Rocky Myers is an intellectually disabled black man from New Jersey facing execution in Alabama for a crime many believe he did not commit. Rocky was convicted by a predominantly white jury in the death of Ludie Mae Tucker, an elderly white woman. Even after convicting him, the jury recommended that Rocky receive a life sentence. Due to a unique Alabama process, the elected judge was allowed to disregard the jury’s recommendation and sentence Rocky to death. This documentary examines the issues in Rocky’s case including his intellectual disability, his innocence, and how the justice system failed Rocky–including his lawyer abandoning him and judicial override.
On the night of October 4, 1991, Mamie Dutton was asleep in a bedroom at her cousin’s house in Decatur, Alabama. The cousin, Ludie Mae Tucker, lived a few blocks west of the city’s shopping district, in a run-down neighborhood that struggled with crime and had been dubbed “crack town” by locals. Around midnight, the doorbell rang.
When Dutton peered out of her room, she could see Ludie Mae talking through the window blinds with a man on the porch. He was agitated, and said he’d been in a car crash and needed to use the telephone to call his family. “I’m bleeding to death,” he pleaded. Ludie Mae offered to dial the number for him. Dutton could hear that he’d come inside the house. “[He] was just a jabbering and his voice was a quivering,” Dutton said later in a statement. She heard Ludie Mae say that her husband was in the other room—a strange comment, given that she wasn’t married.
Suddenly, Ludie Mae cried out. Dutton was too scared to leave the room. “I just froze. I couldn’t move,” Dutton later told police. “I knowed he was doing something to her.”
The man then ran into Dutton’s darkened room and stabbed her in the side before running out of the house. She didn’t manage to get a clear look at him—except to see that he was wearing a “light looking shirt.” When Dutton came out of her room, holding the wound on her side, Ludie Mae was lying on the couch bleeding with the phone in her hand. She’d been stabbed four times, including once in the left side of her chest, but she’d managed to dial 911 and was on the phone with Decatur police.
An officer who’d been patrolling the neighborhood arrived on the scene minutes after Ludie Mae’s call. Ludie Mae was near-hysterical, but conscious enough to describe her attacker to the officers who arrived moments later as a black male, stocky and short, with a “light colored shirt that looked like it had blood on it.” An ambulance rushed her to the hospital, but it was too late. The stab wound to her chest had pierced her heart, and not long after arrival, she was pronounced dead.
More than two years later, a man named Robin “Rocky” Myers was convicted of Ludie Mae Tucker’s murder. At the time of Ludie Mae’s death, Rocky was living across the street from her with his wife and children on one side of a converted duplex. Today, he’s one of 175 prisoners on death row in Alabama, in the same prison where Dominique Ray was recently executed.
According to his lawyers, the state may be preparing to kill an innocent man. Convicted on the basis of scant evidence by a nearly all-white jury in a trial that lasted only a week, Rocky has intellectual disability, scoring at or below the crucial 75-point threshold for a formal diagnosis in four out of five IQ tests. His death sentence was imposed by a judge who overrode the jury’s recommendation for life without parole through a procedural option that is no longer legal. And because of egregious conduct by an attorney working on his case, Rocky lost his chance for a post-conviction appeal—which meant that he was unable to present new evidence in federal court, including testimony revealing that police interfered with a key witness.
To Kacey Keeton, a federal defender who picked up Rocky’s appeal in 2007, the case is a checklist for everything that’s wrong with the death penalty in America. “I think there was an elderly white lady that was dead in Decatur, Alabama, and the prosecution was telling [the jury], ‘Hey, we have this black guy who did it,’” she said. “And I think that’s it.”
Rocky wasn’t the first suspect to come under the spotlight during the investigation. After Ludie Mae’s murder, detectives searched her house for forensic evidence. They lifted a number of fingerprints, including one partial palm print, and determined that a VCR—a valuable consumer good in 1991—was missing. Then the day after the murder, a local man handed over to the Decatur police department a VCR matching the description of the one stolen from Ludie Mae’s house. He said he’d found it at his sister’s house, which was just a few blocks up the road from Ludie Mae’s.
The house wasn’t an average family home. His sister was running the property as a “shot house,” where people could buy whiskey and beer, and a local drug dealer named Leon “Butch” Madden sold crack cocaine from the porch. Butch’s operation was no secret to law enforcement, with one witness in the case later saying that he had a “well-known relationship with the Decatur police.” There were rumors that he’d been given a de facto license to sell drugs in exchange for information and other favors.
