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Horace Roberts

Other California Exonerations with Innocence Organization Involvement
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On April 14, 1998, 32-year-old Terry Cheek failed to arrive at her job on the nightshift at a diagnostics testing facility in San Juan Capistrano, California. Her husband, Googie Harris, Sr., with whom Cheek was locked in a bitter divorce battle, later told police she left their home in Riverside, California, around 10 p.m.

Shortly before midnight, a California Highway Patrol officer spotted a Nissan with its flashers blinking parked on the southbound shoulder of Interstate 15, about mid-way between Cheek’s home and her workplace. The truck was locked and did not appear to have been disturbed. The officer left a notice saying it would be towed if not removed in 72 hours.

Cheek’s body was found four days later lying on some rocks near Corona Lake in Riverside County, about a mile south from where the Nissan truck was found and had since been towed.

Harris initially said that when Cheek left for work on the night she was last seen, she was driving a Nissan truck belonging to 40-year-old Horace Roberts, a co-worker at the testing facility with whom Cheek was having an affair. At the time, Harris knew of the affair as did Roberts’s wife, Debra. However, Harris quickly changed his account to say that she left in her Volkswagen convertible.

Detectives believed that if Cheek left in the truck, she must have been going to pick up Roberts, who was living in Temecula. If she was in the Volkswagen, detectives believed she was going to a Park N Ride where Roberts regularly picked her up so they could carpool to work.

Police focused on Roberts as a suspect after he repeatedly denied he was having an affair with Cheek, although it was the subject of the divorce battle between Cheek and Harris and known to several co-workers.

Police questioned Roberts about a Lorus wristwatch found near Cheek’s body that was at least similar to, if not the same watch, that Roberts once wore. During an interview with police, Roberts at first denied the watch was his. He later admitted it was his, but said that he had not worn it in some time because it no longer worked. Roberts subsequently gave a third account—saying that he had given the watch to a friend. Roberts’s wife, Debra, turned over several watches Roberts owned and often wore, including two that were similar in appearance to the Lorus watch.

On April 27, 1998, Roberts was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. In March 1999, he went to trial in Riverside County Superior Court. The prosecution presented evidence that Cheek had been struck over the head and then strangled with a rope found near the body.

The prosecution also presented evidence that Roberts called in to work on the night Cheek disappeared and gave inconsistent versions of where he was and why he needed a ride to work. Although Cheek regularly picked up Roberts and they drove to work together, Roberts did not want to disclose that information. He was Cheek’s supervisor and he feared he would be fired if his employer learned that he and Cheek were romantically involved while they were still married to others.

The prosecution contended that Roberts needed a ride because he had killed Cheek and left his truck on the side of the road. Evidence was presented that Cheek and Roberts had quarreled on March 18 and April 12, 1998.

Moreover, a purse belonging to Cheek was found in Roberts’s apartment in Temecula, California, where they both had lived together for a time. One of Cheek’s daughters from a previous relationship testified that Cheek was carrying the purse the night she was last seen alive.

The watch became a focal point of the prosecution’s argument to the jury. “What is more compelling than the watch that’s found next to the murdered woman’s body?” the prosecutor asked during closing argument. “There’s nothing more compelling than that.”

A mistrial was declared in April 1999 when the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

Roberts went to trial a second time in May 1999 and in June, another mistrial was declared when the second jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

In July 1999, Roberts went to trial a third time and on July 16, the jury convicted Roberts of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

In 2000, the California Court of Appeal upheld his conviction. Over the next three years, Roberts filed two separate state petitions for a writ of habeas corpus and a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. All were denied.

In 2003, the California Innocence Project (CIP) at California Western School of Law began investigating Roberts’s case and ultimately petitioned for DNA testing. In 2013, lawyers for Roberts filed a petition seeking a new trial, citing DNA testing performed on the wristband of the watch found near Cheek’s body.

The petition said that a mixture of DNA from at least three males was found on the wristband and that the “major contributor” of the DNA was Harris’s son, Googie Harris, Jr. Harris Sr. and Roberts were excluded as contributors to the mixture.

The petition also said that the rope found near Cheek’s body was orange and black—the same kind that the elder Harris used for his dog. A strand from the rope found at the scene was consistent with a rope found at Harris’s home.

The petition was denied in 2014.

More DNA testing was performed. Tests on fingernail clippings from Cheek’s left hand were matched to 52-year-old Joaquin Leal, the elder Harris’s nephew. In addition, DNA tests on a right hand fingernail clipping from Cheek and an apparent bloodstain on Cheek’s front right pants excluded Roberts and was the profile of an unidentified male.

In May 2018, Justin Brooks, CIP director, and CIP attorney Michael Semanchik asked Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin to re-examine Roberts’s case. Hestrin turned the case over to the Conviction Review Unit, which he established in 2015 after being elected as district attorney.

On October 2, 2018, the prosecution agreed to vacate Roberts’s conviction and further agreed to his immediate release from prison. Due to an ongoing investigation, Roberts’s release was kept secret from the public by sealing all proceedings. On October 3, 2018, Roberts walked out of Avenal State Prison.

On October 15, 2018, Hestrin and Brooks announced that Roberts was exonerated and murder charges were filed against Googie Harris Sr. and Leal. Roberts was granted a certificate of innocence.

“These same advances in technology that are allowing us to go back and look at old murder cases that have sat dormant, to revitalize and charge those cases, is the same technology that freed Mr. Horace Roberts,” Hestrin declared.

CIP attorney Semanchik said, “No one had any idea who Leal was since his name did not appear in any of the case files. Ultimately, the investigation led back to both (Harris and Leal) committing this murder and leaving Cheek’s body on the side of the freeway.”

In November 2018, Leal and Harris pled not guilty to the murder.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/18/2018
Last Updated: 12/3/2018
State:California
County:Riverside
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1998
Convicted:1999
Exonerated:2018
Sentence:15 to life
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:40
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*