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Earl Patrick Charles

In the late afternoon of October 3, 1974, two young black men walked into the Savannah Furniture Company and asked Fred Rosenstein, the 46-year-old son of the store’s owners, to help them look at stereo equipment.

His parents, Max and Myra Rosenstein, were in the back room of the store, as was Bessie Corcelius, their bookkeeper. Minutes later, Fred Rosenstein, followed by the two men, walked into the back room. One of the men shoved a pistol in Corcelius’s face, told them to get down, and instructed his partner to tie them up. Mrs. Rosenstein shouted defiantly, “You’ll have to shoot me. You’re not going to get the money.” At this, one of the men smashed her in the face with a tape dispenser.

At that moment, Max Rosenstein attempted to grab the approximately $1,000 in cash that was lying on the desk. One of the men shot him in the head. When Fred attempted to rush to his father’s aid, he too was shot. The men grabbed the money, leaving Corcelius terrified, but unharmed, hiding behind a desk. When the police arrived, Max was already dead. Fred died in the ambulance on his way to the hospital.

Detective F.W. Wade was the lead investigator on the case. He asked Myra Rosenstein and Corcelius to look through mug shots on two different occasions. Although Earl Charles’s photograph was among those they saw, they did not identify him as one of the killers. Nonetheless, Wade issued an arrest warrant for Charles, who was in Florida, and had drawn suspicion because he was said to have left town after the shootings.

At Charles’s extradition, both Corcelius and Rosenstein now identified him as one of the two men who had taken part in the robbery. There was much evidence to suggest that Corcelius was not a credible witness, but Wade overlooked it and did not report it to Charles’s defense team during the trial.

For example, Corcelius went to the police stating that she had seen the killers in downtown Savannah, and that she was sure it was them. When the police investigated this, they found that the two men were soldiers who had spent the day in question on their army base.

Second, when Corcelius identified Charles in a lineup, she also identified the man to the left of Charles as the person who had struck Myra Rosenstein in the face with a tape dispenser. The man that she identified was in a Florida prison at the time of the shooting.

Finally, defense attorneys were never informed that Corcelius and Rosenstein failed to identify Charles on the two occasions when they looked at police mug shots.

Wade also obscured the fact that Charles had a solid alibi. At the time of the murders, he was working in a gas station in Tampa, Florida. Wade made a trip to Tampa to check out this alibi during his investigation and spoke with Robert Zachery, the manager of the gas station. At the trial, Wade testified that Zachery told him Charles was not at work that day. Zachary testified to the contrary, offering time cards and pay stubs to prove it.

The prosecution also put a man named James Nixon on the stand during the trial. Nixon claimed to be a good friend of Charles. After insisting under oath that he was not testifying as part of a deal for leniency in his own criminal matter, Nixon told the court that Charles had bragged to him about shooting “a man and a little boy” in a furniture store. There were glaring problems with his testimony. First, the youngest person shot in the Savannah murders was 46 years old, hardly a little boy. Second, Nixon confused Charles’s name on several occasions, calling him Charles Earl, instead of Earl Charles.

Charles was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. His mother, Flossie Mae Charles, remained convinced of his innocence, and worked tirelessly to prove it. Nearly two years after her son’s conviction, she called Zachery to see if he remembered anything else that would prove Charles’s alibi. He mentioned to her that he used to have a detective come and check on Charles at work because he did not trust him. Further investigation revealed that the detective not only checked on Charles on the day of the murders, but he also recorded his visit in a daily log of activities that he kept. Flossie Mae Charles’s investigation had proved that her son was not in Savannah on the day of the murders.

Three years after Charles was convicted, his attorneys filed a motion for a new trial. In preparation, the district attorney began a new investigation into the case and found evidence that tended to prove Charles’s innocence. Nixon had not received the leniency promised to him by Wade, and he admitted that he lied during Charles’s trial.

Investigators also discovered Corcelius’s problems with identifying the gunmen and that none of the fingerprints found in the store matched Charles’s. Eventually, the compilation of evidence convinced the district attorney not to retry the case. The court vacated Charles’s conviction, and he was set free after serving three years and seven months on death row.

Upon his release, Charles filed a civil suit against Wade and the City of Savannah. After two trials, Charles settled his lawsuit for $75,000. This money did not change the fact that Charles could not find a job after his release and that the years in prison had permanently altered him. He struggled to put his life back in order and died in March 1991. Officials said he was struck and killed by a car after walking out into the traffic on a highway near Atlanta.

– Alexandria White
State:GA
County:Chatham
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1974
Convicted:1975
Exonerated:1978
Sentence:Death
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:21
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct