Fight for freedom; His story moves from prison to redemption

 

The San Antonio Express News

Sunday, February 15, 2004

By Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje, Staff Writer

 

HOUSTON - As he walks across the Texas Southern University campus toward the school's Thurgood Marshall School of Law, there's nothing to distinguish Anthony Robinson from his fellow law students.  He's an average-looking man in an average, slightly rumpled suit. Bit of a paunch. Heavy backpack slung across one shoulder. Law school fraternity pin stuck to one lapel. He waves to his peers, says hello with the easy camaraderie that binds students.

 

He's genial and affable, if a tad low-key. A bit guarded. But there's nothing average about Robinson's story. It contains both utter despair and ultimate redemption. It reveals serious flaws in the nation's criminal justice system and the indefatigable nature of the human spirit. It explains the aura of vigilance that hovers about Robinson, and why - when meeting with an unfamiliar female reporter in a cloistered conference room - he takes care to leave the door slightly ajar. "I just don't ever want anything to be misconstrued or misinterpreted," he says. "That's when things can go downhill fast."

 

Robinson, now 42, lost 10 years of his life doing time for a rape he did not commit. He was exonerated by DNA evidence that proved he couldn't have been the man who assaulted a young woman at the University of Houston in 1986. Paroled in 1997 from a 27-year sentence, he was granted a full pardon based on innocence in 2000 by then-Gov. George W. Bush.

 

Robinson's story is emblematic of several things. It shows how DNA - dubbed by defense experts as the "Hope Diamond" of evidence - is increasingly being used to exonerate the wrongly accused. It casts a klieg light on the fallibility of eyewitness testimony. And it highlights a growing trend in which states monetarily compensate the falsely incarcerated.

 

Robinson - a college graduate and former Army officer at the time of his arrest - typifies the average releasee: Smart and articulate, he was able to advocate for himself and persuade others to champion his case. He went to extraordinary lengths to clear his name, even testifying before the Texas Legislature on the plight of the wrongly convicted.

 

Now in his third year of law school, Robinson survived the unimaginably brutal world of prison to go on and reclaim what was left of his truncated life. His saga shows what a determined person can do, given a fighting chance.

 

It also includes an unlikely love story.

 

Robinson's tale of woe began on a cold January day in Houston. Then 26, he was working as a night manager at an auto parts store, pondering whether to re-enlist in the military or attend law school, a long held dream. He already had an undergraduate degree in sociology from Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. He had been raised in inner-city Los Angeles by a single mother, who instilled in her six children early on a desire to learn and succeed. Robinson says he joined the Army out of sense of duty to his country.

 

"I always bought into that concept you're not black, you're not white, you're green," he says, smiling.

 

A friend working on her master's degree at U of H had asked him to pick up her car on the campus and take it to get the brakes fixed. Robinson was just easing out of the parking space when a campus police cruiser blocked his path.

 

"My initial impression was, 'OK, we're on the cusp of the Third Ward (a poor area in Houston), and he thinks I'm stealing a car,"' says Robinson, well used to the sort of attention black men tend to receive from the law. "I figured he was just going to hassle me, ask for my ID and then say get out of here. Nothing else even crossed my mind."

 

Instead, the officer ordered him out of the car and cuffed him. Robinson asked if he was under arrest. Yes, the officer responded.

 

"I was like, 'Wait a minute, this doesn't make any sense,"' he says. "But I figured if I just went along with it, everything would be OK, because I hadn't done anything wrong. So I really wasn't worried."

 

A second police cruiser drove up. The first officer walked over and talked to a person sitting in the back seat. He stood up and told his partner to pull Robinson's jacket down over his shoulders. He leaned back down, then stood up again. "Stuff him," he said. Robinson was put into the patrol car.

 

Later Robinson would learn that the man who attacked the young woman in a nearby campus auditorium bathroom wore a plaid shirt. So did Robinson. But there the similarities ended. According to police reports, the woman also said the man had a mustache (Robinson didn't and doesn't to this day; he tried to grow one once but it came out patchy). She also said he smelled of cigarette smoke (Robinson has never smoked).

 

He asked the officer why he was under arrest. He responded, "You know." Baffled, Robinson decided he would just bide his time until he got to the police station, figuring the real story would come out there. At the county jail - his first time in jail - Robinson was stripped of his clothes and possessions and put into an orange uniform. Police took his fingerprints. He discovered he was being charged with sexual assault. Still in disbelief, Robinson figured it was a trumped up charge geared to camouflage what had been an illegal arrest.

