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Rodricus Crawford

Other Death Penalty Exonerations
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On the morning of February 16, 2012, 22-year-old Rodricus Crawford awoke to find his one-year-old son, Roderius, not breathing. The boy, who had been suffering from what appeared to be a cold, had been sleeping with Crawford without incident during the prior two nights in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Family members attempted CPR, but the boy did not respond and paramedics determined he was dead. They concluded almost immediately that the boy was the victim of a homicide based on a split lip and what appeared to a bruise on his buttocks and the side of his head.

Crawford was taken in for questioning by police and repeatedly denied harming the child. He was nevertheless charged with first-degree murder after a pathologist conducted an autopsy and concluded the boy was smothered to death.

On November 9, 2013, Crawford went to trial in Caddo Parish District Court. The prosecution sought the death penalty. After a jury was selected, the defense filed a motion claiming that the prosecution had engaged in discriminatory jury selection, having used five of its seven discretionary challenges to excuse black prospective jurors. The trial judge denied that motion and the testimonial phase of the trial began.

Several family members testified for the prosecution that Crawford had been a loving, caring father to Roderius from the day the boy was born and that Crawford was there to cradle him immediately after birth.

The boy lived with his mother, Lakendra Lott, who lived with her family about five blocks from where Crawford lived with his family. Family members testified that Roderius was a sweet and happy baby, although he often had a runny nose and cold symptoms. One family member testified that the boy also had a wheeze. When he was eight months old, Roderius had been treated at a hospital for an upper respiratory infection. Although the acute symptoms subsided, he frequently had cold symptoms.

Detectives testified that Crawford told them that he was preparing to give the boy a bath two nights before he died, and the boy had fallen in the bathroom when Crawford left him alone briefly to get a towel. The boy had split his lip and banged the side of his head, but seemed fine, Crawford said.

Lott, the boy’s mother, testified that she saw a bruise on the right side of Roderius’s head on the morning of February 15—the day before he died—when she brought clothes for the boy and a suction device to clean the mucus from his nose. Lott said that Crawford told her the boy had fallen in the bathroom the night before.

Paramedics testified that when they came to the house in response to the 911 call, Crawford said the boy had fallen off the sofa-bed—a statement that Crawford denied he ever made. The prosecution also presented evidence that Crawford was unemployed, frequently smoked marijuana and had been convicted in the past of marijuana offenses to suggest he was not a responsible parent.

Dr. James Traylor, Jr., a pathologist from the University Health Center at Louisiana State University, performed an autopsy and discovered hemorrhaging on the boy’s buttocks, which he said resulted from blunt force trauma. He also observed 12 separate contusions to the child's body, including seven on his forehead. Traylor said the child’s death was a homicide due to smothering. After examining slides of the child’s lung tissue, Traylor discovered that Roderius was suffering from bilateral early bronchopneumonia, which was present in all five lobes of his lungs. The bronchopneumonia, in Dr. Traylor's opinion, was insufficient to have caused the boy’s death.

The Caddo Parish Coroner, Dr. Todd Thoma, testified that he found bruising on the boy’s lips that were caused by being pushed against his teeth and were “classic” signs that Roderius was smothered. Thoma said his opinion as to the cause of death was strengthened by other areas of bruising, suggestive of “multiple episodes of abuse,” although he conceded they had nothing to do with the suffocation. Thoma also said the boy’s bronchopneumonia “was not significant enough to have killed the child” and had nothing to do with his death.

The defense called Dr. Daniel Joseph Spitz, a forensic pathologist and chief medical examiner for two counties in Michigan, as well as an assistant professor of pathology at Wayne State University, a clinical educator at Michigan State University, and a private consultant. Spitz testified that Roderius was “not a healthy child," and was coughing, wheezing, and had a runny nose.

Spitz told the jury Roderius "died as a result of ... bilateral bronchopneumonia" that caused the child to become septic and die "of those infectious complications."

Spitz also noted that a streptococcal infection was present in the blood, which indicated that Roderius “was, in fact, septic as a result of this infection." That condition "can cause significant cardiovascular consequences." Spitz said it was "implausible" to conclude that Roderius "just happened to be smothered in some untoward fashion."

