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.
"If you do that," Velasquez said, "if you do that today, you're sending a message to every single juror that sits on any kind of rape case in this county that if for whatever reason a victim doesn't recall every specific detail, doesn't have a xerox memory, that they should cut them loose...[And] you'll be sending a message to him and to other rapists like him that if they don't ejaculate on somebody, then you're going to be let go. You'll be found not guilty. Don't reward him for that."
Indeed, the jurors did not reward Ronald Taylor for failing to ejaculate on somebody, nor for escaping detection at the crime scene. Instead, they found him guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, of aggravated sexual assault.
Many years later, a different analyst in a different laboratory would test the bedsheet again, would find the semen stain that Carrejo had not and would conduct the DNA comparison that would establish the innocence of Ronald Taylor. Taylor would become just the third convict from Harris County exonerated due to DNA testing, and Jeff Blackburn of the Innocence Project of Texas would say that such cases "open a window onto the justice system and allow you to see how things really work." But all of this would occur many years later.
Being charged with rape was so humiliating to Taylor that he hadn't wanted his family to attend the trial. After he was found guilty, he called to tell his mother he had been sentenced to 60 years, and "that might be the one thing that shook me," he says, "just listening to my mom crying, 'no, no, no!' So I hurried up and got off the phone with her."
He had earlier spent about five years in prison, but knew very well that this experience would be different. When he arrived at the Gaza West Unit in Beeville, the guards at intake stripped him, told him to shut up and told him the rules. The most fundamental rule was that he could never escape, and, realizing this, Taylor saw that he could rage about just as much as he wished — could work himself into a heart attack or a nervous breakdown. Could even kill himself, and no one would care. It would be "just another day in prison" for everyone else, he knew, and "don't nobody cry, just as long as there's a reasonable explanation for what happened to the body."
He began mumbling the Serenity Prayer to himself. "Getting mad don't do no good," he decided, and he tried not to ponder his innocence or to consider how long he would be in prison, but only to tell himself, "I'm in prison. You live here. This is your home."
As a new arrival, Taylor started out working in the fields, hacking weeds with hand tools. Throughout the prison, there were "all these little jobs" to do, and eventually he graduated to work inside. As hard as he tried not to think about his life, Taylor couldn't help noticing that the jobs taught no useful skills and didn't seem to prepare prisoners in any way for life outside. The jobs also paid nothing, and since "you have to have money to survive" in prison, Taylor says, many prisoners learned "how to hustle" — how to make their jobs pay. Kitchen workers stole sandwich fixings to sell later; laundry workers pinched clean, starched clothes to auction off for family visits.
Prison officials knew all about this black market, says Taylor, and if you were too obvious in your game, they'd catch you and send you back out into the fields. They never reduced the need for the black market, though, and so prisoners would simply work their way back inside and start hustling all over again, says Taylor, playing "a cat-and-mouse game that continues until you get so good at your hustle, you can get by without getting caught."
Taylor finally concluded that the prison system's claim that it reforms criminal behavior was "a joke." "In essence," he says, "they're training you to be a better criminal."
Because his family regularly sent him money, Taylor had no need to develop a hustle of his own. He also had something that other people wanted, in a place that was filled with predators. Guards try to stop prison violence, Taylor says, but "it's just one of the things the system can't protect you against." There were riots to establish the momentary supremacy of one racial group over another, along with countless smaller fights — in the cellblock, the eating area, the rec yard, the shower — to determine who was going to eat whose food, spend whose money, have sex with whom.
While murderers are "probably the only people who brag about what they're in prison for," Taylor, as a convicted rapist, arrived near the very bottom of the prison pecking order. Rape is a crime that "tarnishes your reputation," he explains, and rapists are seen as weak, as "perverted," as in need of killing. Taylor was only lucky he was not weak at all but stood six feet tall and weighed 230 pounds. "When it comes time to fight, you don't have to win," he knew, "but you have to fight," or everyone will come after you "like a pack of wolves."
Taylor claims he was never more than bruised in a fight. Afterward, though, he would sometimes encounter the friends of his foe, whose hostility encouraged him to seek friends of his own. Only after Taylor managed to round up a few allies did he seem to find any security in prison — and to begin enjoying the fights. In the Coffield Unit near Palestine, where he spent most of his term, his building had "all the windows busted out," he explains, and there were cats walking around and birds flying through, and on those days when the mosquitoes were bad and the temperature inside was over 100 degrees, fighting, he says, was "just a way to let loose." "If I had something I wanted to get off my chest, we would just get it on," says Taylor.
Such displays seem to have contributed to his acceptance. What they finally said in prison about Ronald Gene Taylor, according to Taylor, was, "That fool there, he's crazy, but he ain't no rapist." Taylor, in turn, came to see that "there are a lot of good guys in prison," and also many innocent men. He didn't think the innocent were so hard to spot. Since the parole board makes admission of guilt a condition for early release, most convicts would ultimately admit, "'Yeah, they got me. I done this here,' or they'd say, 'I ain't do it like they said I did it, but yeah, I did it.'" Always, though, "you got those who'll tell you they didn't do it," he says. Year in, year out, they would deny their guilt, and year in, year out, they would stay in prison.
