On September 20, 2000, 20-year-old Jahmal Furet was fatally shot once in the back in Racine, Wisconsin. An autopsy showed he was struck by a .357 caliber bullet.
Police traced a blood trail from Furet’s body to an intersection of 12th and Shiller Streets where they found several 9-mm bullet casings. No witnesses to the shooting could be found.
On January 4, 2001, two brothers, Gerald and Oliver Johnson, reported to police that two men attacked them and severely beat Oliver, causing brain injuries. Gerald said Oliver was dragged from the vehicle and beaten. He said that when he tried to get out of the vehicle to help his brother, one of the attackers shot at him. Gerald identified one of the attackers as 19-year-old Xavier Rockette.
On January 20, 2001, a police officer attempted to arrest Rockette. The officer grabbed Rockette but he slipped out of his jacket and fled, leaving a handgun in the jacket pocket. In the early morning hours of January 21, 2001, officers stopped a vehicle containing Rockette and arrested him. Another handgun, which bore Rockette’s fingerprints, was recovered from the vehicle.
Rockette was charged with a host of crimes, including reckless endangerment, aggravated battery, resisting arrest, fleeing a police officer and illegal possession of a firearm.
In August 2001, Lonnie Grandberry was arrested in Racine and charged with possession of narcotics. Grandberry was on parole at the time for prior narcotics convictions, and ultimately was found to have violated his parole because of the arrest. While being held in the Racine County Jail, Grandberry—according to evidence that was uncovered more than a decade later—hatched a plot to try to get an early release by framing Rockette for the murder of Furet.
Grandberry wrote to detectives from his cell saying that he was present when Rockette and another man—Lucas Gilliam—attacked Oliver Johnson. Grandberry also claimed that Rockette had admitted to shooting Furet. As a result, the murder case, which had gone cold, became an active investigation again.
During interviews with detectives and in a letter to the Racine County District Attorney’s Office, Grandberry amplified his original statement. He now claimed that he actually saw Rockette shoot Furet from a black Chevy Blazer owned by Kenneth Sutton. Grandberry said that Lucas Gilliam was with Rockette when Furet was killed.
In July 2002, Racine County prosecutors charged Rockette and Lucas Gilliam with first-degree murder and possession of a firearm by a felon. Gilliam was also charged with participating in the beating of Oliver Johnson with Rockette.
In April 2003, Rockette pled guilty to reckless endangerment in the beating of Oliver Johnson. But, almost immediately, he obtained a new lawyer and filed a motion to withdraw the guilty plea. That was motion was pending in October 2003, when Rockette went on trial on the murder charge in Racine County Circuit Court. Gilliam’s case had been severed and he was awaiting trial.
By the time Grandberry was called to testify at the trial, he had pled guilty to the narcotics charge and had been sentenced to five years in prison—a sentence he believed was too harsh based on his cooperation in the Furet murder investigation. On the witness stand, Grandberry claimed he did not remember the homicide and did not remember testifying at a preliminary hearing.
Over the objection of Rockette’s attorney, the prosecution was allowed to present Grandberry’s preliminary hearing testimony—all of which Grandberry said he didn’t recall. That testimony revealed that Grandberry had claimed that Rockette admitted the shooting to him, that he later amended his account to say that he saw Rockette shoot Furet and that he didn’t come forward for nearly two years because Rockette threatened to kill him if he told police that he saw the murder.
Under cross-examination at trial, Grandberry said he was having problems with hallucinations. Grandberry testified that he didn’t know if the reason he had memory problems was because he wasn’t at the murder scene at all. He also said he didn’t remember if he had asked for leniency in his own criminal case in return for providing information on the Furet murder. He admitted receiving a letter from the prosecutor in April 2003—several months prior to the trial—in which the prosecutor accused him of “attempting to extort a sentence modification.”
Grandberry also admitted sending a letter to Rockette which stated in part: “I feel real bad cause I didn’t want to do that to you. I don’t know why I did that, but whatever you do, do it all the way. Don’t take no deal because the case is weak…Tell your lawyer to call me or to see me. I’m going to make sure that you come home to your family.”
Grandberry also testified that he sent a letter to Rockette’s lawyer saying, “I would like to help you win the case because they play me. You know, I should be free by now.”
Rockette’s lawyer established through questioning that Grandberry had given information to Racine police detectives in another unrelated case, but the information turned out to be false. When Rockette’s lawyer sought to expose yet another case where Grandberry allegedly provided false information to Racine detectives, the prosecution objected and that questioning was barred by the judge.
Another witness, Elliot Campbell, testified that while he and Rockette were together in the Racine County Jail, Rockette admitted his involvement in the murder.
Kenneth Sutton, an acquaintance of Grandberry, testified that he had lent his black Chevy Blazer to Ryan Lockridge on the night of the murder in exchange for drugs. Sutton claimed he saw Rockette riding in the vehicle later that night. Sutton’s brother, Gary, testified that Rockette robbed him that evening with a gun that looked similar to the Glock recovered from Pruitt’s home.
On October 13, 2003, a jury convicted Rockette of murder and illegal possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to life in prison. The state subsequently dismissed the murder case and the reckless endangerment cases against Gilliam for lack of evidence. In February 2004, Rockette’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea to reckless endangerment in the attack on the Johnsons was denied and he was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
After Rockette lost his appeal of the murder conviction, he began to learn information from other inmates that he met in prison—prisoners who had been incarcerated with Grandberry and Campbell.
Attorney Robert Henak, who was representing Rockette, began re-investigating the case and identified a witness who told him that on the night of the murder, she had a telephone conversation with Robert Nellom. Nellom told her he was going to rob someone at 12th and Shiller Streets. According to Parker, Nellom came to her house later with Ryan Lockridge (the man who borrowed the Chevy Blazer from Sutton) and a third man, James Barker. They had a gun.
Henak interviewed Kenneth Johnson, a cousin of Grandberry. Johnson said that on two occasions, once in 2007 and once in 2008, Grandberry admitted concocting the story to implicate Rockette. Johnson said Grandberry told him he cut a deal with prosecutors so he could get out of prison and be with his family. Johnson told Henak that Grandberry said he lied because “everybody else was doing it.”
Another witness, Antonio Shannon, told Henak that while he was in prison in 2001, prior to Rockette’s trial, he overheard Grandberry and Campbell talking about the murder that took place near 12th Street in Racine. Shannon said Grandberry provided a wealth of details about the crime to Campbell, and that Grandberry told Campbell he had spoken to Racine detectives and this was going to be his ticket home.
Henak also spoke to Maurice Bizzle, who said that in 2002 he was arrested and taken to the Racine County Jail. While there, he met Campbell. Bizzle said that Campbell told him that although he had no personal information about Furet’s murder, he intended to implicate Rockette based on information that Grandberry had given him.
In October 2012, Henak filed a post-conviction motion seeking to vacate Rockette’s convictions based on the newly discovered evidence. In June 2013, after conducting its own investigation, the Racine County District Attorney’s Office agreed to vacate the convictions and dismissed the case because their witnesses were no longer credible. Rockette remained in prison to finish serving the last several months of a separate sentence for his reckless endangerment conviction.
– Maurice Possley