Rojai Fentress- Virginia- Convicted in 1996 Sept 1, 2018 0:32:05 GMT -5
Post by Scumhunter on Sept 1, 2018 0:32:05 GMT -5
(Above photo credit: newsleader.com)
Most of the people who helped put Rojai Fentress behind bars more than 20 years ago are gone, some by their own hand.
Detective James Hickman, retired from the Richmond Police Department, shot himself in the head last September, ending his life.
In 2003, the state's main witness against Fentress, Julie Howard, crawled in her bed at her family's Richmond home and killed herself, also with a gunshot to the head.
Teon Hayden, who dropped Fentress' name during the 1996 murder investigation into the shooting death of a Colonial Heights man, died in a homicide a few years later.
Another man who put Fentress at the scene of the shooting suffers from severe mental health issues.
The case against Fentress, almost entirely circumstantial, was enough to put him in prison for 53 years. The judge who sentenced him is dead, as is the defense attorney at the trial.
Fentress was barely 16 years old when arrested at school. He was never interviewed by Hickman, the lead homicide detective on the case, or anyone else from the Richmond Police Department. Fentress' home was never searched.
Another inmate in the Virginia Department of Corrections has confessed to the murder that put Fentress in prison.
Two years ago, Fentress' case finally came under scrutiny after The News Leader wrote about his plight, inaluding a review of taped interviews that put the trial testimony of Hickman and Howard in doubt.
The Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law then made justice for Fentress one of its top priorities. Its lawyers will go before a judge in September to ask that Rojai Fentress's 1996 murder conviction be re-opened.
Still, he remains an inmate at the Augusta Correctional Center, convicted of first-degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. The Craigsville prison is one of several institutions Fentress has called home during the past two decades.
As is his nature, Fentress refuses to be weighed down by the effects of his incarceration and will not allow himself to get lost in too many thoughts of "what if?"
He does want out, though.
"I'm not supposed to be here," Fentress, 38, recently said from prison.
The 1996 Richmond homicide that changed his life
Fentress didn't know it at the time, but the events that would drastically alter his life were already in motion the night of April 12, 1996.
Julie Howard, 31, had finished her shift as a hostess at the Lone Star Steakhouse on Midlothian Turnpike in Richmond, but her night was far from over. She visited a friend before heading to a neighborhood bar, Shamoo's, at about 12:30 a.m. It was there, moments before last call, that she spotted 28-year-old Thomas Foley playing pool.
Howard admitted in court she was attracted to Foley, who she described as a "ladies man," and told authorities she had first met him through her sister. As the bar closed on the morning of April 13, Foley asked Howard for a ride home. She obliged.
After they left the bar, they drove around in Howard's 1986 Camaro and visited two residences before Foley brought up the topic of crack cocaine, asking Howard if she'd ever tried it before. She admitted to smoking crack once or twice, court records show, and Foley convinced her to cruise by the Midlothian Village Apartments, a low-income housing complex on the city's south side.
After some back and forth, Foley negotiated a crack deal at the apartment complex, where about six to eight people were milling about. Foley got out of the car and walked to an outside hallway with a dope dealer. Out of Howard's sight, there was the sound of a gunshot. Foley returned to the car in a panic, telling Howard he'd been shot.
Foley told Howard to drive him to the Chippenham Hospital in Richmond, where he died from a fatal chest wound not long after.
Detective James Hickman was assigned the case, and court files show he quickly zeroed in on two men — Leonard "Teon" Hayden and Peter Jones — who were reportedly at the scene of the shooting. The U.Va. Innocence Project said their separate interviews were videotaped but claim the entirety of the tapes was never disclosed to the defense.
Hayden, a 19-year-old high school dropout, was questioned three months after Foley's killing.
"What I'm asking you to do is cover your own back, because right now you know that you can be charged as being an accessory in the first-degree," Hickman said on the tape.
The detective also claimed Hayden was picked out of a photo lineup placing him at the scene and in the hallway of the apartment complex when the shooting took place.
