Friday, September 24, 2010

After 10 years in prison, deaf man in Texas may go free because fingerprint at the scene wasn't his

From The AP:

DALLAS — A deaf man convicted of sexual assault of a child — even though the fingerprint of a convicted child rapist was found at the crime scene — could walk free after a court hearing next week, his attorney said Sept. 23.

Stephen Brodie, who has spent 10 years behind bars, is expected to have his guilty verdict set aside at a hearing Monday. The Dallas County district attorney's office confirmed it is supporting Brodie's claim of innocence in the 1990 sexual assault of a 5-year-old girl in Richardson, a suburb of Dallas.

Police in Richardson learned that a fingerprint at the crime scene matched a man who pleaded guilty to the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl but continued to insist they'd arrested the right man. That same convicted sex offender also was the chief suspect in about a dozen similar sexual assaults of young girls terrorizing the Dallas area in the early 1990s, according to Dallas police.

"It's pretty ludicrous," said Michelle Moore, Brodie's attorney. "I don't really have a good answer for it."

Richardson Police Chief Jim Spivey did not respond to an interview request from The Associated Press. His department is fighting an AP open records request for its files, arguing there is no legitimate public interest in the case. The request is pending before the state attorney general's office.

If he is freed, Brodie, 39, would be the second exoneration case in two years involving Richardson police. The first was Thomas McGowan, who was freed in 2008 after serving 23 years of a life sentence for a rape he did not commit.

Although Dallas County has exonerated 20 wrongly convicted people in recent years through DNA testing — more than any other county nationally and all but two states — the Brodie case does not involve DNA. Instead, it is the county's first potential exoneration involving a false confession, Moore said.

In 1991, Brodie was a teenager and petty criminal when he was arrested for stealing quarters from a soda machine at a community swimming pool. During questioning, the police shifted to a more serious matter: the unsolved sexual assault of a 5-year-old girl.

A man had entered the little girl's home through a window and forced her to leave with her blanket and pillow. He assaulted her in a nearby yard, according to a police report. There were about a dozen similar unsolved cases in the Dallas area.

Brodie, left permanently deaf after a bout with spinal meningitis as a toddler, was questioned for 18 hours over eight days, according to court records. At least 4 1/2 hours of questioning over four sessions were conducted without an interpreter.

He eventually confessed to assaulting the little girl, court documents show. He also repeatedly denied it. In addition, he confessed to a number of fictitious crimes the detectives made up to test his credibility.

In a recent jailhouse interview, Brodie told the AP he was intimidated and not savvy enough to request an attorney.

At least one detective did not find him credible, but he was from a different department. Dallas Detective Steven Nelson questioned Brodie and concluded he was confessing to made-up crimes and had no knowledge about the actual crimes. Nelson, in an affidavit, said he informed Richardson police Brodie was not a suspect.

There was no physical evidence linking Brodie to the crime. Moore said prosecutors failed to notify Brodie's lawyer about forensic testing on hair found at the crime scene that excluded Brodie as the source.

Nonetheless, Richardson police charged Brodie with sexual assault of a child even though neither a hair found on her blanket nor the fingerprint were a match.

Brodie's attorney unsuccessfully fought at trial to suppress his client's confession. Figuring a guilty verdict was certain and knowing it was punishable by up to 99 years, Brodie cut a deal.

He pleaded guilty to assaulting the girl in exchange for a five-year prison sentence. After serving that sentence, he served two more totaling an extra five years for twice failing to register as a sex offender.

While Brodie was in prison, Richardson police learned the fingerprint on the window matched Robert Warterfield, according to court documents and police records. In April 1994, Warterfield pleaded guilty to the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl and received 10 years probation. He eventually was sentenced to 10 years in prison for violating his probation. He is now free and works for a yard service in Stephenville, according to the Texas sex offender registry.

Richardson police say the fingerprint is a coincidence and that Warterfield "somehow touched the frame when he was wandering around in the neighborhood four days prior to this offense," according to police records.

A man who identified himself as Warterfield's father declined to comment Thursday or say whether his son has an attorney.

In a 1994 appeal, Brodie's attorney cited the fingerprint on the window. But Judge Lena Levario denied the appeal, ruling that Brodie's confession outweighed the fingerprint evidence. Levario is the judge presiding at the hearing Monday.