When police called Butch in, he complied, along with one of his lieutenants, Willie “Roadrunner” Raybon. After questioning, the two men signed statements saying that a regular customer of the shot house, Anthony “Cool Breeze” Ballentine, had traded the VCR for crack on the night of Ludie Mae’s murder. Butch’s statement described Cool Breeze as showing up with the VCR, “sweating and shaking, acting paranoid as hell.”
Cool Breeze was well-known in the neighborhood. Although he was a heavy crack user, his family was respected, with deep roots in Decatur. Soon police got another tip that pointed toward his involvement in the murder. A woman who lived in the neighborhood called in and said she’d seen him run into an alley near Ludie Mae’s house on the night of the murder, wearing a white shirt stained with blood. Armed with the statements, detectives put out a warrant for Cool Breeze’s arrest, picking him up at the aluminum plant where he worked.
With Cool Breeze in custody, the governor’s office issued a reward for further information about the murder to see if they could strengthen their case. A few weeks later, a local man who’d known Cool Breeze for nearly 30 years came forward to claim it, saying that he’d seen someone else cross the road near Ludie Mae’s house with a VCR tucked under his arm on the night of the murder. He’d been tracked down by an investigator working for Cool Breeze’s defense team, who found him working at the same country club where Cool Breeze’s father served as head waiter. He offered detectives an affidavit saying that the man he’d seen cross the road was short and stocky, certainly not Cool Breeze, who was nearly six-foot tall.
Detectives called Butch and Roadrunner back into the station for another interview, where both men recanted their earlier statements. Roadrunner claimed he’d implicated Cool Breeze because he was angry over an argument they’d had the night of the murder, and Butch said he’d backed up Roadrunner’s statement because “I just figured that’s what everybody wanted to hear.” They said the story they’d originally told was still mostly true: A man had come to the shot house asking for crack on credit the night of Ludie Mae’s murder, returning later with a VCR to trade.
But there was one major change. Instead of Cool Breeze, they now fingered Rocky Myers as the man who’d come to the shot house with the VCR.
After Butch and Roadrunner changed their statements, homicide detectives turned their focus toward Rocky, who was on probation for receiving stolen property. Detectives called him for a urine test, which he failed—a violation of his probation. Rocky was sent to jail, where he was interrogated. The interrogation wasn’t filmed or recorded, but the two detectives gave an account of it during Rocky’s trial. According to Detective Sergeant Dwight Hale, Rocky admitted to using crack but denied knowing anything about the murder and said he’d never met Roadrunner or Butch before. But then Hale asked Rocky if he knew a man named Marzell Ewing. Rocky said he did.
Marzell was an associate of Butch’s who, in his own words, “sold drugs, watched houses, and did basically anything he needed at the time.” He and Rocky knew each other well from around the neighborhood. So when Hale said that Marzell had made a statement saying that he’d seen Rocky give a VCR to Butch the night Ludie Mae was killed, Rocky hung his head. In the following hours, he admitted knowing Butch and Roadrunner and said that he had indeed traded a VCR for crack at the shot house on the night of Ludie Mae’s murder.
But Rocky denied that he’d been at Ludie Mae’s house that night; he claimed he’d found the VCR stashed in the alley that runs between his house and the shot house. When detectives pressed him on the timing of his story about finding the VCR and taking it to Butch, he faltered—first, it was 40 minutes before police arrived at Ludie Mae’s house, then 10 minutes, and finally, he said he couldn’t remember clearly. When Hale told him that he was facing the electric chair, he started crying and asked to speak with his mother.
Keeton, Rocky’s current attorney, says that his inability to provide a clear time line during the interrogation has everything to do with his intellectual disability, which she’s observed in more than a decade of working with him on his case. For years when she’d visit him in prison, for example, she found it strange that he would refuse her offer to eat while they talked about his case—until she realized that he didn’t know how to operate a vending machine.
“He was under extreme stress and anxiety and not understanding a lot of the communication,” she said. “Asking him a month-plus out, ‘What were you doing on October 4?’—there’s no way he can provide a good memory. So you have someone who’s intellectually disabled fumbling it, and sounding like somebody fumbling it.”
But for the detectives, Rocky’s admission that he’d initially lied, along with his erratic account of the time line and the statements they had from Butch, Roadrunner, and Marzell saying that they saw Rocky with the VCR, was all they needed. Cool Breeze was released, and Rocky was charged with the capital murder of Ludie Mae Tucker.
Rocky’s trial began two years later. The prosecutor told the jury a straightforward story: Rocky’s drug addiction had overwhelmed his judgment, and after Butch refused to give him crack on credit he broke into Ludie Mae’s house and killed her for her VCR. But there were parts of the prosecution’s story that didn’t add up.
