Actual Innocence: Johnny Frank Garrett and Bubbles the Clairvoyant
From my Skeptical Juror blog post of 16 April 2010
The fine folks of Amarillo wanted justice, and wanted it toot-sweet. The Amarillo police were having trouble finding the low-life individual who raped and killed 76-year-old Sister Tadea Benz on Halloween night, 1981. The authorities had just released Fernando Flores, and that was embarrassing.
Flores had been arrested because witnesses saw a "Cuban" or a dark-skinned person outside the convent on the night of the murder. Flores fit the bill. He was Cuban, had dark skin, and black curly hair. More significantly, he had come to the U.S. during the Mariel boatlift. Among the refugees of that mass exodus were criminals and mental patients. They had been distributed by the U.S. government to cities throughout the U.S., and crime followed in their wake.
A witness identified Flores from a photo line-up as the individual seen near the convent on night of the murder. FBI testing of the crime scene evidence, however, did not lead to any matches with Flores. Flores was therefore released and the DA publicly apologized for his pre-mature "optimism" in "solving" the case.
Then the Amarillo law enforcement community got a big break, the kind that only comes from hard work. A local clairvoyant, referred to variously as Inez and "Bubbles", had a vision in which she saw the killer. Rather than contact the police, whom she claimed to have worked with previously, she called The Amarillo Daily News. The killer was a teenage male, five feet eleven inches tall, slender, olive complexion. He had dark hair and an "Abe Lincoln" face with large nose and ears. During the attack he wore an "Afro-type" wig and his face was half-black and half-white. He was somehow associated with the name "Clyde."
But wait, there was more. The killer lived in a small, white frame house with dirty hardwood floors. The house was located on the same street as the convent, Northeast 18th. The house faced the convent.
Bubbles and her fellow clairvoyant Allen (isn't that a kick in the head?) figured they should see if they could find the exact house. They cruised the neighborhood and, sure enough, came across a small, white frame house at 4000 NE 19th. Lo! and Behold! There in the yard was a dog house with the name "Clyde" written on it.
A couple of days later, the Amarillo PD arrested Johnny Frank Garrett for the rape and murder of Sister Tadea Benz. He lived at 4000 NE 19th. He had an Abe Lincoln face, a slender build, and brown hair. He was 17 years old. More significantly, his fingerprint had been found on a bent butter knife found near the body. Another of his fingerprints had been found on the nun's headboard.
According to the police version of events, after the release of Fernando Flores, a patrol officer recalled seeing Garrett beating some bushes with a stick on the night of the murder. When Garrett saw the officer, he ran into his house. That behavior was so suspicious, the police decided to check his prints against those found at the scene. Of the many unidentified prints at the crime scene, Garrett's prints matched two of them.
Pubic hairs found at the scene had the same characteristics as Garrett's. A steak knife found in the driveway to the convent matched steak knives found in Garrett's house. (Neither the steak knife or the bent butter knife had been used to stab the victim.) Garrett confessed, at least according to the police, without being recorded, after asking for an attorney, but then refused to sign the confession they had typed up, and denied making the confession.
A jailhouse snitch claimed Garrett told him that he had committed the murders. The state-contracted pathologist described the brutality inflicted upon the victim, and confirmed that semen had been found in a vaginal wash. There had been too little semen to test with the equipment he had available and, since no one asked him to keep it, he had disposed of the evidence.
Garrett testified in his own behalf. He claimed he sneaked into the convent mid-day several days earlier to steal necklaces. He used the butter knife to pry open a locked cabinet. He must have left his fingerprint on the headboard when he reached across the bed to grab a cross hanging on the wall. A nun made mince meat of Garrett's testimony when she testified that no one could have sneaked in at that time without being seen, that no cabinets were kept locked, that Sister Benz never kept a cross above her bed, and that no items were missing from the convent.
The DA further minced Garrett's testimony with questions such as:
"That is what is left of a 76-year-old virgin nun you killed and raped, isn't it?" [Holds up a large color photo.]
