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Steven Chaney

Other Dallas County CIU Exonerations
Steven Chaney embraces his mother, Darla, after his release. (Photo: Lara Solt)
Shortly before midnight on June 20, 1987, 27-year-old John Sweek and his 21-year-old wife, Sally, were found murdered in the kitchen of their apartment in Dallas, Texas. They had been stabbed and their throats were slit.

Police found dozens of fingerprints as well as what appeared to be a human bite mark on John Sweek’s left arm. Shoeprints made of dried blood began on the linoleum in the kitchen, went into the carpeted dining room, and continued through the living room to the front door.

Dallas Police crime scene investigator James Vineyard believed the shoeprints could have been made by two different shoes because some prints appeared to have been made by a flat-heeled shoe, while others had a gap between the sole and the heel. One of the bloody shoeprints in the kitchen appeared to show a pattern of parallel lines from a design on the sole of the shoe. There was so much blood spattered throughout the kitchen that Vineyard concluded that the attacker or attackers would have had significant amounts of blood on their shoes and clothing.

Members of the Sweek family told Dallas Police Homicide Investigator John Westphalen that John and Sally sold drugs, and that a man named Juan Gonzalez was their supplier. About a week after the murders, one of Sally's sisters gave Westphalen a spiral notebook that she found in the apartment after the police left. The notebook appeared to be a drug ledger, and it had names, weights, and the amount of money people owed. Among the names in the book was 31-year-old Steven Chaney.

A few days later, Westphalen received an anonymous telephone call from a man who said that he and Chaney bought cocaine at the Sweek apartment three to four times a week for months before the murders, and that they went to the apartment a week before the murders. The caller ultimately identified himself as Curtis Hilton and said he worked with Chaney at a construction site. Hilton said that Chaney owed John money at the time of the murders.

Because police had found a partial latent thumbprint from Chaney’s left thumb on the wall of the Sweek apartment, Westphalen and other officers went to Chaney’s job site. Westphalen later said that when he identified himself, Chaney immediately asked Westphalen if his visit was about the murders. Westphalen responded that it was, and Chaney told him that he had “eight witnesses who knew where he was on the night of the 20th and he had not been in that apartment in three weeks.”

Westphalen arrested Chaney for two outstanding tickets, and took him back to the police station. He interviewed him and then let him go home.

On July 20, 1987, Westphalen questioned Chaney again. During the interview, he noticed that Chaney was wearing tennis shoes with soles that, in his opinion, resembled some of the bloody shoeprints on the apartment floor. Chaney agreed to take a polygraph examination. When police said he failed, Westphalen confiscated the shoes and arrested him on suspicion of capital murder.

During a pre-trial hearing, the defense discovered that the prosecution had failed to disclose information favorable to Chaney, including evidence relating to Gonzalez as an alternative suspect. The judge reviewed the prosecution’s and Westphalen’s files, and ordered the evidence turned over.

In November 1987, Chaney went to trial in Dallas County Criminal District Court. Hilton was the prosecution’s first witness. During cross-examination, Hilton testified that Chaney told him he had “cleared up his debt” with Sweek. The defense objected and asked for a mistrial because the prosecution had not previously disclosed such a statement to the defense. The motion for a mistrial was granted. The judge noted that Hilton had given different testimony during the pre-trial hearing, and that he had admonished Hilton to say what Chaney said, but Hilton “cannot seem to testify the same way twice.”

In December, a new jury was empaneled and the trial began again with Chaney charged only with the murder of John Sweek. Hilton testified that he and Chaney had purchased cocaine from Sweek as often as four times a week for a month prior to the murders, visiting Sweek’s apartment after they finished work. Hilton told the jury that Sweek often provided cocaine to Chaney on credit as long as Chaney paid a portion of his debt.

Hilton said the last time he and Chaney went to Sweek's apartment together was Saturday, June 13, 1987—one week before the murders. Hilton said Chaney purchased one-fourth of an ounce of cocaine. At that time, Chaney did not have the cash to cover the purchase price of $475, but Sweek provided the cocaine after Chaney paid some money on his existing debt.

Hilton testified that he went back to Sweek’s apartment the next day to buy more cocaine. At that time, Sweek said that Chaney’s debt of $500 was the largest of any customer and that Sweek “drastically” needed Chaney to pay it in full.

