Houston Chronicle

Aug. 22, 2004, 1:09AM

DNA casts shadow of doubt on conviction

Review suggests HPD mishandled George Rodriguez's 1987 case, in the lab and elsewhere

By STEVE MCVICKER
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

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"The DNA has already proved my innocence, so why are they still holding me?"

George Rodriguez,
sentenced to 60 years in prison for the rape and kidnapping of a 14-year-old girl

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Laughter doesn't come easily to George Rodriguez. Although still a large man, he carries less weight and less of his dark hair than he did when he entered prison 17 years ago.

A Houston native with a sixth-grade education, Rodriguez grew up in Denver Harbor with six brothers, two sisters and a stepbrother. His father was a truck driver; his mother a homemaker. Twice married, Rodriguez has four daughters and a son — who is serving a 20-year sentence in a Texas prison for murder.

Rarely, says Rodriguez, do any of his relatives make the almost 400-mile round trip to Beeville to visit him.

"I've lost everything," he said recently. "I got accused of a crime and I didn't know nothing about it."

In 1987, Rodriguez was sentenced to 60 years in prison for the rape and kidnapping of a 14-year-old girl because of evidence analysis that some experts now say may have been botched by the Houston Police Department crime laboratory.

In addition, court documents show that the lab mishandled new DNA tests on the evidence years later, further delaying Rodriguez's effort to clear his name.

Although the victim identified Rodriguez three separate times as one of her attackers, HPD's own records of the original investigation indicate police discounted evidence that not only pointed to another suspect, but strongly suggested that the other suspect had a history of sexual assault.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez remains in a South Texas prison.

"The DNA has already proved my innocence," he said. "So why are they still holding me?"

'Scientifically unsound'

As he sits in a break room at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Garza Unit West near Beeville, Rodriguez's tattooed forearms — a naked woman on the right, a serpent on the left — protect an envelope filled with documents generated during his almost two-decade battle to prove his innocence.

Under fluorescent lights, he sips a soft drink and stares at the blue-and-white linoleum floor as he wrestles with questions about his case and how DNA might help him finally win his freedom.

"I was trying to find some help to prove my innocence," Rodriguez said, "and I finally came across an organization that was willing to take on my case."

He found that help at the Innocence Project, a legal aid group in New York, in 2001.

This month, the organization released a report by six national forensic experts who reviewed the crime lab's original analysis of the evidence. The panel found that the lab's conclusions in the case were "scientifically unsound."

Although no DNA testing was available for the case in 1987, it had become a forensic mainstay by August 2002, when state District Judge Belinda Hill ordered the Houston police lab to conduct DNA testing on any remaining evidence in the case.

But the lab was shut down in December of that year when an independent audit raised questions about the integrity of the lab's work in thousands of cases.

Hair evidence was sent to ReliaGene Technologies in New Orleans. Analysts there, blaming HPD's lab, reported that not enough evidence remained for a very precise form of DNA testing they thought was necessary.

The remaining evidence was sent to another lab for a less-exact procedure that only links individuals through a common maternal ancestor and does not require as much DNA material.

The testing, conducted in April, ruled out Rodriguez as the source of the pubic hair and instead implicated Isidro Yanez, a convicted criminal with a violent reputation who also had been a suspect in the rape investigation in 1987.

"If (the hair) had been sent to another lab in the first place, we could have gotten a profile nailing Yanez to the wall," said Innocence Project lawyer Vanessa Potkin. "But what we have is still extremely powerful."

But a review of written reports filed by police who originally worked the case suggests that mistakes by the HPD lab may not have been the only flaws in the investigation.

Horror for teen

On the evening of Feb. 24, 1987, a 14-year-old girl was visiting a 16-year-old male friend outside her home in the 7900 block of Kerr in the rough-and-tumble Ship Channel neighborhood of Pleasantville when two men pulled up in a green-and-white Chrysler Cordoba.

They asked for directions and help with a flat tire, but the teenagers saw that there was no flat tire and tried to flee, police said. The heavier man grabbed the girl and forced her into the car.