"Are they all lying? ... Why is everyone out to get you?"
"How did several of your pubic hairs get in Sister Tadea Benz room? ... Did they fall out, down your legs, over your shoes and socks, onto the floor?"
"Didn't it [the butter knife] get bent when you pushed it over her neck?" [Demonstrates.]
The answers were incidental because the questions weren't asked to inquire. They were asked to demean the witness and inflame the jury. Inflamed, the jury convicted the demeaned Garrett and sentenced him to death. In the midst of the years-long appeal process, the DA defended the verdict: "This is not a case beyond a reasonable doubt, but beyond any shadow of a doubt."
(And you knew there would be something more to this story.)
...... I scored Johnny Frank Garrett as having a 91% chance of being actually innocent of the crime, using my Actual Innocence ScoreCard system.
Garrett's case provides a good opportunity for discussing what I mean by the term "Actual Innocence." Quite simply, I mean the person being scored did not commit the crime or participate in the crime. I'm not arguing that Garrett should have been spared the needle because he was only 17 at the time, as some have argued. And I am not arguing that Garrett should have been spared because he had a low IQ, as others have argued. Nor would I be impressed by claims that the killing was an accident, or that the defendant was insane, though neither situation existed in this case. By Actual Innocence, I mean that the person being scored did not commit the crime or participate in the crime. Period.
I am not arguing that the person being scored is legally innocent. Legal innocence is for the juries and courts to decide. As matters stand, and as they will probably always stand, Johnny Frank Garrett was convicted by a jury of twelve peers, and multiple appellate rulings have found the trial to have been fair and proper. Johnny Frank Garrett is legally guilty, and he is certainly dead.
On the other hand, when I am attempting to score actual innocence, I am not bound only to that evidence heard by the jury, nor am I limited by the legal machinations of appellate justices loath to reverse a conviction. When scoring actual innocence, all available evidence relative to the case is open for consideration. I have no concern whether the evidence was discovered more than thirty days after the conviction (as is the absurd law in Texas), or should have been brought up during the trial (by an under paid and under qualified, court appointed attorney), or was ruled to be inadmissible by the court. I don't care. I want all the evidence, as much as I can get, and I'll decide how to weigh it as I fill out the scorecard.
I included evidence in my Actual Innocence ScoreCard then available to me but kept from the jury.
Numerous foreign prints not belonging to Garrett were found at the scene
Numerous foreign curly, black hairs not belonging to Garrett were found at the scene
A foreign, bloody V-neck T-shirt not belonging to Garrett was found at the scene
A foreign, athletic sock not belonging to Garrett was found at the scene
Shoe prints found outside the convent did not match Garrett's
Blood on an exit door was not tested by by the police
A 14-year-old boy testified, outside the presence of the jury, that he had gone with Garrett into the convent 2 days before the murder to steal necklaces, just as Garrett claimed.
The murder of Sister Tadea Benz was just the most recent in a long string of vicious assaults on elderly women living in the northeast section of Amarillo. As many as 10 elderly women had been beaten and raped since the arrival of those from the Mariel boat-lift. It was possible that someone among that group had brought evil to the plains of Texas.
Among that group was Fernando Flores, the person initially arrested for the rape and murder of Sister Benz. Also among that group was Leoncio Perez Rueda, Flores' friend and occasional room mate. Just two weeks before the murder, Rueda had been arrested after being caught peeping in the window of an elderly woman in the same neighborhood as the convent. He was charged with trespassing, and released without being seriously investigated.
The most recent attack on an elderly woman from northeast Amarillo had occurred four months earlier. In July, Narnie Box Bryson, 77, had been beaten, raped, mutilated, and strangled to death, in her home, within walking distance of other similar and recent crime scenes. Remember the name: Narnie Box Bryson.
The DA and the investigators had initially taken the position that the two crimes were "too similar" not to have been committed by the "same man."
