Houston Chronicle



Man freed by DNA wonders what to do next
Trying to adjust to freedom, Ricardo Rachell says he's 'going to stay inside a lot'
By LISE OLSEN, DANE SCHILLER AND ROMA KHANNA
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Dec. 14, 2008

Fresh from six years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, 51-year-old Ricardo Rachell — who some neighbors called "Scary Man" for his disfigured face — is beginning life anew in the same part of Houston where he was falsely accused of being a child predator.

"It is not easy, but I handle it. I fend for myself," Rachell said in an exclusive interview Saturday with the Houston Chronicle, less than 24 hours after walking out of the Harris County jail following a rare exoneration.

Ricardo Rachell
STEVE UECKERT CHRONICLE
Ricardo Rachell leaves the Harris County Jail on Friday, having spent years urging prosecutors to investigate attacks that continued after he was imprisoned in an 8-year-old's sexual assault.
His first night of freedom didn't bring any drinking, partying, star gazing or even a long walk. Instead, Rachell stayed inside with Robert Trimmer, his 82-year-old stepfather, and spent much of the night watching television.

"I didn't have anywhere else to go," Rachell said as he sat on a couch in Trimmer's living room in south Houston, where he likes the curtains closed because he fears the streets. He also worries those who wrongfully put him away will again try to snatch him up.

A facial deformity made him a figure of fear to some after a shotgun blast ripped away nearly half of his face in the mid 1990s.

His family didn't expect him to live, but the disfigurement, which causes Rachell to drool and slur his speech, paled when compared to what life still had in store.

In 2003, he was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison for sexually assaulting an 8-year-old boy.

From the beginning he insisted he was innocent. But the Harris County District Attorney's Office announced last week that DNA evidence collected at the time of the crime had only now been tested and cleared him.

"I knew all the time he was innocent," recalled Trimmer, who raised Rachell, and who has gone blind from glaucoma in the years since the conviction. "It is so sad."

Disfigured in shooting
Rachell grew up an attractive man, though he was sometimes teased for being slow at school. He'd never held a steady job — even a gig as a busboy at a steakhouse didn't work out.

After the shooting, Rachell often draped a towel around his neck so he could wipe his mouth. It also allowed him to hide his wounds so, even if for just a few seconds, he looked like everyone else.

Rachell said he was shot on a Sunday in broad daylight after a man accused him of being on his property. Apparently, neither was ever charged.

Rachell had a pair of convictions from the early 1980s — one a misdemeanor marijuana charge and the other for breaking and entering.

But he'd had no trouble with the law for 20 years when police arrested him for sexually assaulting an 8-year-old boy on Oct. 20, 2002.

According to records, the child testified that he was playing hide-and-go-seek with another boy when a man on a bike asked if they wanted to make $10 cleaning up trash.

The man, who wore a scarf over his face, asked the boys to meet him, according to court documents. But when they did, he spirited the victim away on his bicycle to an empty house. The child later testified that man undressed him and tried to sodomize him.

Afterward, the attacker put a knife to the child's throat, threatened him and left. Crying and shaking, the child made his way to a store, where a stranger found him and took him home.

The next morning, the victim's mother saw Rachell riding his bike on Cullen Boulevard. She later drove her son to the spot and asked if Rachell was his attacker. Both her child and his younger friend later identified him for police.

Rachell was arrested.

"God dog it, they railroaded him," his cousin Annette Russell, 45, said in an interview. "He didn't do it, and he kept saying he didn't do it."

As an adult, he stayed close to his mother and stepfather. His circumstances and appearance made him easy to blame, frightening to children, his family members said.

Yet Rachell immediately and consistently insisted on his innocence both before and after his trial in 2003. He was convicted despite two jurors' questions about the mother's role in helping the victim identify him.

From prison, where his cell was about as big as a bathroom in the home where he now lives, Rachell repeatedly wrote letters to his own mother, the late Frances Trimmer, saying: "I didn't do it."

His mother sent him newspaper articles about serial attacks on children in the same area by a man on a bicycle.

At the time, police said they were still looking for a man who they believed had assaulted at least four children, according to news reports.

Rachell immediately sent the clippings to his lawyer, insisting on more investigation.

That argument became part of his appeals. All were rejected.

Even now, no one has been able to explain why the DNA testing was not done years ago.

The boy believed his attacker had never ejaculated, according to a statement he gave a medical professional. In fact, two of Rachell's defense attorneys last week said they thought there were no DNA samples to test.

Yet in a sworn statement dated September 12, 2007, his first defense attorney, Ronald Hayes, admitted he never filed a motion asking for such evidence, records show.

"However, I know that prosecutors are under a continuing obligation to provide exculpatory evidence," Hayes wrote. "Further I was aware that the State did not have any DNA evidence or other physical evidence to support the claim of sexual assault."

Court records do show that an oral-swab specimen, a sexual assault kit and a bag of clothing were collected and retained in the Houston Police Department Property Room as part of the case file.

Citing the possibility of future litigation, HPD declined comment about the case Friday.

Another suspect found
In the last year, Rachell, with the help of other inmates, repeatedly wrote to the court complaining about how long it was taking for the physical evidence to be reviewed and DNA evidence to be tested.

He asked for new attorneys. He even filed a misconduct complaint about the judge.

In the end, the results proved him right; Rachell was innocent. The recently tested DNA points to another suspect, a man the district attorney's office refuses to identify, except to say he is in custody.

Rachell said he is bitter about the time he spent in prison and angry with the boy's mother. He has no issue with the boy personally.

"I have no anger for him at all," Rachell said. "None at all."

Rachell's mother and stepfather never stopped believing in him. But his mother died before he could be freed.

Now, Rachell returns to live with his stepfather, a retired liquor store owner, until he can find his own way.

"I am going to take about six months to decide what to do," Rachell said. "I am going to stay inside a lot."

He said his case should remind people others are sitting in prison after being wrongfully convicted. Under state law, if he get a full pardon, he could qualify for about $300,000 in compensation.

Six years of wrongful imprisonment added another burden to a life that was never easy.

"I did not think it would be possible that he would be back, not after they gave him 40 years," Trimmer said. "This boy has had a hard time his whole life."

lise.olsen@chron.com
dane.schiller@chron.com
roma.khanna@chron.com


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