Shortly before midnight on August 2, 1991, the body of 17-year-old Maria Madera Rodriguez was found in a wooded area next to a canal near Lost Hills, California. She had been shot in the head and in the back.
The girl’s mother told Kern County Sheriff’s detectives that her daughter had talked earlier in the day with 17-year-old Offord Rollins IV, a former boyfriend, and that she made plans to meet Rollins at a park in Shafter, California, where she lived. The girl was not heard from until her body was found by some teenagers partying in a field near the canal.
Rollins was arrested on August 4, but was released two days later when police said there was insufficient evidence to charge him. He was arrested again on August 28 while at school in Wasco, California, where he lived. He was charged with murder. He was released on bond on November 7, 1991.
At the time, Rollins was a well known high school athlete and one of the top performers in the nation in the triple jump—in 1991, he was the fifth best high school triple jumper in the nation. He aspired to be on the U.S. Olympic track team in 1996.
Prior to Rollins’s trial, the prosecution argued that Rollins should be tried in adult court because he had raped and sodomized Rodriguez before killing her. The case was transferred to adult court, but by the time the case went to trial in March 1992 in Kern County Superior Court, the rape and sodomy charges had been dismissed, because the autopsy report showed that the victim had not been sexually assaulted. Although she was actively sexually and had engaged in anal sex for months prior to her death, there was no evidence she had done so for at least 24 hours before the murder.
The trial was hotly contested and controversial because the only four black potential jurors were all excused by the prosecution. Rollins, who is African-American, was tried by a jury comprised of 11 whites and one Hispanic. The prosecution homed in on misogynistic rap lyrics written by Rollins that were riddled with references to sex and violence to portray him as a violent, sexual predator.
Medical experts testified for the prosecution that the girl was killed between noon and 2 p.m. based on their examination of the body. Although initial police reports said the blood found at the scene was wet—indicating that the killing occurred after sundown—police testified at the trial the blood was dry, supporting the medical testimony that the girl had been killed as much as 12 hours before she was found.
A witness testified that he was driving on a highway between 1:55 p.m. and 2:05 p.m. when a speeding car pulled out of a dirt road. The witness described the driver as a light-skinned black man or a Hispanic. The dirt road from which the car emerged dead ended near where the victim’s body was found.
The car the witness described was similar to a car that Rollins had picked up while visiting his divorced father in Los Angeles the day before the crime. Police testified they found the victim’s palm print on the outside of Rollins’s car and that fibers on the victim’s clothing were consistent with fibers from the seat of the vehicle. Further, police testified that in the car they found bits of the tamarisk plant, which is common in the area where the body was found, but not in the area where Rollins lived.
Rollins testified that at first he had denied speaking to the victim on the day of the crime, but that in fact he did speak with her. He said he had met with her briefly the day before she disappeared and that she had leaned against the side of the car. He denied meeting with her on the day she disappeared and denied committing the murder.
Rollins’s mother testified that he was at home with her on the day of the crime until noon, when she left the house. A family friend said that he went to the Rollins home at 2:15 p.m. and was with Rollins until 6 p.m.
The defense argued that there was not enough time for Rollins to drive from Wasco to Shafter to Lost Hills, commit the murder and return home--a distance of 53 miles.
In addition, a defense expert testified that there were no maggots or flies on the victim’s body, strongly suggesting she was killed after dark—when flies don’t move around or lay eggs.
Rollins was convicted by the jury on April 3, 1992 and he was taken into custody.
Prior to sentencing, Rollins’s attorney filed a motion for a new trial based on the sworn statement from one of the jurors who said that several of the jurors discussed the evidence prior to deliberating and said they believed Rollins was guilty. The motion was denied and on September 25, 1992, Rollins was sentenced to 29 years to life in the California Youth Authority facility, meaning he would be released when he turned 25.
In May 1995, the conviction was reversed by the California Court of Appeal because of the juror misconduct. The court found that one of the jurors who was familiar with the area where the body was found told the other jurors that pesticides were sprayed in the area at that time of year and that was why there were no flies on the victim's body. The court also found numerous instances of prosecutorial misconduct for improper comments and argument during the trial. The prosecution was criticized for using racist stereotypes (comparing Rollins to boxer Mike Tyson, who was convicted of raping a woman), improper inquiries into the sex lives of Rollins and other defense witnesses, and for making inflammatory comments and arguments based on facts that were not presented in evidence.
Rollins went on trial for a second time in May 1996. Chastened by the appeals court, the prosecution was more subdued at his second trial.
To explain why there were no flies on the victim's body, a prosecution witness was called to testify that pesticides were sprayed throughout the area at about the time of the murder.
The defense called a new expert—Dr. Michael Baden, a former chief medical examiner for New York City and a renowned expert in pathology. Baden testified that his examination of the evidence indicated that the girl had been killed at approximately 8 p.m.--hours after the prosecution expert contended and during the time period when Rollins had a solid alibi.
Moreover, entomologist James Faulkner testified for the defense that he conducted an experiment in which he put a dead pig brushed with blood in the spot where the victim was found at the time the prosecution contended she was killed. The pig was soon covered with flies that laid eggs. Faulkner also testified that the fields where the pesticides were sprayed were far enough away and the pesticides so diluted that the spraying would not have had an impact on the presence of flies.
The defense also discovered evidence that there was another possible suspect—a Hispanic man who lived in the same house with the victim and who had acted as interpreter when police first questioned the victim’s mother.
After four days of deliberation, the jury reported they were deadlocked, with six jurors voting to acquit and six jurors voting to convict. A mistrial was declared on August 6, 1996.
On September 23, 1996, the Kern County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the case and Rollins was released.
– Maurice Possley