At 2:55 p.m. on May 25, 2002, the naked body of 25-year-old Jerri Williams was found in Kelley Point Park in Portland, Oregon. A medical examiner performed an autopsy and said Williams had been strangled to death and estimated the time of death to be 11:40 a.m.
On August 16, 2002, Portland police arrested 37-year-old Lisa Roberts, the victim’s lesbian lover, and charged Roberts with intentional murder, assault, harassment and menacing.
The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office contended that Williams was the victim of a love triangle involving Roberts and another woman, Terry Collins, and pointed to evidence that Roberts had a history of domestic violence.
Roberts and Collins had lived together as a couple for about eight years. During that time, Collins introduced Roberts to Williams, who had a history of prostitution and drug use. Roberts and Williams became romantically involved, and the three women clashed. On one occasion, in September 2001, Collins physically attacked Williams, who called police, and Collins was arrested. The prosecution said that the next day, Roberts beat up Williams for having Collins arrested.
The prosecution believed that friction among the three women led to Williams’s death. The prosecution contended that Roberts strangled Williams at their Portland residence, put her body in a sleeping bag with a pillowcase over her head and took the body to the park in a pickup truck. The prosecution said numerous witnesses had recounted to them a litany of violent incidents involving Roberts punching, choking or threatening people—including the physical assault of Williams in September 2001.
The prosecution also said that after Roberts was arrested and while she was being held in jail pending trial, Sarah Ater, a woman who also was an inmate, told authorities that Roberts solicited her to find someone to kill a man. Ater told police that Roberts claimed the man was her boyfriend and that he had actually killed Williams.
As the case neared trial in the fall of 2004, the prosecution disclosed to the defense that an analysis of records from Roberts’s cell phone showed that Roberts was near Kelley Point Park the morning of the murder. Roberts denied she was near the park and said the call was made to a friend whom she was going to visit that morning.
Although Roberts’s attorney had hired an expert to analyze the same records, the analysis had not been completed. Confronted with the prosecution expert’s report, Roberts’s attorney negotiated an agreement with the prosecution in which Roberts pled guilty to manslaughter in the first degree on December 1, 2004 and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
In 2008, after her state appeals had been denied, Roberts filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. During the proceedings, her defense attorneys, Steven Wax and Alison Clark, received laboratory reports that had never been disclosed to Roberts’s defense. The reports indicated that DNA tests had identified a male profile on a pillowcase found next to the victim’s body. The profile was determined to be too low in quality to submit to any convicted offender database to search for a match.
In late 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm Marsh, who was assigned to the habeas petition, ordered new DNA testing of the evidence. The DNA testing on semen found in Williams’s body found two male profiles. One profile was that of a man who was known to have sexual relations with Williams for money. The other DNA profile was that of Brian Tuckenberry, who was incarcerated on a sexual assault conviction.
Witnesses told defense investigators that Tuckenberry had harassed Williams prior to her murder in an attempt to force her to become a prostitute for him and that Tuckenberry had a predilection for choking women while he was having sex with them.
In addition, a defense expert re-investigated the cell phone records and concluded that cell phone tower data was not capable of pinpointing Roberts’s location. The defense expert said that the prosecution’s expert had not considered the wide area that the tower that picked up Roberts’s cell phone on the day of the crime was designed to cover, nor other variables such as the call load, network of the tower and the cell phone provider's software, all of which could have affected which tower picked up Roberts’s call.
In April 2014, Judge Marsh granted the habeas petition and vacated Roberts’s guilty plea. The judge ruled that Roberts’s defense attorney was constitutionally ineffective because he failed to investigate the cell tower evidence.
The judge held: “Despite the critical importance of the cell tower evidence, (Roberts’s attorney) failed to take reasonable steps to collect the relevant data and independently evaluate the reliability of the (prosecution’s) analysis before advising his client to plead guilty to manslaughter.”
In response to the decision, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office filed a letter with Judge Marsh saying that although their re-investigation of the case, along with the Portland police and the Oregon Department of Justice, led them to conclude that Roberts was guilty, they would not seek to further prosecute Roberts because she was near the end of her sentence.
On May 28, 2014, Roberts was released from prison and on June 2, 2014, the prosecution dismissed the charge.
– Maurice Possley