On September 20, 1984, 60-year-old Dolores Dye was putting groceries in the trunk of her car in the parking lot of a supermarket in New Orleans, Louisiana, when she was confronted by a gunman who shot her in the head and drove off in her red Ford LTD.
Two days later, Joseph “Beanie” Wallace told police that he had just purchased a red LTD from a friend named Curtis and, after reading about the murder, was concerned that he might have the victim’s car. Police confirmed the car was Dye’s and although Wallace gave contradictory statements, they believed Wallace’s account that he had purchased the car from 24-year-old Curtis Kyles.
On September 24, 1984, police armed with a search warrant arrested Kyles. A search of his residence revealed a .32-caliber revolver behind a kitchen stove, a shoulder holster and box of ammunition for the gun, and Dye’s purse and identification in an outside trash bin. Ballistics tests linked the gun to the bullet that killed Dye. Further, a fingerprint of Kyles’s was found on a supermarket receipt belonging to Dye.
Police showed a photo lineup to five witnesses and three picked Kyles. Wallace’s photo was not in the lineup.
Kyles went on trial in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court in November 1984. The state relied upon the the physical evidence found in Kyles’s residence as well as the testimony of eyewitnesses.
One of the eyewitnesses, Henry Williams, testified that he had seen the shooting and that Kyles was the killer. The jury did not hear, however, that he had told the police that the killer was a “black male, about 19 or 20 years old, about 5’4” or 5’5”, 140 to 150 pounds, medium build” and that “his hair looked like it was (braided).” This information was never turned over to the defense.
At the time, Kyles was 6 feet tall, had a thin build and “bush” style hair. The description Williams gave did closely match Wallace.
The defense attempted to show that Wallace had framed Kyles to shift suspicion away from himself, to collect $1,600 in reward money and because he was romantically linked to Kyles’s common-law wife.
A mistrial was declared when the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict. Kyles immediately went on trial again and on December 7, 1984 was convicted of murder and armed robbery. He was sentenced to death.
Kyles lost his state appeals. Defense attorneys filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District court, alleging that critical evidence had never been turned over to his trial lawyers, including contradictory statements of Wallace and a computer print-out of cars parked at the crime scene that did not include Kyles’s car.
The petition was denied and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed the denial on October 14, 1993.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and on April 19, 1995, the court overturned Kyles’s conviction and ordered a new trial because the prosecution suppressed exculpatory and impeachment evidence. The decision clarified the constitutional duty of the state to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defendant, even if the evidence is in the files of police and unknown to the prosecution.
The court held that a review of the suppressed statements of eyewitnesses “reveals that their disclosure not only would have resulted in a markedly weaker case for the prosecution and a markedly stronger one for the defense, but also would have substantially reduced or destroyed the value of the State's two best witnesses.”
The court also declared that “a recapitulation of the suppressed statements made to the police by (Wallace)—who, by the State’s own admission, was essential to its investigation and, indeed, ‘made the case’ against Kyles—reveals that they were replete with significant inconsistencies and affirmatively self-incriminating assertions, that (Wallace) was anxious to see Kyles arrested for the murder, and that the police had a remarkably uncritical attitude toward (Wallace).
And the court said that the suppression of the prosecution’s list of the cars at the crime scene after the murder tended both to exculpate Kyles, whose license plate was not on the list, and to impeach the prosecution’s argument to the jury that the killer left his car at the scene during the investigation and that a grainy photograph of the scene showed Kyles’s car in the background.
Kyles went on trial again in 1996. One of the original eyewitnesses came forward to recant her identification of Kyles, saying she had implicated him after being pressured by police. The case ended in a mistrial after the jury hung voting 10-2 in favor of acquittal.
In 1997, Kyles went to trial for the fourth time. This also ended in a mistrial when the jury deadlocked, voting 7-5 to acquit.
In 1998, the fifth trial for Kyles began, featuring a new prosecution witness—Chris Alphonso, a paranoid schizophrenic who was serving a 33-year prison term for an armed robbery conviction. Alphonso claimed that Kyles had confessed to him that he killed Dye.
The defense offered testimony from two of Wallace’s relatives. One said that Wallace had admitted killing Dye and framing Kyles as the murderer. The other said that Wallace had admitted killing someone, but that he was not worried because someone else had been charged. Wallace was killed in 1986 and Kyles’ brother-in-law was convicted of murdering him.
The fifth trial also ended in a mistrial when the jury deadlocked 9-3 in favor of conviction.
New Orleans District Attorney Harry Connick then dismissed the charges and on February 18, 1998, Kyles was released from prison.
In 2010, Kyles, then living in Algiers, Louisiana, was charged with murder and kidnapping in the death of Crystal St. Pierre, whose body was found with a single gunshot wound in Avondale, Louisiana in June 2010.
– Maurice Possley