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Edwin Chandler

Other Kentucky Exonerations
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Just after 10 p.m., on September 28, 1993, a man entered a Chevron station in Louisville, Kentucky, and brought a bottle of beer to the counter. When he held out $1 for the 99-cent purchase, the clerk, 25-year-old Brenda Whitfield, opened the register. The man drew a gun, fatally shot Whitfield in the face, and fled with $32 he grabbed from the cash register.

Police recovered three fingerprints from the beer bottle, a Georgetown Hoyas stocking cap, and sunglasses left behind by the gunman. Police took a statement from John Gray, who was pumping gas when the shooting occurred. Gray said he saw a bald, heavy-set black man about 5 feet eight inches tall come out of the store, throw something into the bushes, and then run off in the direction of the Turtle Creek apartments.

Detectives looked at surveillance video and determined that a man named Melvin Carr was in the store and left just before the crime occurred. Carr stopped by the station almost every night after work, so police returned there the following night to question him when he arrived. Carr went to the police station where he viewed the surveillance video. He said he had seen the gunman in the store, and that the man appeared to be waiting for him to leave. Carr described the man as about five feet eight to five feet 10 inches tall with a medium build.

Inexplicably, a detective wrote down that Carr said the gunman was “tall and thin.” To further complicate the investigation, shortly after Carr left the station, a detective taped over the surveillance video with an episode of “Late Show with David Letterman.”

On October 1, 1993, detectives interviewed Vincent Pozzie, a store employee who was not present at the time of the crime, and showed him some of the photographs from the surveillance video. Pozzie said he thought the robber looked like his former neighbor, 21-year-old Edwin Chandler, who lived about a half-mile away in an apartment complex where Pozzie had previously lived.

Police knew who Chandler was. He had been convicted at age 20 of passing bad checks and was sentenced to a work-release program. However, on August 17, 1993, rather than spend the night of his 21st birthday in the detention center, Chandler went home and did not return. A warrant for his arrest was outstanding.

Detectives showed Pozzie a photographic lineup that included Chandler’s photograph, but Pozzie could not identify him as the gunman. Records showed that Pozzie was mistaken about Chandler being his former neighbor—Chandler had not moved into the complex until Pozzie had already moved out. Even though Chandler was nearly six feet two inches tall and 175 pounds with a full head of hair, and even though his fingerprints did not match those on the beer bottle, police focused on him anyway.

On October 3—five days after the murder—detectives visited Sonya Collins’s apartment. Collins was Chandler’s sister, with whom he was living at the time. Collins said that Chandler had nothing to do with the crime—although they had heard sirens down the road. Collins said Chandler and his girlfriend, Anita Treat, had dinner with Collins in the apartment. At about 9 p.m., they went to the home of a neighbor, Viacha Burley, where they watched a movie, “Single White Female.” He returned home around 11 p.m., she said.

The detectives threatened to arrest Collins on a charge of harboring a fugitive. They threatened to take away her children unless she implicated Chandler and offered her a $1,000 reward for doing so. Collins, however, rebuffed their efforts.

The detectives then turned to Viacha Burley, in whose apartment Chandler and his girlfriend had watched the movie. Burley was a crack addict and when first questioned, she said she only knew Chandler through his sister, and only knew him by the nickname “Pooh Bear.” When the detectives offered Burley a $1,000 reward, she suddenly said that Chandler did come to her apartment that night at around 8:30 p.m., and that he was wearing a knit stocking cap. She also said that when she saw him again the following day, he was acting nervously.

In addition, Burley’s 11-year-old daughter then volunteered that she had seen “Pooh Bear” leave the apartment complex that night wearing a stocking cap and that he returned not long after. She said that she heard Chandler admit to someone else that he had committed the crime.

Burley’s neighbor, Robin Graves, another crack addict, at first told police that she stopped at Burley’s apartment that night and that Chandler and his girlfriend were there watching the movie. After being offered a $1,000 reward, Graves said that she had seen Chandler wear sunglasses like those worn by the gunman and that he wore a dark knit stocking cap on the night of the crime. Later that night, Graves said, Chandler was acting nervously and looking out the window.

That same day, detectives showed a photographic lineup that included Chandler’s photograph to Melvin Carr—the customer who left the store just before the shooting. Carr said the gunman was not in the lineup, but that two of the men, including Chandler, looked familiar to him. In their report, however, the detectives said that Carr told them that two of the photographs, including Chandler’s, looked like the gunman.

Chandler saw his photograph on television and learned that police were pressuring his sister. So on October 8, 1993, he went to the police station to deal with the outstanding warrant and to tell them that he was not involved in the crime. Detectives interviewed him for about two hours, during which he gave a 34-minute audiotaped statement describing his whereabouts on the night of the crime and denying involvement. He then agreed to take a polygraph test.

