Preston Hughes is scheduled to be executed this month. Is he innocent of murder, as his defenders claim? Or did police frame a guilty man?
By Jordan Smith
The police were not looking for LaShandra Charles and her cousin Marcell Taylor, but that’s who they found.
It was around 11pm on Sept. 26, 1988, when a man flagged down two police officers near a Fuddruckers restaurant in far West Houston. The man was looking for his wife, whom he believed to be missing. As the trio searched the area, a Fuddruckers employee approached the officers to say that while walking home to a nearby apartment complex, he’d found a body in the woods behind the restaurant.
The cops walked to a large, overgrown field of tall trees dissected by a network of weed-choked trails. The restaurant parking lot was well-lit, but the field was not. The night was clear, and the officers used the moonlight to find their way along the trash-littered trail toward a fence at the far end of the property. There, police found a body – but not that of the person they’d been flagged down to find.
Instead, police found Charles, 15, and her 3-year-old cousin, Taylor. Taylor, who was lying facedown when the police found him, was dead. Charles was sprawled facedown just off the trail, not far from her cousin. Blood pooled under her head, staining the weeds on both sides of the trail. According to Houston police reports, her shorts and underwear were pulled halfway down and the leather strap she used for a belt was discarded nearby. Both Charles and Taylor had been stabbed through the neck. Whatever the weapon, its blade was long enough to cut clear through Taylor, leaving a gash where it emerged, just below the hairline on the back of his neck.
According to officer testimony, Charles was still alive. Sgt. Don Hamilton was on patrol when he got the call that two people had been found in the field. He rushed to the scene. Charles was having a hard time breathing, and her neck wound was “bleeding rather profusely,” he testified the following spring; blood covered her face and matted her hair. Nonetheless, Hamilton said, she was able to speak. “I asked her … ‘What happened?'” testified Hamilton. “She replied, ‘He tried to rape me.'” Who did, he asked. “She stated, ‘Preston.'” She knew her assailant, Hamilton said Charles told him; as her voice grew weak, forcing him to bend down to hear her talk, she asked him to find her cousin. An ambulance finally took Charles to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
It took less than a day for police to find and arrest 22-year-old Preston Hughes III, secure two separate confessions from him, and find evidence in Hughes’ nearby apartment that police said matched the crime. Hughes was charged with capital murder, and seven months later was sentenced to death.
Although the deaths of Charles and Taylor and the subsequent conviction of Hughes might appear a simple tale of prey and predator, the truth is far more complicated, says John Allen, a California-based blogger better known in cyberspace as The Skeptical Juror. Allen is adamant not only that Hughes is innocent, but also that he was framed by members of the Houston police, who planted evidence in his apartment; by the police crime lab, whose scientists did scant testing of the evidence; and by a deputy medical examiner who bent over backward during Hughes’ trial to bolster the state’s theory of the crime. Allen has written more than 60 stories about the case, and he charges that Hughes has never had defense counsel do enough on his behalf. “It shouldn’t be this way,” says Allen.
If Houston police did indeed corrupt the process, it may be quite difficult to determine whether Hughes is guilty or innocent. According to the New York-based Innocence Project, government misconduct is a leading cause of wrongful convictions. Equally problematic is when otherwise well-meaning police attempt, in effect, to “frame the guilty” – or those they believe to be guilty – thereby tainting legitimate evidence of guilt. In those circumstances, how can the system determine who should be punished – or in capital cases, deserve to die?
Hughes is scheduled to be executed Nov. 15.
Allen is determined to expose the corruption in Hughes’ case, and to demonstrate his innocence, of which Allen says he is certain. “It’s going to get done.”
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