Shortly after 1 p.m., on September 10, 1998, Daniel Phillips and Joseph Bailey stopped at Adams Drive-in store in Waco, Texas, to deliver beer. They noticed a black man loitering nearby, apparently pretending to use a coin-operated telephone. When Phillips was alone in the parking lot, the man approached from behind and robbed him at gunpoint of $2,750.
Bryan Bibles pulled up in his car and saw the robber fleeing on foot. He told police he recognized the man as someone he went to high school with named “Nate.” He said he had given him a ride home a month and a half earlier.
Police assembled a photographic lineup that included a photograph of 35-year-old Nathaniel Ward, who had a previous conviction for possession of narcotics and went to the same high school as Bibles.
Police showed the lineup to Phillips, Bailey and Pamela Jones, who worked at the store and said that she had seen a man in the parking lot when she arrived for work at about the same time the beer delivery men arrived. All three selected Ward as the robber and he was arrested and charged with aggravated robbery. No money or weapon was recovered.
Eleven days after the robbery, Bibles read a newspaper account of Ward’s arrest. He called police to report that he knew Nathaniel Ward, but that the man he saw was named “Nate Lewis.” Both were high school classmates, Bibles said.
Ward went on trial before a jury in McLennan County Criminal District Court. Phillips, Bailey and Jones identified him in court as the robber. Phillips and Bailey said they particularly remembered what appeared to be a scar or mole on Ward’s left temple, although neither man had mentioned that detail in their initial description to police.
Jones, who took medication for mental problems, never mentioned that detail. She added that she saw the robber as she was arriving for work and he waved to her.
A police officer testified that after Bibles called him to say that Ward was not the robber, he put together a photographic lineup with Nate Lewis, but not Ward. The officer said he showed it to Phillips and Jones and neither identified anyone in the lineup.
Bibles was called by the defense and said Ward was not the man he saw on the day of the robbery.
Four of Ward’s co-workers testified that Ward was at job at a factory on the day of the crime. His supervisor testified to Ward’s time card which showed he worked from 6:51 a.m. to 3:16 p.m. and took lunch from noon to just before 1 p.m. The supervisor said that the parking lot for employee cars was about two to three hundred yards from the building. He said that some workers occasionally tried to sneak out from work, but were usually spotted.
A co-worker said she spoke to Ward in the employee lunchroom about 1 p.m. and discussed an upcoming revival which Ward said he wanted to attend. A quality assurance employee testified she checked Ward’s work station at 1:30 p.m. and she recorded the time and that he was present.
Another co-worker said that between 1 p.m. and 2:45 p.m., he repaired the machine next to the one Ward was operating and that Ward assisted him during the entire time.
In rebuttal, a police officer testified that at the scene of the crime, Bibles identified the robber as Nate Ward, not Nate Lewis.
The prosecution argued that after lunch, Ward had spoken to the quality assurance inspector and then, when the machine next to him broke down, took the opportunity to sneak out, get to his car, drive to the store (a five-minute trip), park behind the store, change from his work shirt to a sports coat and no shirt, don a shower cap and baseball cap, loiter in the parking lot until he robbed the beer delivery driver and drive back by 2:10 p.m. The prosecution contended the machine repairman who said Ward helped him fix the broken machine was lying.
Ward was convicted by the jury on July 23, 1999.
A motion for a new trial was filed and the defense presented a new witness who had not testified at the trial. Beverly Adolphus, who was working inside the store when the robbery occurred, testified that right after the robbery, a woman in the store said that “Nate” was the gunman.
Adolphus said that someone else then came into the store and said, “That must have been Nathaniel Ward.” Adolphus said she knew Ward from school and that several months earlier Ward had come to the store once or twice. She said she knew where Ward lived and that she gave her boss the location of Ward’s home.
Adolphus also testified that Lewis—who was never questioned by police—was a “frequent visitor” to the store. She said he “hangs out, and bums for money and stuff there.” She said he “wears something on his head all the time.”
The motion for new trial was denied.
At the sentencing hearing, the jury learned that Ward, who did not testify, had been married for 10 years, had three children—one about to begin college—and that his wife was a mental health counselor for the state of Texas. He had been convicted in 1986 on felony cocaine and marijuana possession charges and served two years in prison. Since his release, he had been employed full-time. Ward was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
On May 23, 2001, the Tenth Court of Appeals of Texas reversed the conviction, ruling that the “proof of guilt is so greatly outweighed by contrary evidence as to be clearly wrong and unjust.”
On October 30, 2001, the McLennan County District Attorney dismissed the charges.
Ward filed a state compensation claim for wrongful imprisonment and in September 2004 was awarded $58,333 by the state of Texas.
– Maurice Possley