Hayden said he didn't see anything and couldn't identify the shooter, but said he heard gunshots.
The detective continued to question Hayden, who finally dropped a name — Rojai. He didn't have a last name, but when Hickman read him Fentress' home phone number, Hayden told him that was the right number.
Hayden claimed he bought a .25-caliber gun with Fentress for $75 earlier in the night, but said he let Fentress carry the gun because he put up more money. He said Fentress, 16 at the time, was selling "rocks."
But the interview tapes suggest a pre-existing relationship between the detective and Hayden's family, something not disclosed to the defense. U.Va. Innocence Project staff said it's pretty clear they had a preexisting relationship which could have played a role. During Hickman's interview with Hayden, the teen's mother and a female relative were invited into the interrogation room. During a break in questioning, Hickman left the room with Hayden's mother as the unidentified relative tells Teon Hayden that Hickman is "the one who got them boys that killed my brother," the tape showed.
Hickman returned and told Hayden's mother and the other woman not to tell anyone about the interview, and said he would do the same. Hickman then kissed the unidentified woman on the cheek near the end of the interview.
A second man questioned by Hickman three weeks after Hayden's interview reluctantly named Fentress as the shooter, but only after he was threatened with being charged, according to the tape. The U.Va. Innocence Project and Fentress said the man was an unreliable witness at the time and continues to suffer from schizophrenia.
Neither Hayden nor the second man were charged; neither was called to testify at Fentress' murder trial.
Lying on the stand?
One of the biggest contentions in Fentress' quest for freedom involves two photo lineups shown to Howard by Detective Hickman during his investigation. Each photo spread had six mug-shots. None were of Fentress.
In court, Howard testified she didn't pick anyone out of the lineups. Hickman said the same.
But an audio tape of the conversation — which Fentress said and his defense didn't hear until a 2016 appeal — painted a different picture.
“This one looks the closest,” Howard told Hickman on the recording. She later added, “This would be it ...” On the audio recording, it sounds as if Howard is tapping a photo with her finger, picking out someone who wasn't Fentress.
Once in court, Howard not only claimed she couldn't pick the shooter out of the photos, she said she only consumed three alcoholic drinks the night of Foley's killing. But on that same recording she told Detective Hickman "were both pretty well lit" and that she had four or five beers.
Howard killed herself in 2003, the U.Va. Innocence Project said. Hickman, 68, took his own life last year in North Chesterfield County. Both were shot in the head.
If it wasn't Fentress who killed Foley, who might it have been?
In 2014 another Richmond man, Deanthony M. Doane, signed an affidavit claiming he killed Foley. Doane is already serving a 38-year prison sentence for a 2005 drug slaying.
In a 2016 interview, Doane went into great detail about how the Colonial Heights man was killed. A former Richmond dealer who sold drugs at the Midlothian Village Apartments, Doane said a man by the name of "New York Chuck" controlled the drug trade at the apartment complex in 1996.
On the day Foley was killed, Doane said he was outside the apartment complex along with New York Chuck and his cousin, Leonard "Teon" Hayden, the man who identified Fentress as the killer, and three others when a "Camaro or Trans-Am" pulled into the parking lot shortly before 3 a.m.
Doane said he was armed with a .25-caliber pistol he'd bought from Hayden earlier in the day for $75. After negotiating with Foley, Doane said they fought because he said Foley wanted powder cocaine, not crack. As they grappled, Doane said he pulled his gun and shot Foley.
Doane said he had no reason to think he killed anyone, and said he didn't learn of the slaying until 18 years later in 2014 while incarcerated at Keen Mountain Correctional Center in Oakwood, where Fentress also was an inmate.
According to a legal opinion written in 2016 by a federal judge — who denied Fentress' petition for a writ of habeas corpus that challenged the constitutionality of his two felony convictions — the two inmates were housed on the same general pod for just a little over two months.
"In addition to the questionable delay in filing the affidavit eighteen (18) years after the 1996 murder was actually committed, the basic fact that Doane wrote the affidavit while he and petitioner were incarcerated together 'call into question' the affidavit's reliability," the judge wrote.
