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Royal Clark, Jr.

Other Robberies with Mistaken Witness Identification
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Royal_Clark_Jr.jpeg
On the night of November 30, 2001, a man purchased a Whopper value meal at the Burger King restaurant in Terrytown, Louisiana. After finishing his meal, he left his drink cup on the table and emptied his tray into the trash bin.

At about 11 p.m., when the store manager, 34-year-old Claudia Pierce, walked toward the front door to lock it in preparation for closing, the man drew a black semi-automatic pistol and ordered her to open the safe in the back room. Six other employees were ordered to get on the floor. The robber took the money from the safe and also from the cash register before fleeing the store with $3,173.

Pierce and the other employees generally described the robber as in his twenties, about 5 feet 7 or 8 inches tall, and with a heavy build.

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office lifted four latent fingerprints from the cup the robber left behind. However, a detective reported that the prints were "unusable for identification purposes."

On January 22, 2002, Detective Jeff Rodrigue received an anonymous telephone call from a woman who said that a recent spate of armed robberies in the area were committed by a man she knew as “Chew”, who was about 5 feet 8 inches tall and had a husky build, and another man she knew as “Alton,” who was 6 feet 4 inches tall with a skinny build, and who lived on Taffy Street in Marrero, Louisiana.

Rodrigue conducted a name check and determined that 24-year-old Royal Clark Jr. had a nickname of “Chu,” was 5 feet 7 inches tall, and weighed 170 pounds. In December 2001, Clark had been stopped for a traffic violation with a passenger named Alton Butler, who was listed as 6 feet 4 inches tall, 180 pounds, and lived at 2537 Taffy Drive in Marrero.

Detective Rodrigue then created a six-person photographic lineup that included a photograph of Royal. On January 24, 2002, he showed it to 17-year-old Adriene Wheeler, who was working in the kitchen at the Burger King when it was robbed. She picked Clark, but said she was not positive he was the robber.

Rodrigue then showed the photo array to 22-year-old Marika Simmons, who also was working in the kitchen that night. Simmons positively identified Clark as the robber.

Thereafter, Rodrigue met separately with Pierce, the manager, as well two other employees: 61-year-old William Steele and 36-year-old Paula Murray. All said they did not get a good look at the robber, and they all were unable make any identification.

Rodrigue then went to the home of 27-year-old Linda Johnson, who was in the kitchen on the night of the crime, but no longer worked there. She said she did not look at the robber and would not be able to identify him.

On January 30, 2002, Rodrigue met with 17-year-old Kenisha Jessy, who was working at the cash register and sold the Whopper value meal to the robber. She identified Clark as the robber.

Clark was arrested on February 13, 2002 and charged with armed robbery.

In June 2003, Clark went to trial in the 24th Judicial District Court.

Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Paul Sperandeo testified that the witnesses described the robber as 5 feet 6 inches to 5 feet 8 inches tall, 160 pounds, with a medium to dark complexion, having gold teeth, and wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt. Sperandeo testified that all the witnesses’ versions of the robbery and their descriptions of the robber were consistent. He admitted that in his report he wrote that all six people could identify the robber, but in the narrative section said that two or three witnesses were unsure if they could identify him. In the report, he also noted that the employees said the robber’s bottom teeth were capped in gold.

Six of the employees testified, but only one—Jessy—positively identified Clark. Simmons, who identified Clark in the photographic lineup, said she did not see the robber in the courtroom. Another witness said that the robber was "darker" than Clark. All of their descriptions varied—one said he had no tattoos on his arms. Another said he wore a long-sleeved sweater. Some said he was clean-shaven.

Detective Jeffrey Rodrigue testified that on the night of the robbery, each employee consistently described the robber as a black male, about 5 feet 8 inches tall with a husky build and gold teeth, and that he possibly had a piece of paper in his mouth at the bottom part of his teeth.

All of the witnesses denied saying that the robber had gold on his teeth. They testified that they did not notice any gold either because they were looking away, or because his teeth were covered by his hand or something else. Johnson, Wheeler, Simmons, and Jessy testified that the robber had a white substance that looked like tissue paper covering his teeth.

Clark’s mother, Catherine, testified that her son had always had a mustache, and that he had tattoos all over his arms prior to the robbery. She also said that he had had gold caps across the top of his mouth since he was in high school, but never had them on his bottom teeth. Clark’s defense lawyer had Clark smile for the jury, and the jury was informed that he had tattoos completely covering both of his arms from his wrists to his shoulders.

On June 26, 2003, the jury deliberated for 78 minutes before convicting Clark of armed robbery by a vote of 10-2. He was sentenced to 49½ years in prison without parole.

In 2006, the Louisiana Court of Appeals upheld his conviction.

In 2018, the Innocence Project New Orleans agreed to take his case. His lawyers, Kia Hall Hayes and Emily Maw, asked the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s office to determine if the fingerprints on the drink cup were in fact suitable for comparison. When detectives reexamined the prints, they concluded the prints were suitable and submitted them to the Louisiana Automatic Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS).

In May 2019, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s office crime lab reported that the sources of three of the prints were the right index finger and left thumb of Jessie Perry, who was in prison serving a 30-year prison term for robberies in January 2002—less than two months after the Burger King robbery.

A subsequent investigation showed that Perry was 36 at the time the Burger King was robbed and was 5 feet 6 inches tall. He was on parole for a prior conviction for armed robbery. In the robberies he was convicted of committing, he similarly ordered employees into a back room and demanded the opening of a safe. In addition, his facial features and physical appearance closely resembled Clark.

On June 27, 2019, Hall, Maw, and Jefferson County District Attorney’s office presented a joint motion to vacate Clark’s conviction. The motion was granted, the charge was dismissed, and Clark was released.

It was the second exoneration based on a post-conviction AFIS search in Louisiana in 2019. In March 2019, Archie Williams, convicted of a 1983 rape in Baton Rouge, was exonerated after fingerprints from the crime scene matched a serial rapist who had confessed to committing several similar rapes in the same neighborhood as the victim in Williams’s case.

After Clark’s release, Maw said, “We are grateful to the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s office, which readily agreed to reexamine the fingerprints collected from a cup from which the perpetrator drank prior to committing the robbery, and to submit them to the state database to identify the true perpetrator. There is currently no clear law that gives prisoners a right to ask for these forensic database searches in cases not involving DNA.” Maw noted that if the sheriff’s office had refused the request to run the prints, “Mr. Clark would likely have stayed in prison until he was 74 years old for a crime he did not commit.”

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/28/2019
State:Louisiana
County:Jefferson
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2001
Convicted:2003
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:49 years and six months
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:24
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No