On August 5, 1983, a black man armed with a gun held up a business office at the Cabrillo Square Town Club Apartments in San Diego, California. The gunman handcuffed and bound three employees, and shot one of them in the back when he thought she was trying to trigger an alarm. He fled with $2,500 in cash.
San Diego police assembled a photographic lineup that included a photograph of 26-year-old Willie Earl McNary, an unemployed former Marine who had been dishonorably discharged and frequented the neighborhood where the robbery occurred. His photo was included because police believed McNary resembled a composite sketch that was drawn based on the victims’ description. McNary had a previous conviction for possession of stolen property.
The three victims identified McNary as the gunman. One witness said she was almost positive McNary was the robber. Another pointed to McNary and said, “This is the closest one to him.”
McNary was arrested in March 1984 and put in a live lineup, but none of the three victims identified him, and one picked someone else. However, at a preliminary hearing, two of the victims identified McNary.
Both victims also identified McNary at his 1984 trial in San Diego County Superior Court. Two witnesses testified for McNary that he was with them at the time of the crime, but the jury did not believe them. McNary was convicted of three counts of robbery with a firearm, assault with a deadly weapon and commercial burglary. He was sentenced to 11 years and eight months in prison.
Four years later, in the fall of 1988, new evidence of McNary’s innocence came to light when police in Corpus Christi, Texas were re-investigating an unsolved robbery and murder that occurred there in July 1983. Police re-opened the investigation after receiving a letter from Jermarr Arnold confessing to the crimes. Arnold was then in a California state prison where he was serving a 10-year prison term for a robbery in Los Angeles committed on August 19, 1983—two weeks after the San Diego robbery for which McNary was convicted. At the time he was arrested, Arnold was carrying a handcuff key.
Corpus Christi police visited Arnold in prison. He confessed to a string of robberies and shootings in Texas, Nevada and southern California, including the Cabrillo Square robbery and another robbery in San Diego on August 3, 1983.
Arnold also wrote a letter to the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, confessing to the two San Diego robberies. In January 1990, a prosecutor and investigator interviewed Arnold in prison. Though they believed Arnold was telling the truth about the August 3, 1983 robbery, they didn’t trust his confession to the Cabrillo Square robbery because McNary had been convicted of that crime. McNary remained in prison until he was paroled in March 1990.
On August 23, 1994, McNary was arrested on a charge of shoplifting two shirts from a department store in Chula Vista. Prosecutors elected to proceed under California’s Three Strikes Law, which would have meant McNary could receive a sentence of 25 years to life if convicted.
When McNary insisted that he was innocent, his lawyers began to investigate. The District Attorney’s Office then disclosed that Arnold had been interviewed years earlier and that he had confessed to the Cabrillo Square robbery, but was not believed.
By this time, Arnold had been released from prison in California and was back in Texas, where he had been convicted and sentenced to death for the Corpus Christi robbery and murder. An investigator for McNary visited Arnold on Death Row and he again confessed to the Cabrillo Square robbery.
Lawyers Jacqueline Crowle and José Varela and their investigators Jean Dittmyer and George McCauley discovered that the victims in the Cabrillo Square robbery had said the robber had a deep voice. Arnold had a deep voice and McNary’s voice was high-pitched.
In early 1996, a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed on McNary’s behalf. On May 2, 1996, prosecutors agreed that McNary was innocent of the robbery and his conviction was vacated. The judge then dismissed the charge and walked from the bench to the defense table where he shook McNary’s hand and told him he was sorry for all that he had endured.
McNary then pled guilty to the shoplifting charge and was released from custody.
Arnold was executed by the State of Texas on January 16, 2002.
– Maurice Possley