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Larry Trent Roberts

Other Dauphin County, Pennsylvania Exonerations
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At about 10 p.m. on December 21, 2005, 26-year-old Duwan “Wubb” Stern was fatally shot in the head as he sat in a car near 20th and Swatara Streets in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Jacqueline Wright, who was black, was in a second-floor bedroom in her home on Swatara Street when she heard two gunshots and squealing tires. She called police and said she looked out her dining room window and saw a dark-skinned man standing between her car and a blue car with its lights on. She said the man was “kind of tall” and of “medium build” and was talking to another man who was lighter-skinned and wore a jacket. She said both men got into the front seat of the blue car from the passenger side and then Stern was pushed out of the driver’s door and onto the area between the sidewalk and the street. She described the darker-skinned man as wearing dark clothing and a jacket with the hood up.

Lisa Starr, who was white, was in her home across 20th Street from Wright’s when she also heard gunshots and squealing tires. She said she saw a black man with his head inside a parked car on the opposite side of the street. She said the man walked in front of the parked car’s headlights and then crossed the street and walked in the direction of her house, passing within about three or four feet of her window. She described the man as wearing white pants, a white t-shirt, and a dark jacket with fur on the hood, which was down.

Wright and Starr were brought to the police station. Prior to their arrival, Tony Ebersole called police to report the shooting and said that his friend, 31-year-old Thomas Mullen, had witnessed the shooting. However, Ebersole said that Mullen was reluctant to come in because he was worried about being in violation of his parole by being out after curfew.

Police then put together a photographic array of Caucasian males that included Mullen. Wright selected three photographs, including Mullen’s, as possibly being one of the two men she saw.

Starr was also shown the photographic array. She pointed to a couple of photographs and said they had “similar characteristics” of the man she saw on the street.

Several hours after midnight, Mullen and Ebersole came to the police station. Mullen said he and Ebersole were in the area trying to buy drugs and that Ebersole was waiting for his dealer, identified as “Los,” on a nearby street. Mullen said he saw Stern in his car with a passenger and that Stern offered to sell him drugs. Mullen said he walked back to Ebersole, who declined and said he wanted to wait for “Los.”

Mullen went back toward Stern. Ebersole said he then heard gunshots, and Mullen reappeared looking shocked. He told him that Stern had just been shot.

Mullen said that when he heard the gunshots, he went to Stern’s car and found the man who had been in the passenger seat standing next to the open driver’s side door and the car’s tires were spinning on the icy pavement. Mullen said he saw blood coming from Stern’s mouth. Mullen said he asked if the car was stuck. The man then showed him the gun and said Stern was stuck.

Mullen said the man was black, 5 feet 8 to 5 feet 10 inches tall, and weighing 160 to 175 pounds. Mullen viewed for a few seconds a photographic array that had the photograph of “Los,” but did not identify anyone. The array also included the photograph of 35-year-old Larry Trent Roberts. Police later said Roberts’s photograph was included because it was among computer-selected photographs of fillers that were similar to the photograph of “Los.” Mullen was taken into custody on charges of hindering apprehension and tampering with evidence based on his admission that hey helped shove Stern out of the car.

Later on December 22, 2005, Starr and Wright were also shown the “Los” photographic array. While Starr did not identify anyone, she pointed to Roberts’s photograph and said it had “similar characteristics” to those of the man she saw on the street. She said she did not want to wrongly identify someone and “have them go to jail for something they didn’t do.” Wright did not identify anyone from the array.

On January 7, Harrisburg Police Detective David Lau obtained the records for Stern’s cell phone showing that three calls were made to Stern around 8:30 p.m. from Roberts’s cell phone. Roberts was arrested five days later and interrogated. He denied calling Stern at that time of the night, but said he did try calling Stern later that night after hearing that he may have been shot.

On January 12, the day of Roberts’s arrest, Detective Lau told him that he had witnesses who could identify Roberts. Roberts agreed to have the witnesses look at him, and Lau arranged for Wright to come to the police station and view Roberts in a one-on-one procedure. Although Lau told her to let him know if she did not recognize anyone, Wright later said she thought the police wanted her to make a positive identification on the person she saw. After identifying Roberts in the one-on-one procedure, Wright told Lau she had recognized him in the array she was shown on December 22nd but did not say so at the time.

