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Robert Hammons

Other Robbery Exonerations with Mistaken Witness Identification
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On July 23, 1984, a man entered the Lakewood Pharmacy in Slidell, Louisiana at about 4:30 p.m. and asked the pharmacist, Daniel Schmidt, about a prescription telephoned in by a dentist. When the pharmacist said he had not received such an order, the man said he would come back.

Shortly before the 7 p.m. closing time, the man returned. He pulled a handgun from his jacket, and ordered Schmidt to give him dilaudid, “speed,” and “downers,” as well as a syringe and a needle. The robber also ordered two employees and a customer to the rear of the pharmacy. He grabbed adhesive tape and ordered Schmidt to bind them.

Schmidt then handed over a quantity of controlled substances, including dilaudid. When Schmidt was unable to open the cash register, the robber took another roll of adhesive tape from the shelf, bound Schmidt, and left. Schmidt freed himself and called police.

Because the robber had specifically demanded dilaudid, the police asked Schmidt to review the prescriptions for that drug that had been filled that day. The only dilaudid prescription had been issued to 50-year-old Frank Hammons, who lived in Chickasaw, Alabama.

Because the description of the robber was of a younger man, Slidell police obtained a photograph of Hammons’s 31-year-old son, Robert, although the photo was nine years old. Police included it in a photographic lineup and Schmidt, the customer, and the two pharmacy employees identified Robert as the robber. On July 31, 1984, police arrested Robert and Frank Hammons on a charge of armed robbery.

In February 1986, they went to trial in St. Tammany Parish District Court. A physician testified that he examined Frank Hammons at about 3:00 p.m. on the day of the robbery and prescribed fifty tablets of dilaudid for pain from an injury he had sustained several years earlier.

An employee of a grocery store next to the pharmacy testified that he saw a white man wearing a light blue suit, white tennis shoes, and sunglasses, with “slicked back” dark hair, a mustache and a full beard, pacing outside the pharmacy after 3:00 p.m. Although a composite sketch drawn from his description showed a closely-cropped beard, the employee identified Robert Hammons—who had a full, bushy beard—as the person outside the drug store.

Schmidt testified that he filled the prescription between 3:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. He described the robber as wearing a light blue suit and dark glasses, and having long hair combed straight back and an “extremely neat” and trim beard. He identified Robert Hammons as the robber.

One of the pharmacy employees testified that Frank Hammons came in earlier in the afternoon with a prescription for dilaudid and that the robber came into the store about 6:00 p.m. to inquire about the closing time. She told the jury that the robber returned shortly before closing. She said the robber wore a light blue sport coat and had dark glasses, “blondish-brown” hair, a mustache, and a “well-groomed” beard.

The woman testified that she picked Robert Hammons out of the photographic lineup several days after the robbery. However, when she was shown the same photographic array while on the witness stand, she picked someone else. Nonetheless, she pointed to Robert in the courtroom and said he was the robber.

The other pharmacy employee testified that the robber came into the store several times before the robbery. She described the robber as wearing a light blue sport coat and having blond hair, a mustache, and a short, clean-cut blond beard. She said she identified Robert Hammons in the photographic array two days after the robbery, and she identified him in court as the robber as well.

The customer in the pharmacy described the robber as wearing dark glasses and having light brown hair. She did not believe he had a beard at all. She testified that she picked Robert Hammons out of the photographic array several days after the robbery, and she also positively identified him in court as the robber.

To rebut the descriptions and identifications of the robber that included blonde hair, no beard, a neat, close-cropped beard, the defense presented a photograph of Robert Hammons taken by police eight days after the robbery. The photograph, which an Alabama police officer testified was an accurate depiction of Robert Hammons on the day of the robbery, showed Hammons with a “full, dark, long and bushy beard.”

The defense noted that a fingerprint recovered from the adhesive tape casing handled by the robber did not match Robert Hammons.

Robert Hammons testified that on the day of the robbery, he and his father were in Slidell to inspect concrete pumps for their concrete pumping service. He said that after they completed their business, his father was in pain and needed medication that he had forgotten to bring with him. Hammons told the jury that at about 4 p.m., he and his father went to a medical center near the concrete company. A doctor examined Frank Hammons and prescribed dilaudid.

Robert testified that he and his father went to the pharmacy, where his father went inside while he used the telephone outside to call his mother to report that they were coming home. He testified that after his father obtained the prescription, they drove back to Chickasaw and arrived at Frank Hammons’s home between 6 and 6:30 p.m.

Robert testified that he then drove to his own home in Pritchard, Alabama, about 10 minutes away. Shortly thereafter, he said, he went to a tavern, where he remained until about 8:30 p.m. At that time, Hammons, who was on a list of tow truck drivers authorized to perform towing for the Pritchard police department, left after he received a request from police to tow a vehicle that had been involved in an accident. He said he went home, got his tow truck, and responded to the scene of the accident.

Five family relatives testified they were watching the 6 p.m. television news when Hammons and his father arrived.

Five witnesses from the tavern testified they saw Robert Hammons in the tavern between 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.

