A Black man who was wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of his girlfriend has been paid $11 million by Riverside County. Horace Roberts spent more than 20 years in prison before he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2018.
The payment brings to an end a federal lawsuit filed by Roberts, now 63 and living in South Carolina. According to Mercury News, the agreement did not cover Roberts’ attorneys’ fees or any liens associated with the lawsuit.
Roberts alleged in his September 28, 2020 suit that investigators framed him for the murder of his girlfriend and co-worker by falsifying a police report. According to him, investigators failed to turn over key evidence to prosecutors.
“Throughout their investigation, defendants suppressed the physical, eyewitness, and documentary evidence they obtained implicating Harris Sr. and his family members from state prosecutors, plaintiff, and his criminal defense attorneys. In so doing, the defendants let the real killers run free and instead focused on framing an innocent man,” the lawsuit read.
Roberts was convicted in July 1999 of second-degree murder in the April 1998 death of his lover Terry Cheek. Cheek had vanished the night of April 13, 1998, and never made it to her late-night shift at Quest Diagnostics, where she worked with Roberts, according to investigations.
After four days, her strangled body was found along the highway near Lake Corona, and people immediately suspected Roberts, who, according to colleagues at the company was having an affair with Cheek, though she was married.
When questioned by investigators, Roberts lied about the affair in what his lawyers said was out of shame and embarrassment but detectives found that lie as a form of a cover-up of his murder.
His lies were used against him by prosecutors during the trials of the case. What made matters worse was that a truck he owned was found near the crime scene and a purse in his possession was also said to belong to the late Cheek. A watch found next to Cheek’s body which also belonged to Roberts became the main basis upon which he was sentenced to 15 years to life for second-degree murder.
Roberts, from his prison cell, reached out to the California Innocence Project, and over the next decade, lawyers from the project asked for DNA testing from Cheek’s fingernail scrapings, the watch found near her body and the rope that was used to strangle her.
In 2017, the Innocence Project conducted more sophisticated DNA testing that was not available at the time of trial in 1998. Roberts was on October 3, 2018, exonerated after a review of forensic evidence. Googie Harris and Joaquin Leal were subsequently arrested in the killing of Cheek. Harris was Cheek’s husband and Leal is the nephew of Harris. Both have pleaded not guilty, according to the Associated Press.
Before his incarceration, Roberts was a father of two and was working in a supervisory capacity at Quest Diagnostics in San Juan Capistrano. He had previously served 8 1/2 years in the Marine Corps and was honorably discharged in 1987, according to the lawsuit.
According to a report, African-American prisoners convicted for murder are about 50 percent more likely to be innocent and spend longer prison sentences before exoneration.
Also, a review of nearly 2000 exonerations in 2017 in the United States over almost three decades found African Americans are far more likely to be wrongfully convicted of crimes such as murder, sexual assault and illegal drug activity than white people.
According to the study from the National Registry of Exonerations, which examined cases from 1989 to October 2016, of the 1,900 defendants convicted of crimes and later exonerated, 47 percent were African Americans.
That’s three times their representation in the population.