Some of them Taylor thought he saw trying to escape through the prison law library — the barely literate men who came every day and tried to make sense of law books, tried to write appeals, often from memory because they couldn't afford the dollar a page they were charged for their own court records. When the response to these appeals came back from the court, it would often consist of a single page — a denial without explanation. When the prisoners wrote to ask for explanations, or file additional appeals, the court would often bar them from filing anything further.
It was the same message all over: There was no way out. Taylor saw men break against it — inmates barricaded themselves in their cells and threw feces at anyone who tried to enter. He witnessed a man walk to the end of the second row, climb a rail and dive into the concrete. ("I didn't see him no more after that.") And everywhere, there were the sedated men, drinking coffee and shuffling by — "got this Thorazine shuffle." Taylor, though, seems to have survived by not trying to break down walls or to fight his way out from the library, but by encouraging people on the outside to fight for him. He wrote to senators, to congressmen, to church and human-rights groups. Mainly, he wrote his family. Taylor mailed about a letter a day, and otherwise, tried not to think about time. "Because that's when it will really hurt you," he explains, "when you go thinking about the time and the date. If you don't worry about it, it takes care of itself. You just let time pass. Just let it go."
There were few clocks or calendars by which to mark it. The prisoners destroyed the clocks, and so Taylor knew the passage of a year mainly by the holidays — "there's holidays in prison" — and the passage of years he knew mostly by the changes he saw in himself — the weight he gained eating pasta, rice and potatoes, the high blood pressure and diabetes he developed. Eventually, more recent arrivals began saying, "Man, you getting some years under your belt, ain't you?" "And then it was like I woke up one day and, 'Damn, I been here 14 years.'"
It was about then that the Innocence Project, a national group dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing, got in touch. Taylor's stepfather, Herman Henderson, had alerted them to the case, and they had found the bedsheet and only needed a sample of Taylor's DNA for comparison. Taylor dared again to hope; this time, his hopes were not dashed. The results brought back "overwhelming proof," as Project lawyers phrased it, "that Mr. Taylor was not the man who sexually assaulted Ms. A. on May 28, 1993."
Taylor is not the sort to jump for joy, but he was happy — "you can believe that." He gave away his fan, his radio and his candy, and one morning about a year ago, came through the gates and stepped into a government car. The car transported him all the way back to Houston, back to the people who loved him and to those who had sent him away.
Texas has experienced 34 DNA exonerations — more than any other state — and "these compounding exonerations," as State Senator Rodney Ellis says, "are clear and convincing evidence that our criminal justice system is broken." Time after time, Ellis has pushed reforms to prevent the conviction of innocent people, but most of these proposals have been defeated, mostly on the grounds that they're unnecessary. Ellis is baffled. Only in criminal justice, he says, do "you get a knee-jerk reaction that the system is just fine and improvements aren't needed. At times, it seems there's more of an effort in trying to ignore mistakes than any real effort to address them."
Taylor, when he came home, met a similar reaction. At first, he was confronted with a great, official show of remorse. Standing before the judge who had sentenced him to 60 years — Judge Denise Collins — he recalls being told that "she regretted any of this had happened." Also, she wished him "luck." And Chuck Rosenthal, then the Harris County district attorney, was also in court to apologize to "Mr. Taylor." And when Taylor appeared before city council, as the Innocence Project had arranged, he remembers that council members, too, were "sorry it happened, and they were just trying to see what they could do to make it better."
Taylor asked the council to "help people get some justice," but it seems he had no pull. As profuse as the apologies were, they mainly just underscored his case as an unusual event. His was only the third DNA exoneration in Harris County, and while many people expressed sympathy for his personal tragedy, others also considered Taylor's case such an aberration that it could hardly reflect poorly on the justice system. Some indeed viewed the low number of exonerations to reflect only well upon the system — to be proof of the system's near-infallibility. And still others — Rosenthal and Judge Collins among them — saw Taylor's case as even a model of the system's success. For the innocent man had been identified and set free, had he not? The system had corrected its error. "I think the system worked in this case," Judge Collins said recently. "I think we all do a great job down here."
On its Web site, the Innocence Project declares to the contrary that DNA cases are not aberrations at all "but arise from systemic defects." Commonly among these defects are "eyewitness misidentification, corrupt scientists, overzealous police and prosecutors and inept defense counsel." Such weak points may be "precisely identified" by examining any single exoneration case, and considering Taylor's, Blackburn of the Innocence Project of Texas thought he glimpsed a "pretty horrifying picture of Harris County."
It was the "very, very weak" identification of Taylor that helped persuade the Project to arrange for a new DNA test. That test, in turn, showed the troubles within the crime lab. Where the analyst Maurita Carrejo had previously marked the bedsheet "negative" for the presence of semen, an independent laboratory found "a fully identifiable semen stain." According to a brief filed by the Innocence Project, this stain yielded a "strong semen/spermatozoa DNA profile," which in time not only freed an innocent man but also identified the true rapist.