A Pritchard police officer testified that Robert Hammons arrived on the accident scene in his tow truck at 9:12 p.m. and towed away one of the vehicles.

Another police officer testified that the driving time from Slidell to Pritchard was two hours and 11 minutes at 55 miles per hour, and one hour and 47 minutes at 65 miles per hour.

On February 20, 1986, although the defense argued that the evidence showed Robert Hammons and his father were long gone from Slidell by the time of the 7 p.m. robbery, the jury convicted both men of armed robbery. The judge granted a defense motion to acquit Frank Hammons because of insufficient evidence. Robert Hammons was sentenced to 40 years in prison without the possibility of parole.

After the sentencing hearing, Hammons hired a new attorney, Robert Glass. Not long after, a bail bondsman reported that a person named Jimmy Scholes had information that Hammons and his father were innocent. A private investigator for Glass contacted Scholes. Scholes told him that Gary Stanford, while transacting a dilaudid sale with Scholes and Steve Brown several weeks after the robbery, said he had gotten the dilaudid by robbing a Slidell pharmacy with a man named Frank Burzik.

Scholes said that Stanford further said he had “nothing to worry about” because two innocent men from Alabama had been arrested for the robbery.

The investigator located Steve Brown, who was present at the same drug transaction. Brown agreed to record conversations with Stanford. In the first of several audiotaped conversations, Stanford described the robbery of the pharmacy as a “sweet, sweet score. We got a truckload of dilaudids…. But the best thing about the robbery was how easy it was for me and my partner because of the inside connection. This chick did a hell of a job in setting it up. But, what made it so good, the pigs busted a young dude and his old man for the robbery, and we don't have shit to worry about. Lakewood Pharmacy was a sweet score.”

In a later taped conversation Stanford, in describing the “rip off in Slidell,” said, “I felt like I should have done it myself. But Frank said he had the guts to do it, and I took the chance.... I knew he could handle it and he did good.”

Based partly on this recording, Glass filed a motion for new trial based on newly discovered evidence.

At a hearing on the motion, Glass presented photographic evidence showing that Burzik bore a striking resemblance to Robert Hammons, as well as the testimony of Brown about the recorded conversations and other unrecorded conversations.

Brown testified that Stanford admitted to participating in the robbery with Burzik. Brown testified that Burzik was a drug addict who “shot up drugs.” Brown also testified that when he first took the witness stand and looked at the defense table, he thought Burzik was sitting there, not Hammons.

The trial judge, Francis Watts, denied the motion for new trial. Judge Watts said Brown wasn’t a credible witness. “The tapes produced by Brown…are inconclusive proof that (Hammons) was erroneously convicted,” Judge Watts ruled. Based on the lengthy criminal record held by Brown…the Court doubts the credibility of his testimony. Rather, the Court is persuaded by the identifications of (Hammons) as the perpetrator of the robbery.”

Glass appealed and in 1988, the Louisiana Court of Appeal reversed that ruling and sent the case back to the trial court. The appeals court said that Judge Watts had relied upon the wrong legal standard to deny the motion for new trial.

The appeals court said that Judge Watts had improperly concluded that Hammons was guilty. “The trial judge is charged with the narrow duty of determining only whether or not there was new material for a new jury’s judgment,” the appeals court said. “It is not for the judge to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused; nor is the judge permitted to weigh the new evidence as though he were a jury, determining what is true and what is false.”

On remand, Judge Watts again denied the motion, concluding that the evidence would not be admissible at a new trial because of a lack of corroborating circumstances clearly indicating the trustworthiness of the statement. Judge Watts also said the new evidence was “suspicious” and “incredible.” The judge ruled that the new evidence was unfit for a new jury's judgment.

Glass appealed again and the Court of Appeal upheld the ruling. Glass was then granted permission to appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court. In April 1992, the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed Hammons’s conviction and ordered a new trial.

The court held that in fact the evidence was proper to submit to a jury. “In the midst of a deal to sell the dilaudid obtained in the robbery of the Lakewood Pharmacy, Stanford felt at liberty to discuss his participation in the robbery with an acquaintance such as Brown whom he felt would keep the information confidential, especially after someone else had been arrested for the crime,” the court said. “Stanford did not personally know (Hammons) or his father and had no motivation to make a false statement for their benefit. The fact that Stanford repeated his statements concerning his participation in the robbery on several occasions, and not on a single isolated incident, further indicate their trustworthiness.”

The court noted the eyewitness testimony that placed Hammons in Pritchard, Alabama at a time that made it impossible for him to have committed the robbery. Moreover, the court said, “Another significant factor bearing on the reliability of the original jury's verdict is the fact that the same jury also found (Hammons’s) father guilty of every essential element of the crime of armed robbery, when there was absolutely no evidence presented to the jury that (his) father had anything whatsoever to do with the perpetration of the robbery three or four hours after he was inside Lakewood Pharmacy.”

Later that summer, the prosecution dismissed the charge rather than seek a retrial. Hammons was released after serving more than six years in prison.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/14/2018
State:Louisiana
County:St. Tammany
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1984
Convicted:1986
Exonerated:1992
Sentence:40 years
Race:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:31
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No