Longform

Can I Get a Witness?

The sound of gunfire broke the calm of a clear, cold February morning just a few hours before dawn. Rushing through the breezeway of a southeast Dallas apartment complex, the thief yelled in vain for help. The first two bullets struck him in the back, slicing through his ribs and lungs while the third went straight through his left leg. He coughed blood, screamed and fell to the ground, a maroon splash marking the end of his run.

A woman from a nearby apartment rushed toward the fallen man and grabbed his hand. She knew him by his nickname, "Red." Paramedics arrived and took him to Mesquite Community Hospital. Within minutes, Red was dead. The root cause of his fate, 0.6 grams of crack, was tucked in his pants pocket.

After the shooting, the gunman quickly returned to his apartment and awoke his girlfriend with a vague, tearful confession. "I done something bad. I done something bad," he told her.

His lawyer would later say that earlier that evening, the woman was up doing drugs. Now she was naked, scrambling down the stairs of the apartment complex with a handful of clothes and a sobbing boyfriend by her side. They drove away from the complex to a nearby park before realizing they forgot something: They returned for the man's son.

On February 16, 2002, three days after Red's shooting death, Dallas police detectives found his killer, 27-year-old Corey Sharod Freeman. Several witnesses, including his girlfriend, told police he talked about the shooting. Another woman said she saw him do it. Case closed.

Last year in a Dallas County courtroom, Freeman confessed to the murder, saying he shot at Red, whose real name was Steven Rozelle Fields, after he saw the man rummaging through his car at 4:30 a.m. outside the Aspen Chase Apartments. Others testified that Freeman was out to get Red after he stole Freeman's crack a few days before the shooting. A jury sentenced Freeman to 15 years in prison.

Freeman's lawyers, the father and son team of Ed and Brian Gray, didn't seem to have any reason to be bothered by the outcome of the trial. Their client admitted to shooting an unarmed man in the back after the victim stole--that night anyway--nothing more than a Walkman, and all Freeman got was a maximum of 15 years behind bars. At the very least, most defense attorneys would have viewed the sentence as a draw.

But as they walked away from the courtroom last May, father and son were furious. Two weeks before the trial, and completely unknown to them, the state's lone eyewitness abruptly changed her story. Although she initially told police she saw "Corey shooting at Red," she later admitted she could not see the gunman after all. Suddenly she had a different tale to tell.

The witness told the prosecutor it was actually her friend, a mysterious man named Miguel, who saw the gunman as she and Miguel were driving away at around 4:30 a.m. from the Aspen Chase Apartments. It was Miguel who told her that the gunman was Freeman. The now former eyewitness admitted that she herself could not identify the shooter or the victim.

The witness didn't know Miguel's last name or his exact whereabouts, saying only that he moved to somewhere in Kentucky. She never told the police about Miguel, nor did anyone else apparently utter his name. In pages and pages of police reports on the murder of Steven Rozelle Fields, there's no mention of Miguel.

Prosecutors assigned an investigator to track down their new eyewitness, but he couldn't find him. The investigator also never learned Miguel's last name, his appearance, what he did for a living or how he knew Freeman. To this day, the District Attorney's Office knows far less about Miguel, its lone eyewitness in a murder trial, than most people know about the blind date they just met on Match.com.

The law says that prosecutors must turn over favorable or exculpatory evidence to the defense, which generally includes any clue or statement that might cause a jury to doubt the state's case. In the case against Freeman, the revelation that the only eyewitness had recast her account of what happened on the night of the shooting would seem to be a boon to the defense. But the prosecutor kept that evidence to herself for two weeks, thwarting the defense's chance to exploit it to their advantage.

In fact, Ed and Brian Gray didn't know that the "eyewitness" against their client changed her story until minutes before the trial, when they discovered that the state was going to use hearsay testimony. Although clearly stunned at the last-minute development, they offered impassioned arguments pleading with the judge for a continuance so that they could find out if Miguel existed and talk to him themselves, but the judge refused.

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Matt Pulle
Contact: Matt Pulle