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Joseph Webster

Other Tennessee Exonerations
At around 11:30 a.m. on November 22, 1998, Leroy Owens was beaten to death in Nashville, Tennessee. Witnesses said that two men confronted him outside an apartment building, hit him with a stick, and then chased him by car through the neighborhood. When they caught up with Owens again, they “bum rushed” him, and then bashed him in the head with a cinder block. One of the men was said to have yelled at Owens, “Where’s my money? Where’s my goddamn money?”

Several witnesses had seen parts of the frantic chase and then the fatal assault. Robert Nichols told police that one of the men was “approximately 73 inches tall and about 200 pounds.” Fred McClain, a bricklayer doing masonry on a building near the attack, said Owens crashed into him trying to get away. He described the assailants to police as “69 inches tall and about 230 pounds” and “about 68 inches tall and 175 pounds.”

During the chase, Owens had tried to take refuge in DeLunn Hyde’s house. Hyde told Owens he needed to leave and later gave a statement to police that the car chasing Owens was a white, souped-up station wagon. Hyde said that he had remembered seeing a similar vehicle the night before parked in front of a house a few streets away, on Lewis street.

Police went to the house on Lewis Street. The car wasn’t there, but detectives talked with Katrina Norman, who answered the door. She said she knew the owner and driver of the car, but she refused to identify that person. Detectives noticed she had a tattoo on her neck that said “Joseph,” which they later learned was the name of her boyfriend and future husband, 19-year-old Joseph Webster.

Webster had been convicted of several drug misdemeanors, so his mugshot was in the police system. At the time, he was 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 300 pounds. None of the witnesses said a man fitting that description had been involved in the assault.

Tammi Nelson lived in the apartment where the two men had initially confronted Owens. She told police that Owens occasionally stayed with her. On November 23, 1998, she picked Webster out of a six-pack photo array. Police also showed McClain a photo array that included Webster, but he did not pick Webster or anybody else.

More than seven months later, Nelson would give police a more complicated account of the events leading up to Owens’s death. She said that Owens owed money to some drug dealers, and these men had visited her apartment several times looking for Owens. They had even given Nelson a pager number to call if he returned, and either the night before or the morning of Owens’s death, Nelson had paged the men. By the time she told police about her role in his death, Nelson no longer had the scrap of paper with the number. She would later give conflicting accounts of why she tore it up.

For reasons that are unclear, the investigation stalled for more than six years. But in April 2005, Webster was indicted for first-degree murder. At the time, he was in prison on a drug-possession conviction.

Webster’s trial in Criminal Court for Davidson County began in February 2006. There was no physical or forensic evidence tying Webster to the crime. The cinderblock had been taken into evidence, but there was no attempt to test the blood left on it from the attack. While it was presumed that most of the blood would be from Owens, the autopsy indicated defensive wounds on his hands, suggesting the possibility that Owens had drawn blood from his attackers while fighting back.

Nelson was the state’s key witness. Prior to the trial, she had told an investigator working for Webster that her identification was shaky. “I really couldn’t identify them back then. I just picked out a mug shot of guys that looked like them. I don’t know. Just big guys, big black guys.”

But at trial, she struck a different, more confident, tone. She said she had seen the two men five or six times up close, in daylight, and that her identification was accurate. “I know that’s the person… That’s the person I picked out. He still looks the same right [here] today.” She also testified that one of the men had a glass eye or some sort of eye deformity. That could not have been Webster, as he had no glass eye or eye problems.

Separately, Nelson had told Webster’s investigators that neither of the men had any gold teeth, and there was no mention of gold teeth in any police report. Webster had 12 gold teeth in his mouth, a prominent display that included his initials. Nelson wasn’t asked about this discrepancy at trial.

Despite the holes in Nelson’s testimony and questions about her role in Owens’s death, she was, according to one of Webster’s appellate attorneys, a “compelling witness.” Webster testified in his own defense. He said that he could not remember what he was doing on November 22, 1998, never owned a white station wagon, and did not know Tammi Nelson.

The jury convicted Webster on March 1, 2006. He was later sentenced to life in prison.

Webster quickly moved for a new trial, claiming he had new evidence of innocence that was not available to his trial attorney, Michie Gibson. Included in the motion were affidavits from Webster’s mother, his brother, and Katrina Norman. The affidavits alleged that Webster’s other brother, Kenneth Neal, was the real killer and had confessed to each of them. They also said Neal had been the owner of a white station wagon. These family members said they had not come forward because they were afraid of Neal.

Neal testified at an evidentiary hearing. He denied any involvement in the murder. He said he had not confessed to his mother, but rather just remained silent “because he didn’t have anything to say about it.”

