True Confessions?

"I sit alone in my four-cornered room starin' at candles..."

— Scarface of the Geto Boys in "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," one of the most popular songs in Houston at the time of Edna Mae Franklin's murder.

When Charles Raby opened his eyes he was lying in a puddle of mud. It was night. Cars thundered overhead on the Hardy Toll Road, headed south toward the skyscrapers.

It was October 15, 1992, and Raby was 22. He had been back in town for two months after spending two years in prison for aggravated robbery with a knife.

Raby says his last memory, before waking up disoriented and alone under the overpass, is of looking for his friends Lee Rose and Eric Benge at their grandmother Edna Mae Franklin's house in the fading daylight. No one answered his knock at the door, so he left and walked down Irvington to a used car dealership, where he sat between two cars and, with his head spinning from malt liquor, Mad Dog, marijuana and valium, lay down on the pavement. And then he was in the mud puddle. He picked himself up and started hopping fences until he was home.

Two blocks west down Crosstimbers, then four south on Irvington, and at the far end of Westford, 71-year-old Franklin, whom everyone in the neighborhood called "Grandma," had just been savagely stabbed to death inside her living room.

She was found there by Benge around 10 p.m. just after he returned home from his girlfriend Donna Lynn Perras's house.

Benge remembers that the front and back doors were open. The house was dark, except for a lamp in Franklin's bedroom in back. Her dresser drawers were open. The contents of her purse — some credit cards, a life insurance card for policies totaling $2,000, a checkbook — were scattered on the floor near her bed. Franklin was on the living room floor.

She was naked from the waist down. Blue pants, turned inside-out, lay nearby, along with a torn pair of panties. There was blood on the panties, blood on a towel near her head and blood soaked through her blouse. Blood had spattered onto the couch and the sheet that partitioned off the kitchen.

Franklin had been sliced and stabbed 15 times in all. She had defensive cuts on her left arm and hand, and puncture wounds in her chest that reached into her heart. A frail and undernourished woman of 72 pounds, who often needed help from her grandsons just to get around the house, nearly half of her ribs were broken, and her head had been battered so hard that her hair was falling out. Police would need to pry her right hand open to collect the hair inside her fist. Her long fingernails were caked with blood.

Benge was beside his grandmother when his cousin Lee Rose and their friend John Allen Phillips walked in. "Look, Lee, look," Benge said. "Grandma's dead! Grandma's dead!"

When Benge turned his grandmother onto her back and found that her windpipe was severed, one name, he says, jumped right into his head: Buster, as Raby was known. Only Buster could have done this.

Rose told police he thought the same. As Phillips sprinted down the street to his own grandmother's house, he also had Buster running through his mind.

Four days later, when police finally caught up with him, Raby said he did it, too. The trial that followed was short. Though no physical evidence tied Raby to the crime, with his confession it seemed like a simple case.

But, more than 17 years later, nothing seems certain.

Several figures from the trial have since been discredited. State District Judge Woody Densen was recently indicted for criminal mischief after keying a neighbor's car.

The autopsy work of Dr. Eduardo Bellas, the coroner who said Raby's two-inch pocket knife could have caused Franklin's four-inch-deep wounds, was involved in a controversy over his office's failure to identify infant homicides.

Walter Quijano, the defense psychologist who called Raby a "psychopath" on the stand, was found to use race as a primary factor in determining whether someone was a future threat; related convictions involving black or Hispanic defendants have been reopened. Even Deetrice Wallace, the Houston Police Department chemist who determined that Franklin's panties had been ripped off, was indicted last year for forging breathalyzer inspection records.

And in the wake of the HPD crime lab scandal that broke in 2002, DNA tests were done on Franklin's bloody fingernails. At Raby's trial, the crime lab's Joseph Chu had testified that the blood-typing tests he performed on them were inconclusive.

Only, this wasn't true. Chu found Franklin's Type B blood. Beneath the fingernails of her right hand, he also found Type A. This could come only from someone with A or AB blood. Raby is Type O.

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Mike Giglio
Contact: Mike Giglio