Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Dale Beckett

Other Ohio Cases with Perjury or False Accusations
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Dale_Beckett.jpg
On February 17, 1996, 36-year-old Ronald Cunningham, a drug dealer who owed debts to numerous people, was fatally shot on the street in Toledo, Ohio. Cunningham was shot once in the spine not far from the street corner where he bought and sold cocaine.

Police determined that another drug dealer had accused Cunningham of stealing drugs from him. In addition, Cunningham was known to sell phony crack cocaine that was actually soap.

Detectives arrested one drug dealer as a suspect. The suspect was released after a sex worker who was near the scene and said she saw a man walk through a nearby field after the shooting. She said the arrested suspect was not the man she saw. The suspect was then released and the crime went unsolved until September 1996 when 33-year-old Dale Beckett, an acquaintance of Cunningham, was charged with murder with a firearm. At the time, Beckett was in prison because he had violated parole by carrying a handgun and he was implicated in the murder by another prison inmate who had told police that Beckett admitted he killed Cunningham.

Beckett went to trial in Lucas County Court of Common Pleas on February 10, 1997. The prosecution’s key witness was Matthew Williams, who testified that he heard a drug dealer named Phil Spivey offered to pay Beckett in cocaine if he killed Cunningham.

He said Beckett told Spivey, “Don’t worry. That nigger dead.”

Williams testified that four days after the shooting, Beckett called him to buy crack and said, “Ain’t nobody got to worry about that one thing no more...That nigger, Phil…he dead.” Williams then corrected his testimony to say that he did not mean Spivey was dead.

A few days after the phone conversation, Williams was sent to prison on a parole violation. Some weeks later, Beckett arrived at the same prison on his parole violation. Williams said that although they were on separate units, he bribed a guard to be allowed to get into Beckett’s unit and during conversations there, Beckett admitted killing Cunningham.

Williams testified that he then contacted Toledo police and reported Beckett’s statements because he believed that at some point prior to his incarceration, Beckett planned to rob him of drugs. Based on Williams’ statements, Beckett was charged with the murder.

Williams denied that he had received favorable treatment from the police or prosecution for his testimony.

The sex worker, Norma Eaton, identified Beckett as the man she saw coming across a field after hearing a gunshot. Her testimony at a preliminary hearing contradicted her trial testimony. At the preliminary hearing, she said she heard several gunshots and that the man she saw had a mustache and possibly a beard. At trial, she said she heard one gunshot, the man had no facial hair and she admitted she saw him for only a brief moment in the pre-dawn darkness.

The lead detective, Steve Forrester, testified that he had not made any promises to Williams in exchange for his testimony.

On February 13, 1997, the jury convicted Beckett of murder with a handgun. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

In September 1997, Williams signed an affidavit recanting his testimony and sent it to Beckett’s defense lawyer. He said that Detective Forrester threatened to implicate him in the murder if he did not testify that Beckett committed the crime. Williams also said that the prosecutor, J. Christopher Anderson, had promised to get him paroled in return for his testimony.

Williams also wrote to Lucas County Prosecuting Attorney Julia Bates complaining that Anderson had broken their agreement and that he would recant unless the prosecution agreed to recommend his release to the Ohio Parole Board.

Based on the affidavit and letter to the prosecutor, Beckett’s lawyer, Alison “Tex” Clark filed a motion for a new trial claiming that Williams had falsely testified as did the detective when he denied any deal with Williams. The motion also accused the prosecution of knowingly allowing Williams and the detective to lie in court.

At an evidentiary hearing in May 1998, Beckett testified that he and Cunningham had been friends for a few years and that he had known Williams for more than 30 years. Beckett testified that Williams concocted the testimony because he wanted to get out of prison and because Williams owed Beckett $7,500. Beckett said he lent Williams the money and expected to be repaid when Williams settled a civil lawsuit that was pending.

Beckett denied he and Williams were ever in the same cell. Williams was called to testify, but he asserted his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. Beckett’s ex-girlfriend, who had not been called as a witness at the trial, testified that Beckett was at home at the time of the crime because he had wrecked his car on February 14, 1996—three days before Cunningham was shot.

Detective Forrester denied threatening to charge Williams with the murder, but he admitted that he assured Williams that in exchange for his testimony, the prosecutor’s office, the police department and the local parole office would send a joint letter to the Ohio Parole Board in support of his release. Forrester testified that the letter was sent, but Williams was denied parole anyway.

The trial prosecutor, J. Christopher Anderson, testified that Williams was not promised release for his cooperation, but he acknowledged that there was an agreement to contact the parole board on Williams’ behalf.

The motion for new trial was denied. The trial judge said that Williams’ recantation was not credible, and that even if there was an agreement to support Williams’ bid for parole, it was a “marginal” benefit that was not significant enough to influence Williams’ testimony or serious enough to be a violation of the prosecution’s duty to disclose such benefits to the defense. The trial judge did not address the allegation that the prosecution had allowed Williams and the detective to lie about whether Williams was promised favorable treatment.

The ruling was upheld by the Ohio Court of Appeals and the Ohio Supreme Court refused to hear a further appeal.

In 2001, Beckett filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus and in 2002, U.S. District Court Judge John Potter granted the writ and ordered a new trial for Beckett. The judge ruled that the prosecution had engaged in misconduct by failing to disclose the agreement with Williams and by allowing Williams and the detective to falsely testify that there was no agreement.

In September 2003, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld Judge Potter’s decision. On November 19, 2003, the prosecution dismissed the charges and Beckett was released.

Beckett later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Lucas County and the Toledo Police Department. The lawsuit was dismissed. Beckett died in 2013.

– Maurice Possley

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 2/17/2015
State:Ohio
County:Lucas
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1996
Convicted:1997
Exonerated:2003
Sentence:15 years to Life
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:33
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No