Several weeks later, Lau discovered that the records he reviewed of Stern’s incoming and outgoing calls displayed the calls in Pacific time—not Eastern time. Converting the times to Eastern time confirmed Roberts’s claim about the timing of his calls to Stern.

Nonetheless, Roberts was charged with first-degree murder.

A week later, on January 20, Mullen gave a different account after he entered into a cooperation agreement with the prosecution. In this account, he said he looked at Stern’s body to see if there were drugs in his lap or his crotch, which was where Stern usually kept drugs he was offering for sale. Mullen also said that although he didn’t identify anyone in the photographic array, he recognized someone in position #8 as possibly being involved. That photo was of Roberts, but Mullen did not positively identify him.

On February 26, 2006, Mullen gave a third statement. Now he said that the man with the gun said he needed Stern’s car and told Mullen he had to help push Stern from the vehicle. Mullen said he complied, although he didn’t know if Stern was dead. He said he figured maybe he could find Stern’s drugs when he was pushed onto the ground. Mullen said he found no drugs and so left and returned to Ebersole.

At Roberts’s preliminary hearing in March 2006, Mullen for the first time said Roberts was the gunman. He said he recognized him in the first photographic array, but did not select him because he was afraid for his and his family’s safety. Mullen remained incarcerated for parole violations based on the hindering and tampering charges.

Mullen, who was the only witness called by the prosecution at the hearing, maintained his original description of the man, although Roberts weighed nearly 300 pounds—a far cry from the 160 to 175 pounds Mullen had reported originally. Mullen said he had been reluctant to talk to police at the time of the shooting because his drug activity was a parole violation. He said, “It wasn’t my goal to provide an accurate description. I was just giving a description to seem like I was cooperating so I could leave.”

In October 2007, when Roberts was originally scheduled to go to trial, Layton Potter told police that around Halloween 2005, Roberts told him that he was going to kill Stern for failing to pay for drugs that Roberts gave Stern to sell. Potter, who had been a police informant, made the statement while he was awaiting sentencing on a guilty plea to an illegal weapons possession charge and was facing a sentence of five to 10 years in prison.

A month later, Roberts went to trial in Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas. Wright and Starr both identified him as the man they saw on the street that night standing at Stern’s car. Wright claimed she had recognized Roberts, but didn’t want to get involved in the case. Although she identified Roberts in court, when shown the array containing his picture, she identified someone else as the darker-skinned man she had seen on the night of Stern’s death. Starr had no explanation for how she was able to identify Roberts for the first time nearly two years after the crime.

Mullen testified and identified Roberts, although he gave a different reason for not identifying Roberts in the first photographic array. Instead of citing fear for his safety, Mullen said he was angry at being kept in a cold holding cell and was not going to cooperate any further. Mullen admitted that all of his charges were dismissed a month prior to trial, but during questioning by the prosecutor, he denied that was the result of any deal with the prosecution.

Potter claimed that he sold drugs that he got from Roberts and was on the phone with Roberts frequently. Potter said that around Halloween 2005, Roberts first said Stern owed him money. Potter also said that about a week before the shooting, Roberts repeated his threat against Stern. “You know, I guess time went on and he was still owed what he was owed and didn’t get it, so I guess he felt (it) necessary to take action now,” Potter said.

On cross-examination, Potter admitted he was in jail from October 10 to November 14, 2005, suggesting the Halloween story was concocted. He also admitted that cell phone records showed no calls to Roberts. The day after Potter testified, he was sentenced to probation on the weapons charges.

The prosecution and Roberts’s defense attorney presented agreed-upon testimony from an expert saying that cell phone records showed that Roberts received calls on his cell phone at 9:57 p.m. and at 10:08 p.m. Both of those calls bounced off a cell phone tower that was about three miles from where Stern was killed. The expert testified that a map of the coverage area for the cell tower showed it was “impossible” for Roberts’s phone to have been at the scene of the crime.

The prosecution contended there was no proof that Roberts was in possession of his phone at the time of the crime.