Witnesses reported a Hispanic male in the vicinity of each murder near the time of the each murder.
Both victims were associated with religious groups assisting Cuban refugees.
Both victims were elderly women, attacked in the early morning hours, raped, strangled with a rope or cord, and mutilated in similar fashion.
The murders occurred within blocks of each other, in the same part of town as 10 other rape victims.
Curly black hairs were found at the scene of each murder.
These parallels prompted the DA to tell the Amarillo Daily News: "I have a strong feeling that there is one person involved in the deaths of the Bryson woman and the nun." However, the authorities made no effort to tie Garrett to the murder of Narnie Bryson, though semen found at that scene should have prompted comparative testing. Garrett's court-appointed defense attorney made no effort to use the similarities of the two crimes as exculpatory evidence for Garrett.
Johnny Frank Garrett was executed on February 11, 1992. He used his last words to proclaim his innocence, thank those who had tried to help him, and told everyone else they could kiss his ass.
Twelve years after Garrett's three injections, in March 2004, the Amarillo police department was informed by the Texas Department of Public safety that a random DNA match was made between semen samples collected from the body of Narnie Box Bryson, the woman killed four months before Sister Benz, and Leoncio Perez Rueda, the man caught peeping in the window of an elderly woman just two weeks prior to Sister Benz' murder. At the time of the murder, Rueda had been receiving assistance from Catholic Family Services and living with a Catholic family.
Five months after he was arrested, Rueda gave a jailhouse interview to Jesse Quackenbush, an attorney hired to by the Garrett family to clear Garrett's name. In that interview, Rueda admitted to sexually assaulting Narni Box Bryson and [insert dramatic drum roll here] a nun. He claimed, however, he was forced to rape the women by none other than [another drum roll here] Fernando Flores, his long time friend (some friend) and occasional room mate.
Rueda also admitted that she (I believe he meant Sister Benz) had previously given him a white, V-neck T-shirt, possibly the very T-shirt found near her body.
In January of 2005, Rueda pled guilty to the murder of Narnie Box Bryson. In return for his plea, he received a 45 year sentence, with the possibility of parole.
So there you have it. Johnny Frank Garrett was probably innocent but certainly executed.
And that brings us back to Bubbles the clairvoyant. How is that she failed to "see" Leoncio Perez Rueda as person who killed Narnie Box Bryson, as the person who was caught peeping in the window of an elderly woman, and as the person who, by his own omission, raped Sister Tadea Benz? How is it that Bubbles instead "saw" so many specific details about Johnny Frank Garrett?
I suspect, of course, that Bubbles is no more clairvoyant that I am, no more clairvoyant than the last pimple on my pasty white butt. I invite her to prove me wrong by competing for James Randi's $1,000,000 prize for the first properly-controlled demonstration of psychic power.
I suspect (but cannot prove) that Bubbles instead obtained her insight about Johnny Frank Garrett from the Amarillo law enforcement community, and by that I include the district attorney's office. I suspect (but cannot prove) that Texas realized they had a weak case against Garrett and decided to contaminate the jury pool. Anticipating the possibility of a mildly competent defense attorney (they need not have worried), the State fed Bubbles the absurd story about Garrett wearing an Afro wig and having his face painted half-white and half-black. That would help them rebut any defense argument that black curly hairs were found at the scene, or that witnesses saw a dark-skinned individual near the convent on the night of the murder. (Again, they need not have worried.)
I suspect (but cannot prove) that Texas also compared Garrett's blood type against that of the semen donor from the Narnie Bryson rape, discovered they didn't match, and never spoke of it again.
I suspect (but cannot prove) that Texas did not pursue the death penalty in the case of Leoncio Perez Rueda, even though they had a DNA match between Rueda and the semen taken from Narnie Bryson, because they feared re-opening the Sister Benz case.
And I suspect, in fact I'm unfortunately confident, that such misconduct is all too common.