The girl told police that as the men took her to a house in nearby Denver Harbor, one of them called the other man George.

However, she said she didn't believe that was actually the man's name because she'd also heard them tell each other not to use their real names in front of her.

The girl said she was forced into a house where a third man was watching television. He did nothing to help her as the kidnappers dragged her into a bedroom and slapped her around. After threatening to kill her and ordering her to undress, they raped her.

Afterward, she said, they told her to get dressed and put a ski mask over her head as a blindfold. She said they then drove to a dirt road behind a Mobil station along the East Freeway, where they pulled her out and one of them handed her a dollar.

"This is for your trouble," he told her.

The girl said that, as she removed the ski mask, he warned her not to look at them or they would kill her.

Tracking suspects

Based on the girl's description of the house where she was raped, police zeroed in on a one-story, white house with red trim on El Paso in Denver Harbor — three blocks from Rodriguez's house on Abilene. According to a police report, Officer Eddie Rodriguez informed the other officers that he was familiar with the location and the likely suspects: Manuel Beltran and George Rodriguez, who was on probation for burglary. The two Rodriguezes are not related.

Police showed the victim two photo spreads. From the first group, she pointed to a photograph of George Rodriguez as one of her attackers. From the other spread, she selected Beltran.

Two days after the attack, during a raid on the suspects' house, Houston police detained Beltran and his older brother, Uvaldo.

The officers questioned the brothers in separate rooms. Manuel confessed to taking part in the rape but said Rodriguez had not.

"During the processing and discussion, it was learned from Manuel (that) the suspect believed to have been George Rodriguez ... was in fact a man by the name of Isi," wrote officer M.D. Tobar.

As the conversation with Manuel progressed, Tobar wrote, "when the full weight of the situation was explained to Manuel he broke down into tears and explained that he was afraid of Isi because Isi had a gun and threatened to shoot him if he did not 'get him that girl.' "

Manuel also told police that Isi and Rodriguez resembled each other and were heavyset.

Meanwhile, police said, Uvaldo was verifying his brother's story. According to the police report, he gave a written statement saying that he had been watching television when "Manuel, EZ and the girl came in through the kitchen door. That while they were bringing in the girl, she was crying and that EZ had the girl around the neck and (she) was acting like she did not want to be inside."

Although Uvaldo referred to his brother's accomplice as "EZ" instead of Isi, Rodriguez's attorneys contend that Uvaldo and Manuel obviously were talking about the same man: Isidro Yanez.

Indeed, in a later report, Tobar wrote that "it should be noted that the wanted suspect's first name is Isidoro (sic) and the nickname in Spanish for Isidoro is Isi. This could have easily been confused and changed to EZ due to the similar sound."

The arrest warrant for Rodriguez was withdrawn, but police continued looking at him as the second rapist. They did not even question Yanez until almost a month after the attack.

When investigators located Yanez at his mother's home, he identified himself as his own brother. Only through fingerprint records did police learn his true identity. He then told officers that he knew nothing about the assault and kidnapping but had allowed Manuel Beltran to borrow his car.

"Yanez seemed fairly well informed about what had been said to officers about him," the police report said.

Weighing the evidence

In the meantime, the foreman at the factory where Rodriguez worked had told police that Rodriguez was on the job at the time of the rape. Time cards supported his statement, although police noted that workers often punched in and out for each other.

But in March 1987, police persuaded Rodriguez to take part in a lineup. According to another report by Tobar, the victim identified Rodriguez as one of her attackers "by the way he stood."

Rodriguez was arrested and voluntarily gave police hair samples. HPD crime lab analyst Reidun Hilleman's preliminary microscopic review failed to match Rodriguez to any of the hairs found at the crime scene. Rodriguez was released without charges.

Police reports show that investigators and prosecutors then chose to wait until all crime lab analysis was completed before deciding what to do next.

About that same time, one Harris County prosecutor began cautioning the police about zeroing in on Rodriguez.

