On July 13, 1998, Cynthia Anderson was at her niece’s home in Orange County, Florida, along with her seven-year-old son and her niece’s two boys, ages one and three, when she heard a noise upstairs. When she went to investigate, she was confronted by a man who pushed her down the stairs.
When Anderson tried to gather the children to escape, another man, who was wearing a red hat and red shoes, and had apparently entered through the front door, blocked her way. Both men were armed with pistols and wore bandanas over their faces.
The man with the red hat and shoes ransacked the upstairs while the other man stood guard. When the man came downstairs, he struck Anderson several times in the head with his gun and then tied her hands with a telephone cord. Both men then left with valuables taken from the second floor.
Anderson managed to free herself and call police. She later identified a photograph of 44-year-old Willie Lee Slater as the man in the red hat and red shoes. She said she had met Slater previously and had seen him that morning outside a nearby store wearing the same distinctive hat and shoes.
Slater was arrested on July 31, 1998 and charged with burglary, assault, false imprisonment and battery. The other home invader was never caught. The property taken from the home was never recovered.
Slater went on trial in Orange County Circuit Court in May 1999. Prior to the trial, his attorney filed a notice of an alibi defense, saying that he intended to call the owner of an auto body shop where Slater worked to testify that he was at work at the time of the crime.
Anderson testified and identified Slater as one of the two home invaders and as the man who hit her in the head with the gun. Slater’s lawyer, who was not convinced that Slater was actually at work at the time of the crime, failed to call the owner of the body shop as a witness and Slater did not testify.
On May 6, 1999, a jury convicted Slater and he was sentenced to life in prison. Numerous appeals challenging his conviction were filed over the next several years, alleging he had received an inadequate legal defense as well as an unfair trial because Anderson—the only eyewitness—was allowed to be in the courtroom during the prosecution’s opening statement and for the duration of the trial. All the appeals were rejected.
In 2008, while imprisoned at the Franklin Correctional Institution, Slater was approached by another inmate who said that he had a confession to make. The inmate said he had heard about Slater’s conviction and life sentence and was remorseful because he was the man in the red hat and red shoes.
The inmate signed a sworn affidavit admitting his role in the crime and Slater filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The inmate was brought to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, where prosecutors interviewed him and concluded he was telling the truth.
In September 2009, a hearing was held during which the judge queried the inmate about the crime. The judge concluded the inmate was truthful and on September 14, 2009, vacated Slater’s conviction. The prosecution promptly dismissed the case and Slater was released.
– Maurice Possley