 

"I just kept thinking, 'When we get before the judge, this will all go away.' But it never did."

 

Robinson posted bail and was given a court-appointed attorney. From the very start he protested his innocence, first to his appointed lawyer and then to retained counsel, offering up "every bodily sample I could offer short of a brain sample." Neither lawyer, he said, seemed strongly interested in proving his case.

 

The trial came one year after his arrest. The young woman, who was white, testified, firmly identifying Robinson as her attacker. Young, pretty and intelligent, she was a "dream witness," prosecutors would later tell reporters. Other than her word, the district attorney had absolutely no physical evidence linking Robinson to the crime. Fingerprints found at the scene didn't match his. Hair and bodily fluids sample were inconclusive.

 

The one piece of evidence that would have cleared him - DNA analysis - was still an inexact science and not admissible at that time in Harris County courts. It soon would be - just two years after Robinson's conviction, in fact.

 

The trial lasted less than one week. Robinson was found guilty. He filed silently out of the courtroom, too stunned to speak.

 

"I couldn't believe I was being sent to prison without any kind of physical evidence, just empty accusations," he says. "One reason I joined the military was because I was a truth, justice and the American way kind of kid, and I believed you should fight to protect those liberties. But now this was happening to me. I kept waiting for someone to jump out and say I was on 'Candid Camera."'

 

In prison, Robinson filed document after document "pro se" - without a lawyer - asking for a new trial, for new motions, but his entreaties fell on deaf ears. He implored the state to do a DNA analysis, comparing his specimen to the one in the rape kit done on the victim, but it refused. In 1992, his appeal was denied.

 

One court order, though, forced the state not to destroy the rape kit sample - an element that would prove a linchpin in his quest for innocence later on. But not until after Robinson had served 10 hard years in prison.

 

Later, after DNA analysis made his guilt impossible, prosecutors would tell reporters the victim had "just made an honest mistake."

 

Robinson refuses to talk about specific things he saw and experienced in prison. Six years later, the memories are still too stark, too raw.

 

For the first five years, his main priority was simply staying alive.

 

Prison, he says, "is a very primal world, full of human beings who've allowed their environment to force them into an almost sub-human level of existence. At some point, you will either be victimized or you will stand up to victimization. There's no neutral ground; you either fight back or something's going to happen. You're like a dog pissing your little territorial area. In retrospect, I was sort of like, 'When in Rome ... "'

 

Robinson learned several lessons in prison. First, that human beings are influenced by their environment. Second, that they're capable of unimaginable things. Third, that to retain some notion of himself, some kernel of personal integrity, he had to flee into his own world. He found that in the jail's law library. Robinson kept relentless track of changes in the law. He took any course offered. He earned a master's degree in sociology and a certificate in electronics technology.

 

And he learned another lesson. Before his arrest and imprisonment, Robinson believed the American system of justice was inviolate. After watching his own slipshod defense, seeing prosecutors driven to win at all costs, meeting judges who seemed to care little about the truth, he now felt many in the legal world were less motivated by justice than a desire to preserve and promote their own careers. "There's a kind of apathy in people who have power and authority that is truly frightening," he says.

 

Robinson had grown cynical.

 

While in jail, time flew by while Robinson was frozen in a state of suspended animation. His two favorite nephews grew up, joined the military, had families. His baby sister morphed into a woman. The Internet came into vogue. Cell phones appeared. Culture changed. Meanwhile, his mother stood staunchly by him, believing all along in his innocence. So did his fiancee - for the first eight years of his incarceration, anyway. After that, she broke off their relationship, tired of waiting for his freedom.

Robinson found even relatives looked on him with suspicion.

 

"You could always feel that little bit of doubt," he says with a sad smile.  "Most people will tell you they don't convict innocent people. People figure, if you're in jail, especially for 10 years, you must have done something."

 

Due to prison overcrowding, Robinson was released on parole in 1997. He was ordered into a halfway house for convicted sex offenders, under the highest level of supervision and had to report weekly to a parole officer. He was ordered to stay away from computers - because of the enticements of the Internet - and from children.

 

Despite these constraints, Robinson wasted no time in trying to clear his name. He was driven, he says, by the urge to prove his accusers wrong, and by the knowledge he could never build a life for himself with the asterisk of rape next to his name. While working the kind of low-level jobs one can get as a convicted sex offender, he began canvassing lawyers to take on his case. After being turned down by a dozen, he found Randy Schaffer, a savvy Houston attorney who agreed to take on his case.

 

Schaffer says he had no qualms about representing Robinson.

