At 9 p.m. on October 14, 2008, 28-year-old Alberto Rodriguez drove up to the Pine Street Market in Springfield, Massachusetts. A day earlier, he had been involved in an altercation with the market owner, Angel Hernandez, and had been banned from the store. When Rodriguez pulled up, a group of people began yelling at him. Suddently, a man darted to Rodriguez’s car and shot him.
Rodriguez drove off, but crashed the car shortly afterwards. He was killed by a gunshot fired from behind–the bullet passed through the car seat before it struck him.
Patryce Archie, who was in the store making a purchase, at first said she had not seen anything, but in November 2008, she told police that Hernandez, 42, pulled out a handgun and left the store.
Archie said she had seen someone outside the store on her way in. She was shown a number of photographs, but did not identify anyone. When she said she had glimpsed two men standing by a fence near the store and that they were wearing hoodies, police prepared a photographic lineup, covering the faces of each person except for the nose and lips. Archie selected the nose and lips of 25-year-old Charles Wilhite. When police showed her his entire face, she said that he could have been the man she saw in the hood, but that she had never seen Wilhite before and that she had not seen the gunman.
Several months later, another woman, Giselle Albelo, also selected a photograph of Wilhite, but said he was the gunman. Archie and Albelo testified before a grand jury, which indicted Wilhite and Hernandez for murder.
They went on trial in Hampden County Circuit Court in November 2010.
Archie testified, identifying Wilhite as the man she selected in the photographic lineup. She testified she did not see the gunman and had never seen Wilhite before she was shown his photograph by police. She testified that she saw Hernandez leave the store with a gun.
Albelo recanted her grand jury testimony and said she hadn’t been in the store at all. She was impeached with her grand jury testimony, during which she had identified Wilhite as the gunman and said Hernandez gave him the gun. On the witness stand, she claimed she had identified Wilhite and Hernandez because she had been “threatened by a girl.” She said that under pressure from police she selected Wilhite’s picture at random.
Also testifying was Nathan Perez, who had implicated Wilhite and Hernandez 18 months after the murder. Testifying under a grant of immunity, Perez said he was in the store to make a purchase and was standing behind Albelo and Archie when he saw a car pull up and heard shouting. He said Hernandez pulled out a semi-automatic pistol, chambered a bullet and walked to the door of the store, where he gave the gun to Wilhite. Perez said Wilhite fired three shots and the car drove off.
On December 6, 2010, a jury convicted Hernandez and Wilhite and each was sentenced to life in prison.
In August 2011, Perez gave a sworn statement recanting his identification of Wilhite. The motion became the centerpiece of a motion for a new trial.
During an evidentiary hearing, Perez testified that he was in jail on a probation violation and other pending charges in March 2010 when detectives visited him and showed him photographic line ups. He said he picked photographs of two people he saw in the market on the day of the shooting, but did not pick Wilhite.
Perez said that he had picked up shell casings after the shooting. At some point during the conversation, one of the detectives took away all the photographs except Wilhite and pointed at it and said, “You know him.” When Perez said he did not know Wilhite, the detective threatened to charge him with an accessory after the fact. Perez said he insisted he did not know Wilhite and the detective left.
The detective returned a month later and showed him the same photographs. Perez said he didn’t see anything. The detective accused him of lying and again threatened to charge him as an accessory, saying he would get a life sentence. Perez said the detective assured him that his pending charges could be dropped if he identified Wilhite, so he initialed the photograph of Wilhite and the detective wrote the word “shooter” on the photo. Perez also said that the prosecutor threatened him with perjury if he attempted to recant his statement.
The detective denied threatening Perez to identify Wilhite and said that Perez wrote “shooter” on the photo. The prosecutor denied threatening Perez with perjury.
On May 14, 2012, a judge granted the motion for new trial, finding that Perez’s recantation of his identification of Wilhite was credible. The judge noted that Perez did not recant his identification of Hernandez as the man who handed the shooter the gun. The judge rejected Perez’s claim that the prosecutor had threatened him.
Wilhite went on trial again in January 2013. Perez testified that he had not in fact seen Wilhite at the scene of the crime and had only identified Wilhite’s photo later because he wanted to get out of jail. A jury acquitted Wilhite on January 17, 2013 and he was released. Wilhite filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Springfield and police in January 2014.
– Maurice Possley