In August 1995, Celia Varela reported to police that her four-year-old step-granddaughter had tearfully told her that she had been sexually molested by her father, 29-year-old Sheldon Mosley, in Corpus Christi, Texas.
The girl had lived with Varela since she was two weeks old after the girl’s mother was sent to prison. Mosley, who had remarried, was allowed visitation. In 1995, Varela and Mosley were battling in court over custody rights.
In November 1995, the Nueces County District Attorney’s Office charged Mosley with three counts of aggravated sexual assault and, because he had previous convictions for burglary and drug offenses, being a habitual offender.
Mosley went on trial in Nueces County Criminal District Court in February 1996. The girl, who was still four years old, testified under leading and suggestive questioning that she was hurt where she would “pee-pee.” When the prosecutor asked if Mosley had hurt her where she would “poo-poo,” the girl said no, but then pointed behind her and said, “Right there.”
Varela testified that in mid-August 1995, after spending two weeks with Mosley and his second wife, the girl was supposed to return for a day visit the following week, but said she didn’t want to go. Varela testified that the girl demonstrated what had happened to her by holding a broom handle to her mouth, vagina and rectum.
A physician testified that he examined the girl and when he asked if Mosley had been mean to her, she replied that he “put his dick in my mouth” and pointed to her genital and anal areas. The physician said he found two abrasions inside her genital area which he concluded were not the result of “daily” activity, such as using toilet paper. He said it was his “guess” that the abrasions occurred two days to four weeks prior to his August 25, 1995 examination, which occurred within a few days after Varela went to police. Tests on her mouth and rectum were negative.
The assisting nurse testified that she asked the girl if anyone else had ever done anything similar to her. According to the nurse, the girl said that two children at a daycare center had also done the same thing to her.
A counselor who met with the girl five times testified that based on the girl’s actions with an anatomically correct doll, the counselor believed that Mosley had sexually abused the girl.
Mosley testified and denied that he molested the girl. He told the jury that he and Varela had been in a custody dispute in the weeks leading up to the claim of abuse. Prior to trial, the defense had requested a copy of a police report concerning a teenage girl who lived with Varela and the alleged victim. The defense claimed that the police report contained information that the teenage girl had sexually abused another child at about the same time as the alleged victim said that Mosley abused her. The judge refused to order police and prosecutors to locate and turn over the report.
On February 22, 1996, the jury convicted Mosley of all charges. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
In 1997, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the conviction and sentence. The court held that Varela’s testimony about the alleged victim’s description of the abuse had been improperly admitted at the trial, but concluded that the error was harmless and that the testimony had not caused Mosley to receive an unfair trial. The appellate court also found that the trial court had not erred when it refused to order production of the police report relating to possible sexual misconduct by the teenage girl who lived in the same household as the alleged victim.
In 1998, Mosley filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus arguing that his trial counsel had provided inadequate legal defense by failing to object to testimony from the examining doctor, the nurse, and the counselor that they believed the 4-year old girl was truthful when she said Mosley abused her. The petition also claimed that the lawyer failed to introduce a videotape of an interview with the alleged victim that would have shown she had been coached.
In 1999, a trial court judge agreed that Mosley’s attorney had done an inadequate job, but found that the lawyer's failures did not contribute to the jury’s conviction.
In the summer of 2012, the alleged victim – who was then 21 years old – gave a sworn statement to Mosley’s attorney recanting her claim that she had been molested.
“Sheldon Mosley did not sexually abuse me and everything I said about it was a lie,” the statement said. “I know what happened and even though I was young, I remember.”
“My step-grandmother told me to say Sheldon had sex with me,” the statement said. “I remember her showing me images of people having sex. I remember her telling me what to say that Sheldon did. I remember her promising me a trip to Disney World or that she would buy me things if I told people that Sheldon had sex with me.”
The woman said that she first fully realized what she had done—that she had sent her father to prison—when she was eight years old. Since then, her step-grandmother and grandfather had both died. “Over the years, I have told others that the abuse did not occur…Now it is time for me to come forward in court.”
A hearing on the petition was held in 2012 and the trial court judge, after hearing the alleged victim testify as an adult to what she had done as a 4-year-old child, granted the petition and recommended that the conviction be set aside.
In September 2013, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted the writ and ordered the conviction and sentence be vacated. On October 11, 2013, the Nueces County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges and Mosley was released.
– Maurice Possley
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.