 

"Here Anthony was on parole, out of jail, but still willing to spend money to try and exonerate himself," he says. "A lot of guys in prison will say they're innocent, but to spend your hard-earned money on something you can't prove? It wouldn't have made sense."

 

Schaffer says he also was impressed by Robinson's demeanor.

 

"He wasn't bitter, he wasn't angry. He was just determined," he recalls.

 

Robinson set about earning money to pay Schaffer and to raise the sum needed for an independent DNA analysis. He worked a temporary job in the daytime and a day laborer job at night. Later he got a job at an oilfield supply warehouse.

 

"I would have worked three jobs if I could have," he says.

 

He rode the bus. He scrimped and saved. He did little in the way of fun, beyond the occasional movie.

 

Everywhere he went, he carried a small spiral notebook, in which he obsessively wrote down his activities. When boarding a bus, he would jot down the bus number and the driver's name. Robinson lived in fear he would be picked up for some minor infraction and returned to prison to serve the balance of his 27-year sentence. The idea that some small action could be misconstrued as unlawful haunted him. He remained on constant alert.

 

In two years he had saved enough money to pay Schaffer and afford the independent analysis. After it came back incompatible with the analysis in the rape kit, the state of Texas conducted its own analysis. The same result came back.

 

The miracle, says Schaffer, is "that the rape kit wasn't lost, destroyed or bungled by some incompetent chemist," he says. "Anthony would have been just as innocent, but no one would have believed him. Many people are in prison today under those kinds of facts."

 

The Texas parole board voted unanimously to recommend a full pardon to Robinson. Schaffer successfully worked to have all references to the rape conviction removed from public record.

 

After his release from prison, Robinson was determined to keep his head down, maintain a distance from other people and avoid "complex social situations." It was just simpler that way, he says. He especially steered clear of the opposite sex.

 

While he was scrimping and saving, he explains, he routinely rode the bus to the grocery store to buy hot dogs and several packages of Top Ramen noodles. Every other day it was the same routine: wieners and soup. Get in, get out. No interactions with anyone.

 

One day he was going through the express lane when the female cashier spoke to him.

 

"You buy the same thing every time," she observed.

 

"That's right," he replied.

 

"Why?" she asked.

 

"Because I'm poor," he said.

 

"You're not poor. You're lazy," she said.

 

"OK," he said.

 

"You've got two hands, you can work. You don't look to be sick," she teased.  "You need to get a real job."

 

Back and forth it would go like this, week after week, teasing banter at the checkout stand. "I didn't know if she was being mean to me or whatever," says Robinson now. "I didn't matter. Somebody was talking to me. It was the longest conversation I'd had in a long while."

 

Robinson had only been out on parole for several months. One day a buddy gave him a broken down '78 Pontiac station wagon, on the condition he would get it running again. He did. One afternoon he was driving by the grocery store and saw the female cashier waiting at the bus stop. Against all his better judgment, taking an enormous risk, Robinson cautiously offered her a ride.

"No, my bus is almost here," she told him.

 

OK, he said. But if you ever want a ride home, just let me know. As proof that he was a stand-up guy, Robinson gave her his driver's license, so she could write his number down.

 

One day, she accepted that ride. The two conversed as he drove her home. After that, Robinson started to give the cashier - her name is Hannah - regular rides. It was a long while before they had their first date - a cup of coffee. Over time, teasing turned into flirting, which turned into love.

 

Slowly, carefully, Robinson began to open up to his girlfriend about his past. He broached the subject by mentioning how sometimes people go to jail for crimes they haven't committed. Hannah responded yes, there is such a thing as political prisoners. Right, he said: People unfairly jailed.

 

"We just kind of built on that argument for a long time," he says.

 

One day he flat out told her he had just gotten out of prison several months prior to meeting her. How long were you in, she asked? Ten years, he replied.

 

"That's when the rapid-fired succession of questions started," Robinson says. He told her he would share every detail with her if she would just understand one thing: He didn't do it.

 

"She said she believed me because I was a pretty nice person, I gave her rides and didn't do anything stupid and I had two jobs."

 

Robinson showed her all his paperwork, documents he kept closely guarded. He let Hannah find the inconsistencies in the arguments on her own, without his prompting. No mustache, she said. Right, he said. No cigarette smoke. Right. No physical evidence. Right. He explained to her why he was saving his money: to prove his innocence.

 

She believed him.

 

The two were married in 1998 - two years before he was given the pardon, the last official one Bush granted as governor.

