At 1 a.m., on December 25, 1999, Minh Nguy, a cook at his family’s restaurant in Houston, was attacked and robbed when he arrived home from work. As he pulled up at his home, two black men yanked him out, pistol-whipped him and took his money, his wallet, his car and sped away.
He told police the man who beat him in the face with a pistol was about six feet tall, was wearing a long black coat with a hat or hood and had a goatee. The second man, who struck him in the back of the head, was about 5 feet, 7 inches tall, Nguy said.
More than 12 hours later, a Houston police officer pulled over a car that had been reported stolen by Michael Tobias. Richard Sturgeon, 32, was driving the vehicle and there were three passengers—Tobias’s brother, Gregory; Elvin Bonner and Alicia Holmes.
The officer found that Gregory Tobias had Nguy’s driver’s license, a credit card and other personal items. Bonner had a crack pipe and a pistol. The registration for Nguy’s car was found in the trunk. Sturgeon had nothing of Nguy’s in his possession.
Sturgeon, Gregory Tobias and Bonner were arrested and put in a line-up on December 26, 1999. Nguy identified Sturgeon as the man who pistol-whipped his face, even though Sturgeon had a goatee and a full mustache and was 5 feet, 8 inches tall—four inches shorter than the description Nguy gave. He did not identify either Tobias or Gregory Bonner.
Sturgeon was charged with aggravated robbery with a weapon.
In June 1999, Sturgeon went on trial before a Harris County jury where the chief witness against him was Nguy, who identified him.
Gregory Tobias, who had been convicted of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and sentenced to eight years in prison, also testified for the prosecution. He said he picked up Sturgeon at about 7 a.m.—six hours after the robbery—and they picked up Bonner at about 1 p.m. They then drove to where Nguy’s car was parked.
Tobias said he saw Sturgeon and Bonner take items that belonged to Nguy from the trunk and that Bonner gave some of them to him. Tobias said he did not know if either of the men had committed a robbery.
Sturgeon, who had previous convictions for burglary of a vehicle and unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon, did not testify. His lawyer planned to call two witnesses who would have testified he was in Humble, Texas—30 miles from the site of the robbery—at the time of the crime. When both witnesses failed to appear at the trial, Sturgeon’s lawyer asked for writs of attachment, but the trial judge refused to issue them.
The defense called no witnesses and argued that the discrepancies between Nguy’s description and Sturgeon’s appearance were proof of mistaken eyewitness identification.
The jury rejected that argument and on June 23, 1999, convicted Sturgeon. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
In May 2003, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals set aside the conviction and ordered a new trial. The court found that the judge’s refusal to issue the writs of attachment for Sturgeon’s alibi witnesses was judicial error.
Sturgeon went on trial a second time in March, 2004 and Nguy again identified him.
Demetrius Horton, Sturgeon’s cousin, told the jury he was with Sturgeon Christmas shopping until nearly 10 p.m. and that he last saw Sturgeon about 10 p.m. at Sturgeon’s residence in Humble.
Di Anita Manning, with whom Sturgeon had a romantic relationship at the time, testified that they spoke on the telephone from their respective homes twice in the early morning hours of December 25—at the same time the robbery occurred.
Sturgeon also sought to call Bonner as a witness. Bonner had been charged originally with the same armed robbery, but the charge was dismissed after he pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm by a felon and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Bonner believed the robbery charge again him had been dismissed without prejudice, meaning the state could charge him with the crime if he admitted he was involved. As a result, Bonner invoked his Fifth Amendment right to silence and refused to testify.
The jury convicted Sturgeon a second time on March 25, 2004, and he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Over the next few years, Sturgeon was unsuccessful in appealing the conviction. He contended that the trial court erred by refusing to allow expert testimony on the unreliability of eyewitness identification. The conviction was upheld in August 2005.
In 2006, he filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus, alleging factual innocence. He presented an affidavit from Bonner, stating that Sturgeon was innocent. Bonner averred that he did not testify at the second trial because the prosecution threatened him with being charged with the crime.
In his affidavit, Bonner said that he was involved in the robbery of Nguy, that Sturgeon was not, and that he did not meet Sturgeon until hours afterward.
The petition for state habeas corpus was ultimately denied on procedural technicalities—a decision upheld by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2008.
Sturgeon turned to the federal courts, filing a petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus.
On May 12, 2009, U.S. District Judge Nancy F. Atlas overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial.
Judge Atlas found that the exculpatory evidence from Bonner, combined with the alibi witnesses and the inconsistencies in the eyewitness identification evidence raised sufficient doubt about Sturgeon’s guilt to undermine confidence in his conviction.
The judge found that the statute of limitations on the robbery charge had expired by the time Bonner was called to testify at Sturgeon’s second trial and therefore he could not have been prosecuted for the robbery, despite his fears. Judge Atlas ruled that Sturgeon’s trial lawyer was constitutionally ineffective for failing to raise the statute of limitations as an objection to Bonner’s refusal to testify.
Moreover, the judge found that the plea discussions between Bonner’s defense lawyer and the prosecutor before Bonner pleaded guilty to the weapons charge made clear that the robbery charge was dismissed with prejudice—which meant that it could not have been refilled even before the expiration of the statute of limitations.
The judge also ruled that Sturgeon’s trial attorney had been ineffective for failing to adequately prepare an eyewitness identification expert he offered as a witness. As a result, the expert was excluded from testifying by the judge at Surgeon’s trial.
Finally, Judge Atlas found that Sturgeon had been victimized by suggestive line-up procedures. Police told Nguy that they had arrested three men for the robbery and that they would all be in the line-up. Sturgeon was the only person in the line-up with a goatee—one of the distinguishing features Nguy gave right after the robbery.
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges on August 15, 2009 and Sturgeon was released.
As of 2012, Sturgeon had received $853,333 in state compensation.
– Maurice Possley