Roberts’s defense attorney presented very little evidence. He called Danielle McCullom, whose number appeared on Roberts’s cell phone records that night, but never asked her if she spoke to him that night. Other witnesses who could have testified to Roberts’s use of his cell phone throughout the day and immediately after the murder were not called.

On November 14, 2007, the jury convicted Roberts of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In 2009, after his conviction had been upheld on appeal, Roberts wrote to the Pennsylvania Innocence Project just weeks after it opened its doors. In 2013, the Project agreed to take his case and interceded in then-pending post-conviction proceedings.

Not long after, Potter recanted his trial testimony during an interview with a defense investigator. He admitted that he did not have any personal knowledge of drug transactions between Stern and Roberts. He later testified: “Honestly, sir, the only thing I really remember was me doing my darndest to be a part of it so I could make my situation a little better.”

Ultimately, the attorneys filed amended petitions and a hearing was held in the spring of 2016. At the hearing, Tyisha Williams, the mother of Roberts’s child, testified that she called Roberts’s cell phone at 10:26 p.m. on the night of the shooting, and asked him to take her to a nearby Target store so she could exchange a purchase. She said Roberts was always on his cell phone and never let others have it. She said she had the receipt and that she would have testified at the trial, but that Roberts’s defense attorney never called her.

She admitted that she initially told police that she and Roberts were at a Red Lobster having dinner on the night of the crime, but said she had gotten confused about the night they were there. It was in January 2006—after the shooting, she said.

Bernard Lyde testified that on the day of the crime, he spent the day with Roberts working at Roberts’s used car lot and that Roberts had his phone with him all day. After work, they went to dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. Lyde drove Roberts home shortly after 9:00 p.m.—an hour before the shooting. Lyde said he had provided this information to Roberts’s defense attorney, but was never called to testify.

Roberts also testified at the hearing and gave an account of all of his calls, including the calls to Danielle McCullom, with whom he was trying to get together.

Nilam Sanghvi, Pennsylvania Innocence Project attorney, Thomas Schmidt of Pepper Hamilton LLP, and Tucker Hull of the Law Office of Tucker R. Hull, LLC, also presented evidence discovered in the prosecution files. The first was an email from the lead detective, David Lau, to the trial prosecutor. The email said that he had spoken to an expert about the cell phone tower information and that “we need to give serious consideration that (Roberts) might not be the killer in this case.”

Lau said that the information “causes me to hesitate.” He said he would prefer to let Roberts go than to “carry with me the possibility that the witnesses could be wrong and an innocent man is incarcerated.”

The files also contained emails between the prosecutor and Mullen’s attorney that discussed how Mullen’s charges were to be dismissed in exchange for his testimony. Mullen had testified that there was no deal.

On June 30, 2017, Court of Common Pleas Judge Scott Arthur Evans granted the petition, vacated Roberts’s conviction, and ordered a new trial. The prosecution appealed the decision, and the ruling was upheld in October 2018.

Roberts went to trial a second time in September 2019. Starr and Mullen again testified. Wright had died, so her testimony from the first trial was read to the jury. The prosecution did not call Potter to testify.

The defense presented a full accounting of the dozens of calls to and from Roberts’s cell phone on the day of the crime, showing that his cell phone was with him at all times—and that the cell phone tower data showed he was far away from the crime. The jury also was shown the Target receipt. In addition, the defense presented videos showing the crime scene at the same time of day and phase of the moon as on the night Stern was murdered. The videos showed what Starr and Wright would have seen that night. The videos showed a dimly lit scene in which the face of Roberts’s brother—who was posing as the gunman for the videos—was virtually undiscernible.

Temple University Beasley School of Law Professor Jules Epstein testified about how the conditions—stress, lighting, and distance—as well as the passage of time could cause witnesses to make mistaken identifications. Epstein also explained that the police procedures for obtaining identifications—non-blind, repeated showings, a suggestive one-on-one—increased the risks of mis-identification.

On September 17, 2019, the jury deliberated for about two and a half hours before acquitting Roberts and he was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/22/2019
State:Pennsylvania
County:Dauphin
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2005
Convicted:2007
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:35
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No