According to the HPD's own investigation reports, Assistant District Attorney Edward Porter informed Sgt. S.L. Clappart in April 1987 that he was investigating a case involving a double kidnapping and sexual assault with details similar to the attack on the 14-year-old girl. One similarity, the prosecutor said, was that Yanez had been implicated as not only a suspect but the driving force behind the crime.

Even though the victim in Clappart's investigation had identified Rodriguez as one of her attackers, Porter urged the police "not to rush into an indictment situation," according to the report.

His concern was based on the claims of Frank Campos, who recently had been arrested in connection with the abduction and rape, about a year earlier, of two Houston women in the Denver Harbor area.

A history of assault

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle last week, Campos, who served three years of a 15-year sentence for his part in the rape, reiterated his claim that, despite his guilty plea, it was Yanez who insisted on grabbing the women at gunpoint. He added that only Yanez raped the women, although Yanez was never charged.

"Everybody knew he was a rapist," Campos told the Chronicle.

That apparently included Yanez's mother. In July 1987, Yanez was accused of sexually assaulting and beating his mother's pregnant live-in maid.

"She wants charges filed against her son because he, on several other occasions, had assaulted women and nothing has ever been done to him," the police report states.

"She thinks her son is mentally ill and needs to be arrested before he hurts someone else."

Yanez pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of attempted sexual assault and was sentenced to one year in the county jail, according to court records. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

On April 30, 1987, the crime lab's Hilleman informed police detective Clappart that "she had located one hair from the (victim's) panties that was consistent with the hair sample from George Rodriguez."

The next morning, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault charges were filed.

Another factor in their decision was an April photo spread. Out of 100 photographs, according to the police report, the teenage victim picked out both Yanez and Rodriguez.

"The (victim) stated they both look close to each other but she insisted George Rodriguez was the man (who assaulted her)," said the report.

The conclusions of the HPD crime lab cemented the decision to prosecute Rodriguez.

In addition to the hair comparison evidence, at trial prosecutors also presented testimony from James Bolding, the head of the crime lab's serology division, who analyzed semen evidence for blood type against samples from both Yanez and Rodriguez.

But according to the six forensic experts who reviewed the work this year, Bolding's analysis wrongly excluded Yanez as a possible source.

Combined with this year's first-time DNA testing of the pubic hair, which now indicates Yanez as the likely source, the Innocence Project's Potkin says the Rodriguez case is a classic example of the criminal justice system gone wrong.

"It's just amazing when you think about the amount of time it takes for someone to get exonerated," she said.

"It's just indicative of the fact that the system doesn't really care about these cases."

Hilleman and Eddie Rodriguez, Clappert and Porter declined to comment for this article. Tobar and Bolding could not be reached. Through a representative, HPD crime lab Director Irma Rios said her office is reviewing the evidence in the Rodriguez case but has nothing to report.

'I'm not really angry'

Despite the news about the DNA evidence, Rodriguez tries not to get too excited. Still, he can't help thinking about possibly returning to the free world.

As he prepared to return to his cell, he gathered his legal papers, then paused to reflect on the people and circumstances that led to his 17 years in prison.

"I'm not really angry," he said. "I just can't believe it happened."

As for Isidro Yanez, he was arrested and accused in September 2002 of abducting his estranged wife, whom he allegedly assaulted the day before.

"The (victim) stated that she's afraid (Yanez) will hurt her again or kill her," the arresting officer wrote in his report.

In July 2003, Yanez pleaded guilty to kidnapping and was sentenced to two years in prison. Because of credit for time served before his plea, he is scheduled to be released next month.

According to state law, however, there is no statute of limitations in sexual cases in which new forensic DNA evidence is discovered.

The Harris County District Attorney's Office on Monday plans to file its response to Rodriguez's motion to have his sentence vacated.

District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal told the Chronicle last week that he was not yet convinced that analytical mistakes were made in the case. Friday, however, Assistant District Attorney Jacky Roady, who is preparing his office's response, said prosecutors "are keeping an open mind."

steve.mcvicker@chron.com



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