When the profile was entered into a DNA databank of criminal offenders, a match was made to a man named Roosevelt Carroll. He, too, had been one of the victim's neighbors, but his nickname was not "Chili Charlie," as the victim's daughter had told police. It was "Chilli Chetter." He bore such a remarkable similarity to the suspect whom Detective Julie Hardin claimed at trial to have excluded that lawyers with the Innocence Project could only conclude that "HPD may indeed have failed to adequately investigate evidence pointing to Carroll 14 years ago." After avoiding arrest, Carroll had gone on to commit other crimes and was already a convicted sex offender when authorities tracked him down in prison. Under the statute of limitations, he could no longer be charged for the rape of Ms. A, however, and was due to be released in 2010.
Taylor's case would seem less the model of success than the worst-case scenario, but truly, no justice official had any excuse for being surprised. By the time of Taylor's release, an independent auditor had already uncovered a long history of incompetence and corruption within the Houston Police Department Crime Lab. "Serious problems" were found within the lab's serology and DNA units that "posed major risks," auditor Michael R. Bromwich reported, "of contributing to miscarriages of justice in extremely significant cases." Thousands of convictions were thrown into doubt. Blackburn thought there should be hundreds of DNA exonerations from the crime lab alone. And the fact that there have been only a few in all Harris County may be explained, it seems, as a matter of priorities.
Though the crime lab was the police department's own, the department reacted with shock and dismay when the lab's failings were first exposed in 2002. According to the auditor, the department quickly went to work to improve the lab's testing capability — hiring new supervisors and analysts, implementing new controls and training programs. By June 2007, the auditor was able to write that the crime lab had made "significant progress in shedding its troubled past."
Just a few months later, though, a Houston Chronicle editorial complained that "city and county officials have been outrageously lax" in examining cases of potential injustice from the lab.
Reviewing 850 serology cases processed by the crime lab between 1980 and 1992, the auditor found problems with 599. He recommended that the district attorney's office and HPD attempt to locate the evidence in these cases and offer to retest it, but for 419 of them, no provision seems ever to have been made. An HPD spokesman says the police department is "working with a couple of defense attorneys regarding those cases" — but those attorneys have been charged only with reviewing the 180 cases the auditor marked as containing a "major issue." A panel of judges appointed them in the publicity surrounding Ronald Taylor's release, and allocated resources sufficient to pay them for part-time work. One of the lawyers, Bob Wicoff, says he doesn't know the fate of the 419 cases but that with the help of law student volunteers, his team has managed to review about 70 of the 180 cases. They've identified 12 they believe deserving of new DNA testing, but "it's kind of frustrating," says Wicoff, because in seven of those cases, the police department has informed them that evidence has been lost.
Here is "the only reason that Harris County is not engulfed in exonerations," according to Blackburn: The district attorney, as the chief law enforcement officer in the county, has not made preservation of evidence from closed cases a priority. Indeed, a spokesman for District Attorney Ken Magidson confirmed that prosecutors typically ask defendants to waive their objection to destruction of evidence, as part of every plea agreement.
Harris County thus has just three DNA exonerations on its record, while Dallas County, which is more careful to preserve, has 20. Ours are not aberrations in a sound justice system. As Blackburn said, "they're the lucky ones whose evidence didn't get thrown away."
Exonerees do not tend to live happily ever after, but following his release, Taylor married a girlfriend who had waited for him all these years, Jeannette Brown, and he moved to Atlanta to be with her. He has started a lawn-care business and says that "everything's going lovely, man," and only when you press him will he tell you about his medical problems, his lack of health insurance, his debt and the trouble he everywhere has on job and credit and rental applications explaining 14 missing years of his life.
Those who put him in prison have meanwhile gone on with their lives.
Detective Julie Hardin has retired. Her complaint history shows that she was never disciplined in her career, save for one misconduct allegation ("sustained") as a recruit.
Maurita Carrejo seems to have recovered from the incompetence she displayed at the crime lab. A Google search reveals that she has found more work in science, this time as a researcher with the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center.
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And Vanessa Velasquez, who prosecuted Taylor, has carried her standards of evidence to the judiciary. Presiding over the 183rd State District Court, she is now presumedly addressed as "your honor."
Neither the victim nor the detective nor the crime lab analyst nor the prosecutor has ever been in touch with Taylor since he was found innocent. Carrejo and Velasquez also did not return calls for this story; a police department spokesman claimed not to know how to forward a message to Hardin.
"I ain't mad at them," Taylor says. "Don't do no good to get mad." But he also can't help feeling that he's owed something here, and just to be fair, he has decided to file a lawsuit. Taylor doesn't know for what amount. He'll leave that to the jury. If the facts are fairly presented, he says, they'll make the right decision.
"I believe that people are fair," says Taylor. "I don't know why I still believe that, but I do."