not to mention generous, he decided that the unfortunate woman could probably use some money. About an hour later he brought a $600 check to the manager's office.
"This might help with her rent," he explained. "Or if she decides to move, she can use it for a U-Haul."
Ten days later Sergeant Glen Matthews, head of the sex crimes unit of the Houston Police Department, arrested a suspect -- Mullane. During his interrogation at police headquarters, Mullane learned that his $600 check hadn't been given to the victim. Instead, it was passed along to Matthews, who apparently spied an ulterior motive lurking in Mullane's act of kindness.
"He told me he knew I had a guilty conscience," Mullane recalls. "He said that must be why I wrote the check."
Matthews also told Mullane that two witnesses said they saw a man who fit his description -- white male, approximately five foot ten and 140 pounds -- near the victim's apartment. Mullane pointed out that at the time of the assault, 8:30 a.m., he was at work at his father's machine shop in northeast Houston, and had been since 7 a.m. Matthews could substantiate that alibi with a few phone calls.
The only phone call Matthews made, however, was to HPD's public-information office, which quickly alerted the local news media that a suspect had been arrested in the Kingwood rape case. Mullane had been free on bond only a few hours when he saw his driver's license photo broadcast on KPRC-TV Channel 2.
"Kingwood residents are breathing easier tonight," said the news anchor. "Police believe they have caught a suspected rapist.Police say they identified Mullane through a witness and DNA evidence."
Over the next few days, three newspapers -- the Houston Chronicle, Kingwood Observer and Atascocita Register -- ran the story about Mullane's arrest. Two of those accounts quoted HPD public-information officer John Cannon saying that police used "physical evidence, including DNA" to identify Mullane as the possible rapist. Cannon also praised residents of the Kingwood Lakes Apartments for their cooperation and suggested the case against Mullane was a slam dunk.
"This case would have been much tougher if not for [the residents]," Cannon told the Register. "It would have likely taken longer to put the man responsible behind bars."
Notwithstanding Cannon and the cops' confident assertion, it turns out that David Mullane was not "the man responsible." That person is still at large, and may be responsible for a second rape at the complex that occurred on May 24. Mullane's status as a suspect in the first case ended April 26, after the DNA evidence cited by HPD at the time of his arrest was actually tested. The results exonerated him.
But it likely will be a while before Mullane can shed the heavy burden of being branded a rapist. Mullane was forced to move from Kingwood Lakes Apartments, where he had lived for four and a half years. His neighbors shunned him, or worse, physically threatened him.
"One guy came up to me when I was taking out my trash one night," Mullane recalls. "He said, 'I think it would be in your best interest to leave, because most of the people around here want to see you dead.' I can't really blame him. For three months they thought they were living with a rapist."
After the charges were dropped, Mullane says, his anxiety eased, but he continues to feel stigmatized. He has heard that some residents of the complex think he committed the second rape there as well.
Meanwhile, HPD seems unable, or unwilling, to appreciate Mullane's situation. Department spokesperson Cannon, himself a former radio newsman, says investigators felt they had plenty of evidence to make an arrest, and prosecutors agreed, or they would have never charged Mullane. As for the comments attributed to him, Cannon says he never told reporters that police nailed Mullane with DNA evidence. Any suggestion that he did, he says, was "a matter of interpretation."
"What I said was, 'physical evidence, including DNA that was being processed allowed us to charge the suspect with aggravated sexual assault,' " Cannon says (emphasis added). "It was never said through my lips that the DNA matched, nor that the results were even in."
It's possible that a television station and two newspapers -- the Chronicle had no reference to DNA in its unbylined account of Mullane's arrest -- all made the same mistake. Possible, but unlikely. In a story about a suspected rapist, there is a huge distinction between "DNA evidence" and "DNA that was being processed." Unprocessed DNA, gathered from the scene but not yet compared to the suspect's, may, in fact, be evidence, but it's not the kind of evidence that would "allow" prosecutors to charge anyone.
It would be irresponsible -- some might argue libelous -- to report a link between a suspect and DNA evidence with the understanding that any connection was purely speculative, which was clearly the case for at least two weeks after Mullane's arrest was reported.
"It's bad enough when they put your picture on TV," says Michael Stone, a defense lawyer who represented Mullane. "But when you say DNA, people are going to think, 'Well, that's gotta be him. They got DNA.' How devastating is that?"
Channel 2 officials didn't return calls about their March 7 broadcast. But Cynthia Calvert, editor of the Kingwood Observer, says Cannon never told her the DNA had yet to be processed. She learned that from Mullane's aunt, who called the paper after seeing the Channel 2 broadcast.
"I have my notes from the day he called me," Calvert says. "I know I quoted what John Cannon said to me. I remember vividly the conversation, and he never told me [the DNA] was being processed."
Cannon's attempt to blame the messenger might carry a bit more weight if it weren't so obvious, from Mullane's account of his arrest and interrogation, that the police desperately wanted him to be the rapist. Mullane says he repeatedly told Matthews he was at work, that he was "40 miles away with 30 witnesses," but Matthews never checked that out.
"He kept saying, 'I don't think so. We got our man,' " Mullane says. "After about three hours I said, 'An act of charity landed me in jail. Talking to you is going to get me the electric chair. Just let me make my phone call.' "
Since the second rape at Kingwood Lakes Apartments, Mullane has been busily spreading the word of his innocence through the same media that, thanks to a bit of overzealous chest-thumping by HPD, had all but convicted him three months ago.
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Mullane doesn't hide his intention to sue someone to recoup at least the $40,000 the ordeal cost him and his family in legal fees. Interestingly, Mullane doesn't seem to have much of a beef with the media, which could conceivably be a party to a claim that he was defamed.
For now, most of Mullane's anger is aimed at police who linked him to a heinous crime while suggesting they had ironclad evidence. Eventually Mullane will be able to forgive HPD for the 27 hours he spent in jail and the three months he was considered a rapist, if not for the lingering doubts that may exist in the minds of others about his character. As for the first victim, the woman he was once accused of raping, Mullane continues to be concerned for her plight. But he now wishes he had chosen a humbler offering of support.
"Perhaps I should have just sent flowers," he says.
E-mail Brian Wallstin at email@example.com.