The motion for a new trial was denied. In its ruling, the trial court said: “The defendant did not exercise reasonable diligence in searching for the evidence prior to trial as he knew about the evidence prior to trial and made no efforts to have Kenneth Neal available to testify at trial. This quite simply is not newly discovered evidence.” The appellate court upheld the denial of the motion for a new trial.

Webster then filed a motion for post-conviction relief, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. His most salient claim was that Gibson had failed to present evidence about Webster’s gold teeth and confront Nelson with her omission of this critical description in any of her statements. That motion was denied in 2010.

Separately, Nelson recanted her trial testimony and identification of Webster. Her first, hand-written recantation, dated January 21, 2009, said that she had mistaken Joseph Webster for Kenny Neal in her testimony and that it had weighed heavily on her, resulting in terrible dreams and the need to take medication for stress.

Nelson’s second recantation, dated February 7, 2014, also said she had wrongly identified Webster. She said she cut a deal with Pamela Anderson, the prosecutor in the Webster trial, and falsely testified against Webster in exchange for being allowed to enter a drug court diversion program rather than go to prison. She said: “The truth of the matter is that I DID NOT witness Joseph D. Webster harm anyone and I only said so because of the deal placed before me. And let me be clear by stating that this deal WAS in place long before Mr. Webster’s trial.”

These recantations formed the basis of a new motion for a new trial. At an evidentiary hearing in October 2014, Nelson testified that while she had mistakenly identified Webster, prosecutors had not coerced her testimony. She said she had not read the statement she signed in February. She testified that while she had gone to drug court, there was never any arrangement and that she had never met Anderson. (That was incorrect. They had met on the witness stand and in pre-trial preparations, and Nelson admitted to memory problems caused by her drug abuse.)

Webster’s motion was denied, with both the trial court and the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals ruling that Nelson’s recantations and testimony were too riddled with inconsistencies and errors to be credible. Even Webster’s attorney would later hedge on whether Nelson falsely testified or was mistaken about what she saw and what she remembered when she testified about the events seven years after they happened.

In March 2017, Webster’s new attorney, Daniel Horwitz, filed an application for review with the Conviction Review Unit of the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office. The application asked for DNA testing on the cinder block used to kill Owens and for an examination of non-scientific evidence.

The testing, conducted later that year, excluded Webster as a contributor to the genetic material found on the cinder block. Horwitz’s investigator located three potential new witnesses.

First, a woman named Shawanna Norman said that Neal had bragged to her about the killing when they dated back in the late 1990s. Norman noted that when Neal made the boast, he was with a man named Phillip Cotton, who had a deformed eye. Shawanna Norman also said that Neal drove a Green Ford Explorer; Nelson had said the men who attacked Owens drove a car fitting that description in previous trips to her apartment. Horwitz also located two men, Anthony Boyce and Richard Anderson, who had seen part of the attack and given physical descriptions that excluded Webster as one of the assailants. Police had briefly interviewed each man, but there had been no follow-up. Neither had ever looked at photos of potential suspects.

Initially, Horwitz suspected that prosecutors had failed to provide these witness statements to Gibson. That would have been a violation of the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brady v. Maryland, which requires that exculpatory evidence be provided to the defense. But Gibson had received the information; he had just not acted on it at trial or provided it to Webster’s attorneys in their initial appeals.

On October 29, 2020, the Conviction Review Unit (CRU) recommended that Webster’s conviction be vacated and the charge dismissed. It noted that the police investigation could have been more thorough and that Webster bore some responsibility, because he was “complicit in his conviction by actively participating in the cover-up for his brother, Kenny Neal.”

But the CRU findings said that both Henderson and Boyce gave descriptions that didn’t match Webster. In addition, the report credited the statements of Webster’s family implicating Neal, who declined to submit to a polygraph test or provide a DNA sample.

Cotton took a polygraph test, and the report said he showed “deception.” Webster also took a polygraph test, and the test’s administrator said he showed no deception in denying involvement in Owens’s death.

The CRU report said that there was substantial evidence that Nelson’s testimony was unreliable and could no longer be the basis for sustaining Webster’s conviction. Separate from her recantation, she had not been forthcoming with police about her role in paging the attackers. Her pre-trial statements about what she saw didn’t match up with her trial testimony. On November 10, 2020, a judge granted District Attorney Glenn Funk’s motion to vacate the conviction and dismiss the charge against Webster.

Webster was released that night, and went home to be with his mother and his children. He told The New York Times that he was in the process of getting a new driver’s license so he could start a trucking business and drive a dump truck. “Nashville is growing so much that I just want to be part of the growth,” he said. “And I can contribute a little bit at a time by moving gravel and rocks.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 11/30/2020
Last Updated: 11/30/2020
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1998
Age at the date of reported crime:19
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*