Hilton said he didn’t talk to Chaney after the murders until Chaney called him to ask if he heard the couple had been killed. Hilton said that during this conversation, Chaney said he had cleared up his entire debt with Sweek. Hilton said he decided to call police because of Sweek’s statement that Chaney owed $500.

Hilton said that the next day, Chaney came to his apartment complaining that police had questioned him about the murders. He repeatedly said that “he couldn't believe this was happening to him.” Hilton quoted Chaney as saying that police told him during the questioning that Sally Sweek had been restrained and forced to watch while John Sweek was tortured.

Hilton said Chaney told him that Hilton was “his alibi.” He said that Chaney also told Hilton to repay some money Hilton owed him for drugs because “he needed to get out of town” since it was “too hot here.”

Homicide investigator Westphalen testified that after he arrested Chaney and confiscated his tennis shoes, he also got Chaney’s consent to have wax bite impressions made of his teeth.

Crime scene investigator Vineyard testified that the partial latent thumbprint linked to Chaney was on a lower part of the kitchen wall, a location consistent with someone squatting or kneeling near the entrance to the kitchen. Vineyard said that in his opinion, the thumbprint had been left recently—an opinion that had no scientific basis.

Dallas County Sheriff’s Department Lt. James Cron testified that he compared Chaney’s tennis shoes to the shoeprints found in the apartment. He said Chaney’s shoes had a “pattern that is similar to the patterns” made on the kitchen floor. However, he said he could not conclusively say that they were the only shoes that could have made the shoeprints.

Carolyn Van Winkle, a forensic serologist at the Institute of Forensic Science in Dallas, testified that she tested Chaney’s tennis shoes for traces of blood. She said she found no visible traces of blood, but that when she applied a chemical solution to the shoes, traces of blood were found in the right toe area and the upper left inner sole area. She said the traces were not significant enough to determine the blood type or even whether the blood was human or animal. She did say, however, that a presumptive test “came up fast” and, in her expert opinion, that was the normal reaction of human blood. She also testified that the tennis shoes appeared to have been covered with white shoe polish.

Dr. James Weiner, the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy on John Sweek, initially reported that the bite mark was two or three days old. However, at trial, the examiner testified that the mark on Sweek's lower left arm was inflicted “at or about the time of Mr. Sweek’s death.”

Dr. Jim Hales, chief dental consultant for the Dallas County Medical Examiner's Office who was certified by the American Board of Forensic Odontology, testified that he examined Sweek’s arm the day after Sweek was murdered. He said both the upper and lower arches of Chaney’s mouth were consistent with and “matched” the bite mark on Sweek’s arm. He said that “only one in a million” people could have made the bite mark.

Dr. Homer Campbell, a private consultant in the fields of forensic dentistry and forensic odontology, testified “to a reasonable degree of dental certainty” that Chaney made the bite mark.

The defense presented the testimony of Dr. John McDowell, a board-certified forensic odontologist, who said that Chaney could have made the bite mark, but he could not state with any degree of certainty that he did. On cross-examination, McDowell conceded that Chaney could not be excluded from making the bite mark and that it was consistent with the models of Chaney’s teeth.

Charles Currier, an athletic footwear salesman, testified for the defense about that the pattern on the bottom of Chaney’s shoes appeared on 50 to 80 percent of athletic shoes sold.

Several witnesses testified to Chaney’s whereabouts during the day and evening of June 20, the day the bodies were found. The construction site supervisor said that Chaney came to work at 7 a.m., but because of rain, work stopped about 9 a.m.

John Hooper Sr. testified that Chaney was dating his daughter and living with them. Hooper said Chaney left for work at 5:15 a.m. and returned at 9:30 a.m. He remained there until 5 p.m., when he and other relatives went to Mabank, Texas to pick up some furniture. On the drive their truck had a flat tire and the repair was not completed until about 8 p.m. They then drove to another family member’s home and spent the night there.

The prosecution argued to the jury that Chaney had killed John and Sally Sweek to avoid paying his drug debt. He relied heavily on the bite mark testimony, saying it was “better than eyewitness testimony.”

The defense argued that the evidence that Chaney made the bite mark was not conclusive, and that Sweek likely had been murdered because he owed money to Gonzalez, his supplier.

On December 14, 1987, the jury convicted Chaney. He was sentenced to life in prison. In 1989, the conviction was upheld on appeal.

In 2015, Chaney, represented by Chris Fabricant and Dana Delger, attorneys for the Innocence Project based in New York, and Julie Doucet Lesser, a Dallas County assistant public defender, filed a state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus seeking to vacate his conviction.