 

Married for five years, the two hope to start a family soon. Robinson is a deeply private man, reluctant to expose his family to public view. He declined to allow his wife - who is Chinese American and studying to be a pharmacist - to be interviewed for this story. ("She says if it makes me uncomfortable, she's uncomfortable. And it makes me uncomfortable. If people have a problem with me, that's OK, but it has nothing to do with my family.")

 

Even three years after his full pardon, he worries about people who don't believe his innocence, who would seek to harm him.

 

In addition to carrying a full load at law school, where he's serving his second year as president of his law school fraternity, Robinson continues to work at the oilfield supply company. He's finally quit jotting down all his activities.

 

But he remains hypervigilant, insisting on meeting an unknown female reporter in a public place. Robinson went through in-depth counseling after prison, but the residual effects still linger: He routinely gets up in the middle of the night to check locks. He strives to keep his entire life on an even keel. He still avoids crowds.

 

"It's stressful for (Hannah)," he says, smiling sheepishly. "She says to me, 'Why are you so afraid? Why do you do strange things?' It's hard for people to understand. You can't just turn hypervigilance on and off."

 

The only time in a long interview that Robinson showed anything close to passion or anger was when discussing the apathy of the powers-that-be in the criminal justice system. As he recited all the obvious red flags his case should have raised, his voice raised slightly.

 

"A guy 26 years old is all of a sudden going to go nuts on a raping spree, in a place where he's most likely to get caught? Then lollygag around afterwards? A guy with no prior convictions and no criminal record, who was honorably discharged from the service, who was about to get married? Does a guy like that just stop off on his way to work and rape somebody?"

 

To this day, he has no answers to these questions.

 

After his pardon, at the urging of Texas Sen. Rodney Ellis - a longtime champion of prisoner and indigent rights - Robinson told his story to the Texas Legislature. A few weeks later, Ellis filed a bill that would increase monetary compensation to the wrongfully imprisoned to $25,000 for each year served, with a cap of $500,000. (Before that, qualified claimants received only a maximum of $25,000, with additional money for medical expenses.) The bill passed.

 

Advocates of the wrongfully accused say many more reforms of the criminal justice system are desperately needed.

 

Lawyer Schaffer had arranged for Robinson to meet Ellis, who went on to become a mentor and advocate for the student. Learning that law school had been Robinson's dream since high school, Ellis raised funds that enabled him to take a law school preparation course for the LSAT. He put Robinson in touch with the dean at Thurgood Marshall School of Law and also raised funds to help with tuition costs.

 

For Ellis, the gratitude went both ways.

 

As he told Texas Lawyer magazine, "The (compensation) legislation would not have passed had we not had a poster child for reform whose testimony was bulletproof. ... (Robinson) is a remarkable human being, a very forgiving individual. What amazes me most about him is he's not bitter after having gone through all of that."

 

No, he's not bitter, Robinson says. ("You can be angry and blame everyone, but what will that and 50 cents get you?") And he holds no animus against the woman who accused him, to whom he has never spoken. If anything, he feels sorry for her.

 

"In a sense she was victimized twice - by the guy who raped her, and then by the police and prosecutors, who manipulated her into convicting the wrong person, who lied to her. And we can't forget the real attacker got off free."

 

He has excelled in law school, single-handedly establishing a legal exchange program between the Thurgood Marshall School of Law and a law school in Beijing, China, where he traveled last summer and again this year.

 

"That takes more than a little chutzpah," says Marshall professor and former dean John Brittain, who admitted Robinson to the school. "Anthony is a student leader. His accumulated maturity radiates all around him, in terms of his thinking, his judgment, his wisdom. He not only has fulfilled all the expectations that were placed upon him but far exceeded them."

 

Robinson was granted almost $250,000 in compensation for his imprisonment. But the money can't compensate for the lost years. Buddies of his have gone on to build careers for themselves, become doctors and lawyers, raise families. At this stage in their lives, they're already saving for retirement. Robinson is just at the starting gate.

 

He is specializing in corporate law and will graduate in May. A professor has urged him to go into criminal defense, arguing that he'd bring a unique perspective to the practice, to put it mildly. And Robinson indeed said he may go into criminal law some day. But for now he wants to earn some money, take care of his family. Gain some experience. More to the point, the idea of learning law on the job with someone else's freedom at stake repels him.

 

"I'd be absolutely destroyed if I knew somebody went to prison for a mistake I made," he says.

He pauses. "Maybe I'll do misdemeanors." He laughs.

 

mstoeltje@express-news.net