Man Finally Freed After 20 Years for Murder He Didn’t Commit
With the help of the California Innocence Project, Horace Roberts now walks free after spending 20 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit.
Horace Roberts was declared factually innocent on October 15, 2018, of murdering his lover, Terry Cheek, who was actually murdered by her husband. DNA tests conducted in 2017 proved that Cheek’s husband, Googie Harris, killed Cheek and pinned the murder on Roberts.
Roberts was convicted of the murder of Cheek in 1999 and had remained in prison until early this week. The prosecution originally won their case against Roberts largely because his truck was parked close to where Cheek’s body was found along Interstate 15, and his watch was beside her. Unfortunately, Roberts could not make consistent statements to establish that he actually dated Cheek, but had nothing to do with her death.
‘Evidence’ Doesn’t Make Sense
Roberts’ case came to the attention of the California Innocence Project (CIP) in 2003. Justin Brooks, Director of the CIP and a professor at the California Western School of Law, stated that CIP took interest in the case because no physical evidence tied Roberts to the crime. He added it made no sense that the accused would park his truck close to the body and then simply walk back to town, leaving his watch behind too.
DNA tests conducted by the CIP in 2007 on evidence from the crime scene showed two men were actually involved in Cheek’s murder. The profiles of the men could not be established from the DNA databank. After DNA testing evolved, the CIP ran more sophisticated DNA tests in 2017 and got their answers.
The CIP’s DNA results found that the DNA profile under the fingernails of Cheek’s left hand matched that of Joaquin Leal, Harris’ nephew and a convicted sex offender. The DNA under the fingernails of Cheek’s right hands matched that of a male attacker yet unknown. The DNA on a bloodstain on Cheek’s pants also belonged to the unidentified man.
“No one had any idea who Leal was since his name did not appear in any of the case files,” said Michael Semanchik, Managing Attorney at the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law. “Leal is Googie Harris’s nephew, and ultimately the investigation led back to both of them committing this murder and leaving Cheek’s body on the side of the freeway.”
“Googie Harris set Roberts up,” added Justin Brooks. “It’s the oldest story there is in the murder business. Husband kills wife who is cheating on him. The twist in this case is that the husband then set up the lover to go to prison for the rest of his life.”
Brooks says Googie Harris killed his wife Terry Cheek, and his nephew Joaquin Leal helped him through the act. They both set up Roberts to take the fall. What CIP found particular unnerving is that Harris continued to maintain that Roberts killed his wife and even attended a 2011 parole hearing where he opposed Roberts’ release from prison.
Roberts is Freed
The California Innocence Project presented the DNA evidence to the Riverside District Attorney’s Office. Earlier this month, Riverside District Attorney Mike Hestrin consented to free Roberts from prison. Hestrin reversed the conviction, exonerating Roberts of any wrongdoing. He thanked the CIP for their investigation and vowed to “aggressively apply new technologies to past, present and future prosecutions.”
Roberts has returned home and now reunited with his family. “This is what I missed more than anything—my freedom,” he said.
Googie Harris and his nephew Joaquin Leal have been arrested and are facing charges for the murder of Terry Cheek and the wrongful incarceration of Roberts.