Trial was a charade
As director of investigation for the U.Va. Innocence Project clinic at the University of Virginia, Deirdre Enright has seen her fair share of miscarriages of justice.
She considers Fentress' case one them.
"Rojai's trial was a charade," Enright said.
There are many points of contention. For one, Enright said, Julie Howard (whose last name was Francisco at the trial) was newly married and pregnant when she took the stand just more than a year after Foley was killed. Enright said the prosecution capitalized on the image of a woman who would have been hesitant to try hard drugs and only had a couple of drinks the night of the slaying.
Enright, though, said that's far from the lifestyle Howard was used to. Based on her interviews with family members, Enright said Howard was a hard-partying woman who "if she had one drink, then she had 10."
Howard was also a substance abuser, not a person who tried crack cocaine just once or twice, Enright said. She also struggled with mental health issues.
"The real Julie Howard wasn’t the woman the jury saw," she said.
Enright is especially incredulous when discussing Hickman, the detective who never bothered to interview a 16-year-old boy he was planning to charge with first-degree murder.
"It's unbelievable," Enright said. "The fact that they never even tried to interview Rojai is absurd."
Richmond police never searched his family's residence either. His mother, Bessie Fentress, testified at the murder trial that Fentress was at their home when Foley was shot and killed.
In an earlier 2016 interview with The News Leader, conducted a year before he killed himself, Hickman seemed full of swagger. He said it wouldn't be unusual to take someone he'd never interviewed to trial on a murder charge. He also bragged about just picking up a second part-time retirement job, a gig he referred to as "easy money." Later, when given a chance to listen to the audio recording of him and Howard, he admitted it sounded like she picked somebody out of the lineups he'd shown her. And yet the prosecution let her claim otherwise on the stand.
Enright said the U.Va. Innocence Project will be combing through Hickman's criminal case files in the next couple of months. She noted that Hickman, by the 1990s, had also filed for personal bankruptcy three times. She believes his relationship with the Hayden family is a deep cause for concern as well, and said Fentress was likely chosen as a suspect because he was a "mama's boy" and an easy mark.
Enright also noted Fentress' lack of serious juvenile criminal history prior to the murder charge. He got caught stealing some G.I. Joe action figures as a boy, he told The News Leader, and police later arrested him as a young teen for assault and battery. The charge was immediately dismissed in juvenile court once it was determined Fentress didn't hit the victim but actually helped him up after an attack and walked him home, according to his mother.
Fentress said the most serious crime he committed as a juvenile was in Chesterfield County, where he and a friend, the son of a military man, snuck a firearm from a gun cabinet and fired it from a window into a nearby reservoir. That netted him a charge of possession of a firearm, and he spent 21 days in a juvenile detention center in Chesterfield County.
What's next for Fentress' case
The U.Va. Innocence Project is about to embark on its third year with the Fentress case, which might seem like a long time, and in September they will go before a judge to argue a brief in hopes new evidence turned over by the Commonwealth would allow the federal district court to revisit the case.
But convincing a court that there has been a mistake can be an arduous process, and Enright said each of her last three cases lasted several years.
"It takes so little time to get somebody convicted, and so much time to get them unconvicted," she said.
Thoughts? In my opinion, this case is all kinds of messed up. And it's never a good sign justice was served when the lead detective on the case conveniently kills himself once there's renewed interest. (Julie Howard killed herself also, although with her mental health issues who knew what her reasoning was). I also find it interesting that Deanthony Doane confessed because he is NOT serving a life sentence. Like Fentress, he should get out in his early 60's. (I looked up and Doane was 26 when convicted). Why would a guy who actually has motivation to NOT tell the truth falsely confess and risk staying in jail past his release date?
I normally say we post these cases to draw attention and for discussion purposes, but some I will be more vocal about than others.
And this is one I am going to be more vocal about.
I hope the Innocence Project successfully argues for a new trial for Fentress this month because in my opinion what has been done to him so far is a complete injustice.