The petition included a sworn affidavit from Dr. Hales recanting his “one in a million” testimony about the bite mark. “Conclusions that a particular individual is a biter and their dentition is a match when you are dealing with an open population are now understood to be scientifically unsound,” Hales said. “Under today’s scientific standards, I would not, and could not, testify to a reasonable medical/dental certainty as I testified at the time or trial nor could I testify that there was a ‘one to a million’ chance that anyone other than Mr. Chaney was the source of the bite mark.”

The petition also said that the Dallas County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit had turned over the prosecution and police files in the case. Chaney’s lawyers discovered that Hilton had given several statements to Westphalen. In the initial statements, which were not disclosed to the defense prior to Chaney’s trial, Hilton said that Chaney said he was his “witness,” not that he was his “alibi.” There were several other statements by Hilton that changed over time, including testimony at trial that cast Chaney in a negative light, the petition said. Westphalen had documented that several statements from Hilton were untrue, but never disclosed that information to the defense.

The files also revealed that Westphalen had not disclosed that he had not only pursued Gonzalez as a suspect, but had met with Gonzalez and took his fingerprints. At the time, Westphalen noted that Gonzalez was wearing cowboy boots, but he did not take them or have them compared to shoeprints at the scene of the murders.

The files also contained reports showing that Van Winkle was not the first analyst to examine Chaney’s tennis shoes. The initial examination was negative for the presence of blood. A report from another analyst said the “spots are not blood.” Nonetheless, Westphalen had testified before the grand jury that indicted Chaney that blood was found “on the bottom of the tennis shoes and a little bit on the tongue of the tennis shoes.”

The files also revealed that a search had been made of Chaney’s residence a month after his arrest. No blood was found on any object or any clothing, now was it found in his car.

The defense also discovered in the prosecution files a memo from Dr. Hales saying that he was going to testify that the odds that someone other than Chaney left the bite mark was “thousands to one”—later amended to say 100,000 to one. Despite that memo, the prosecution allowed Hales to escalate his estimate to a “one in a million.”

“Not only did the prosecutor fail to correct the record, but he deliberately exploited the false testimony in summation, asking the jury rhetorically, ‘And (Dr. Hales) said to you that only one in a million people could have possibly made that bite mark. What more do you need?’”

Patricia Cummings, head of the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit, supported the writ after conducting a lengthy re-investigation of the case and after extensive DNA testing of the evidence in the case excluded Chaney.

At least three male DNA profiles were discovered on or under Sally Sweek’s fingernails, but not Chaney’s DNA. He also was excluded as the source of hairs found in Sally’s right hand.

Cummings reported that the prosecution had discovered a “vast amount of evidence” to support Chaney’s innocence. This included several witnesses who supported the original investigative theory that the victims were murdered in connection with their drug dealings and debts to people with ties to the Mexican Mafia. The investigation of Gonzalez, the Sweeks’ supplier, led to information about two new suspects who likely killed the couple because of outstanding drug debts.

One of Sally Sweek’s colleagues told investigators that Sally told her that John dealt drugs for the Mexican Mafia, and that they were worried about their safety because they owed the cartel money. The colleague said Sally also mentioned that John had failed to make a drug delivery, and that she and John wanted to get out of the drug dealing business.

On October 12, 2015, Judge Dominique Collins ordered the conviction vacated and recommended that the writ by granted. Chaney was released after more than 25 years in prison.

In December 2018, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted the writ, saying, “Chaney has proven that he is actually innocent.”

Appeals Judge Barbara Parker Hervey, author of the 68-page decision, noted that “Each piece of the state’s trial evidence” had been rendered questionable, undermined, or completely invalidated.

“The body of scientific knowledge underlying the field of bite mark comparisons has evolved since (Chaney’s) trial in a way that contradicts the scientific evidence relied on by the State at trial, Hervey wrote. “New peer-reviewed studies discredit nearly all the testimony given by [the ABFO-certified dentists] about the mark on [the victim’s] left forearm and Chaney being a “match.”

On January 14, 2019, the Court of Criminal Appeals issued the final mandate, and the prosecution then filed a motion to dismiss. On January 16, 2019, Judge Dominique Collins dismissed the case.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/14/2019
State:Texas
County:Dallas
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1987
Convicted:1987
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:Life
Race:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:31
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*