To start, multiple witnesses described Rocky’s attire the night they saw him at the shot house as black or dark brown rather than the light-colored shirt that Ludie Mae and her cousin said their assailant was wearing. And Roadrunner testified that Cool Breeze had also been at the shot house on multiple occasions that night, at one point “sweating real hard” and wearing a white sweatshirt with blood on it. Rocky had terrible eczema—even the detectives who interrogated him noted his flaky, scaly skin—yet despite the prosecution’s contention that he’d been in a violent struggle with Ludie Mae, no skin flakes were found at the scene. None of the prints that investigators found at the crime scene matched Rocky’s.
Roadrunner also testified that the alley leading to the shot house was a well-known stash spot, saying that he himself had frequently found and hidden stolen goods and drugs there. Police arrived at Ludie Mae’s house just minutes after her frantic 911 call, making it plausible that the assailant had stashed the VCR in the nearby alley once he heard sirens approaching the area. In fact, there was no evidence at all that Rocky had been at the scene of the crime aside from his possession of a VCR.
“They had all these people, witnesses coming up, and they would have a given name and a nickname, and then a street nickname,” said Mae Puckett, a juror who served on the case. “But with every nickname came a different version of the story.”
Finally, Rocky took the stand. He testified that on the afternoon of Ludie Mae’s murder he’d bought crack from Butch and smoked it back at his house. He’d planned to go to a club with his in-laws but when he arrived at their house, they’d already left. On his way back home he said he spotted the VCR hidden under a bush in the alley, took it to the shot house that night, and traded it to Butch for a $20 rock of crack. But he was adamant in stating that he had nothing to do with Ludie Mae’s murder.
Rocky’s testimony raised critical questions. Why would Ludie Mae have believed that her neighbor needed to use her phone to call his family after a car crash, and why didn’t she identify him to police as her attacker before she died? Years later, Mamie Dutton, her cousin, told a lawyer working on Rocky’s appeal that she and Ludie Mae had seen Rocky across the street earlier that day, and Ludie Mae had mentioned that she knew him from the times he’d knocked on her door to ask for ice. And Rocky surely knew that Ludie Mae lived alone—yet on the night of the murder, Dutton said she’d heard her cousin tell her attacker that her husband was in the other room.
Puckett, the juror, noticed these holes in the prosecutors’ case. “It was the state’s place to prove that Rocky Myers was in the home and committed that crime. In my mind it never happened,” she said. “I kept waiting for that word that was going to tell me what happened and there was never one. There was never that ‘aha’ moment.”
But Puckett says the deck felt stacked against Rocky from the beginning. During jury selection, one juror said that if a suspect made it through a grand jury he was “automatically guilty.” And she remembers that another juror kept referring to the VCR as “rabbit tracks” that proved his guilt. A decade after the trial, when Keeton took over Rocky’s appeal she and Sara Romano—an investigator assigned to the case—interviewed another juror who openly used a vicious racial slur to refer to Rocky and called him a “thug.”
Puckett recalls that at least three other jurors didn’t believe there was enough evidence to convict Rocky. But as hard as they tried, Puckett and the others who shared her uncertainty couldn’t get the rest to budge. Eleven of the 12 jurors were white, and most were set on voting guilty.
According to Puckett, the group of unconvinced jurors feared that if they didn’t find a compromise, the outcome of the trial would be a hung jury. In that case, Rocky would be retried in front of a new jury that could have even fewer sympathetic members, and increasing the chances that he would be sentenced to death. So they reached an agreement: They would vote for a guilty verdict along with the rest in exchange for a recommendation of life without parole. “We were dealing with ourselves trying to come up with a way to save his life,” Puckett said. “That’s what it boiled down to.”
Rocky was thus convicted of capital murder, and by a margin of 9-3 the jury provided their agreed-upon recommendation of life without parole to the judge. The verdict came as a stunning blow to Rocky, who’d been convinced that the trial would end with his acquittal. “I was very surprised,” he said in a phone interview. “I thought I was going to go back to New Jersey.”
A few months later, Puckett was at her home outside of Decatur when she got a call from one of the other jurors. The judge who’d presided over the case had exercised his option of “judicial override,” discarding the jury’s recommendation of life without parole and sentencing Rocky to die instead. From the bench, he said the jury had been too “emotional” in choosing not to recommend the death penalty on its own and described Rocky as a “threat to society.”
“I never thought for a moment that he did it,” said Puckett, her voice cracking. “We struggled over [our decision] for good reason. And if we were emotional, it was valid. How could someone do that without emotion? Would you want someone like that on a jury?”
Grant clemency to Robin Myers and change his sentence from death to life without the possibility of parole
Full Article Here – TheNation.com