On April 14, 2006, 26-year-old Renardo Williams got into an argument with Nikki Stuart in Oakland, California after Stuart accused Williams of striking her 14-year-old son, Steven Embrey Jr., with a stick. Williams admitted that he had struck Embrey and said it was because Embrey hit Williams’ three-year-old daughter first.
Stuart told Williams, “I’m gonna have a man come see you,” and then left.
At about 8 p.m. the following day, Williams answered a knock at his door and was confronted by Embrey and two men. One of the men asked Embrey, “Is that him?” When the boy said it was, the men began arguing about whether Williams had struck Embrey the day before. After several minutes, one of the men drew a pistol and shot Williams in the chest. Embrey and the men then fled.
An Oakland police detective ran Stuart’s name through a database and found that 10 years prior to the shooting, Stuart had lived in the same building as the mother of 44-year-old Ronald Ross. Police prepared a photographic lineup that included a picture of Ross, a neighborhood resident with an IQ of 66 who had several convictions for possession of narcotics.
On April 17, while Williams was in the hospital, he described the gunman as a black man in his late 30’s, 5 feet 8 inches to 5 feet 10 inches tall and about 180 to 190 pounds. A detective then showed Williams the photographic lineup and he identified Ross as the gunman, even though Ross was 44 years old, 6 feet tall and weighed 210 pounds. He said that he had not seen Ross before and assumed the gunman was Embrey’s father or uncle.
At about that time, the mother of 14-year-old Travis Abner went to police and said her son had seen the shooting, but that she and her son would not cooperate unless they were relocated from the neighborhood. Abner’s initial statement to police was: “I seen someone that looked sorta like him (Ross) from the complexion that I could see when I was at the room in the house. It was kind of dark.”
Ross was arrested on April 18 and charged with attempted murder and assault with a firearm.
Ross went on trial before a jury in November 2006 in Alameda County Superior Court. Williams identified Ross as the gunman. Stuart testified about the quarrel with Williams, but denied sending anyone to his home and claimed that she did not know where Embrey’s father was. She said he had disappeared because he owed her child support payments.
The younger Embrey identified Ross as the gunman, as did Abner. Although his initial statement to police was equivocal at best, Abner told the jury he was now certain that Ross had shot Williams.
Ross testified in his own defense and denied any involvement in the shooting. He claimed he was at home at the time and had fallen asleep watching an NBA basketball playoff game. Prosecutors impeached his testimony by presenting evidence that the playoffs had not yet begun at the time of the shooting.
Ross was convicted of attempted murder and assault with a firearm on November 8, 2006. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
In 2008, attorneys at the San Francisco law firm of Keker & Van Nest and the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University Law School began re-investigating Ross’s case.
In February 2012, a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed seeking to vacate Ross’s conviction.
The petition said that Williams had recanted his identification of Ross, saying that he identified Ross because he owed a favor to the Oakland detective who showed him the photographic lineup. Williams said the detective told him to identify Ross, so he did. Williams also said that at the time of the shooting, he was afraid of the elder Embrey.
Steven Embrey Jr. had also recanted his identification of Ross and said that his father, Steven Embry Sr., had been the gunman. Embry Jr. said that after the shooting, his father gave him the gun and he threw it away.
Two other witnesses told Ross’s lawyers that Abner was in the kitchen when Ross was shot and could not have seen the gunman.
Moreover, Ross’s lawyers discovered that prosecutors failed to turn over evidence that Abner had given several more statements about his identification prior to trial, but never said he was certain that Ross was the gunman.
The petition also said that Ross’s lawyer had failed to investigate Steven Embrey Sr. as the possible gunman, despite evidence suggesting the elder Embrey was the gunman, such as Williams’ initial claim—later repeated at a preliminary hearing—that he thought the gunman was the younger Embrey’s father or uncle.
Ross’s lawyers also located a friend of Nikki Stuart who said that after the shooting, Stuart told her that she had told her husband to confront Williams. The friend told the lawyers that Stuart told her that Embrey Sr. had shot Williams.
The petition said that Ross’s lawyer failed to locate the witnesses who knew that Abner had not seen the shooting and failed to fully investigate Ross’s alibi, which led to Ross being impeached. An investigation would have shown that in fact the Golden State Warriors, an NBA basketball team based in Oakland, played a game that was televised on the night of the shooting.
Ross also took and passed two polygraph examinations.
By the time the petition was filed, Steven Embrey Sr., had been arrested in Oakland and charged with two shootings that occurred during robbery attempts.
A prosecutor and investigator visited Williams, who was in prison on an unrelated charge, and later said that Williams had recanted his statement that he had falsely identified Ross. Lawyers for Ross contended the recantation of the recantation was coerced.
In December 2012, attorney Elliot Peters, from the firm Keker and Van Nest, and an investigator interviewed the elder Embrey, who was in custody awaiting trial. Embrey Sr. told them that he was present when Williams was shot and that Ross was not there. Embrey Sr. denied that he shot Williams and said it was another man named “Dennis,” whose last name he did not know—a claim that Ross’s attorneys discounted.
On February 22, 2013, faced with the mounting evidence of Ross’s innocence, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office requested that his convictions be vacated. The motion was granted, the charges were dismissed and Ross was released.
In February 2014, Ross filed a $32 million federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Oakland. In June 2015, the state of California awarded Ross $229,000 in compensation.
– Maurice Possley