After the first taped statement, Chandler was again interrogated. During the two-hour interrogation, police falsely told him his fingerprints had been found at the scene and that he had failed the polygraph. They also told him that neighbors had identified the sunglasses and stocking cap as his, and that if he did not confess they would arrest his sister and take away her children. The detectives promised Chandler that if he confessed and said it was an accident, he would get off with a five-year prison term.

Chandler ultimately gave a 12-minute audiotaped statement confessing to the crime, although the detectives had to correct him on a few occasions when he could not give an account that squared with the facts.

On October 14, 1993, Chandler was indicted on charges of first-degree robbery and capital murder.

In January 1994, a Kentucky State Police crime lab analyst compared a hair from Chandler’s head to hair found in the stocking cap at the scene. Chandler was excluded as the source of the hair in the cap, but that information was not disclosed to the defense.

The prosecution also failed to disclose that Melvin Carr had viewed a photograph lineup as well as an individual photograph of Chandler and did not identify him as the gunman. Nor did it inform the defense of any of the threats made to Chandler’s alibi witnesses or that John Gray—the customer who was pumping gas at the time of the crime and saw the gunman leave the station—and Melvin Carr had given a description of the gunman that differed considerably from Chandler’s appearance.

In January 1995, Chandler went to trial in Jefferson County Circuit Court. The prosecution relied heavily on the confession, despite the numerous flaws and corrections that the detectives could be heard instructing Chandler to make. The detectives denied coercing or threatening Chandler or any witnesses, and denied offering any incentives. Viacha Burley, Robin Graves, and Graves’s daughter all testified consistently with the statements they gave after being offered the reward.

A clerk at a nearby BP gas station testified that the night before the crime, he saw a man who resembled Chandler smoking marijuana behind the BP station and that he saw that same man in the BP store on the night of the crime.

Melvin Carr was the only testifying witness who actually had seen the gunman. Carr, who was in the Chevron just before the shooting, said that Chandler was not the man he saw that night. Carr also said that Chandler was taller and had a lighter complexion than the gunman.

Chandler testified that his confession was false. He denied any involvement in the crime, and accused the detectives of threatening him, his sister, and her children to make him confess. Chandler also said the detectives fed him the information about the crime, and corrected him when he made mistakes during his recorded confession.

On February 10, 1995, the jury, after 16 hours of deliberation, convicted Chandler of manslaughter and first-degree robbery. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

In 1996, while Chandler was appealing his convictions, he bumped into John Gray, the man who was pumping gas when the crime occurred. Gray, who was in prison for an unrelated crime, told Chandler that he knew Chandler was innocent because he had seen the man come out after the shooting and he looked nothing like him.

Chandler’s lawyer soon contacted Gray, who said that not long after the murder, he learned that the man’s name was Percy Phillips. Phillips confronted Gray and asked him what he saw that night, and then admitted to Gray that he was the killer.

Gray also disclosed that in November 1995, while in jail prior to being sent to prison, he sent a letter to Louisville police detailing what he knew about Phillips and his admission. A detective with no prior connection to the case was sent to interview Gray, who repeated his statements about Phillips and his confession to killing the store clerk. When the detective reported his findings to the detectives on Chandler’s case, they said Gray should be disregarded because Chandler had been identified by a witness as the gunman and he had confessed to the crime—the case was closed.

In August 1997, Chandler filed motion for post-conviction relief based on the claim that Percy Phillips committed the crime. The motion was denied.

In April 2002, after all his appeals had been denied, Chandler was released from prison on parole.

He continued to fight to prove his innocence, however. In 2004, the Kentucky Innocence Project began re-investigating his case. In 2005, they persuaded the local cold case unit to take another look at the case, but authorities said the evidence could not be found. However, in 2008 a detective said he had found the evidence. The fingerprints on the beer bottle were re-examined and two belonged to Chevron employees. In 2009, the remaining print was matched to Percy Phillips, who was in prison serving a 20-year term for an assault that occurred in 2001, eight years after the Chevron robbery-murder.

Meanwhile, Chandler had taken a polygraph exam and the examiner concluded he was truthful when he denied involvement in the crime. Gray viewed a photographic lineup and identified Phillips as the man he saw leaving the Chevron after the shooting.

On October 13, 2009, a grand jury indicted Phillips for the robbery and murder. That same day, Chandler’s convictions were vacated and the prosecution dismissed the charges.

Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Frederic Cowan, in vacating Chandler’s convictions and granting the motion to dismiss, said, “It is absolutely clear that there has been a grave miscarriage of justice in this case.”

Chandler later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Louisville. In October 2012, the lawsuit was settled for $8.5 million.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 7/12/2017
State:Kentucky
County:Jefferson
Most Serious Crime:Manslaughter
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1993
Convicted:1995
Exonerated:2009
Sentence:30 years
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:21
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No