On cross-examination, the prosecution challenged Spitz’s credibility and reliability, noting that he had botched an autopsy in which he said the cause of death was undetermined. A second autopsy commissioned by the family of the dead man found a bullet wound in the back of the man’s head, suggesting he had committed suicide.

Spitz admitted that he "never ruled out smothering,” but believed that the existence of the bilateral pneumonia was more likely the cause of death.

On November 12, 2013, the jury convicted Crawford of first-degree murder. The penalty phase then commenced and during closing argument, Caddo Parish prosecutor Dale Cox argued that Jesus Christ had commanded that death be the punishment in the case. He cited Jesus as saying, “To the adult, who would harm one of these, (referring to children) woe be unto you, who would harm one of these. Now, this is Jesus Christ of the New Testament. It would be better if though you were never born. You shall have a millstone cast around your neck and you will be thrown into the sea . . .the thing about Christ…He reached a just verdict which is what the law asks you to reach in this case: A just verdict...And that's why I think that we should not lightly disregard His words when He talks about what He would do to someone who hurt one of these...what He would do.”

The jury then retired to deliberate and the following day, November 13, 2013, it voted to impose the death penalty.

The defense moved for a new trial on the basis that Cox misquoted and misinterpreted biblical authority in the argument that Jesus would punish one who harms a child with the death penalty and thus violated Crawford’s right to a fair trial. The defense presented affidavits from three theologians who said that the passage that Cox referred to was not a mandate that those who harm children must be put to death, but instead a warning about not leading the vulnerable faithful into sin. The motion was denied.

In 2014, while the case was on appeal before the Louisiana Supreme Court, lawyers for Crawford filed another motion for a new trial and asked that the case be remanded back to the trial court. The motion cited newly-discovered evidence that medical science did not support the prosecution’s theory of the circumstances surrounding Roderius’s death. The defense presented affidavits from a pediatric neuropathologist, a pediatric neurologist, and an expert in pediatric infectious diseases, all of which said that Roderius was the victim of bronchopneumonia.

The experts said that the two primary bases for Traylor’s conclusion that the death had been a homicide were wrong. Traylor had testified that cerebral and cellular changes he observed were a side effect of suffocation. The defense experts said that the cerebral and cellular changes would have taken hours to develop, during which time the child had to have been alive. The changes were an indicator of a different condition occurring between hours and days before death.

Second, the experts contradicted Traylor’s testimony that there was “really no accurate way to date a bruise” when he testified about the injuries to the boy’s lips. In fact, the experts said there was a simple test that could have conclusively determined whether the bruises occurred at the time of death—as Traylor believed—or earlier during a fall in the bathroom as Crawford contended. On March 16, 2015, the request to remand the case to the trial court for a hearing was denied.

In November 2016, the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed Crawford’s conviction and ordered a new trial. The court held that the trial judge had failed to follow proper procedures after the defense accused the prosecution of engaging in discriminatory jury selection. As a result, the court said, the only remedy was a new trial.

On April 14, 2017, the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s Office issued a statement saying that the case would be dismissed.

“New evidence presented after the trial raised questions about the degree of pneumonia together with bacteria in the child’s blood indicative of sepsis are possibilities that require consideration. While the coroner and this office stand by the determination that a homicide occurred, the State has the burden of proving all elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. In this circumstantial evidence case, the State must also exclude every reasonable hypothesis of any other crime or innocence factors. Therein lies the problem.”

“While the State feels a reasonable prosecution could be pursued on a charge of criminal negligent homicide, that negligence could extend to other members of the family, [and] even if successful on that charge against Crawford, the amount of time he has spent in jail is close to the maximum sentence available if he was convicted,” the state said. “The death of a child is a tragedy under any circumstance for the victim, the family, and the community as a whole, but this office is charged with the task to consider all of the evidence in a case and to bring a charge when the evidence can support it. For these reasons, the State has elected not to retry Rodricus Crawford.”
 
The charges were formally dismissed on April 17, 2017.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/18/2017
State:Louisiana
County:Caddo
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2012
Convicted:2013
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:Death
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:22
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No