Who Shot Valerie Finley?
Why One Man’s Innocence Is So Hard To ProveBeth Schwartzapfel
Rodney Stanberry with his son Trevon, shortly before Rodney was sent to prison. / Courtesy of Denise Stanberry
The call came into the Prichard Police Department at 11:20 on Monday morning. It was March 2, 1992. Captain Frank Dees arrived at the modest bungalow a few minutes later to find a woman lying on her bedroom floor, propped up on a pile of clothes, bleeding from the head. Some couches in the living room had been overturned, which seemed suspicious, but the woman’s neighbor said that’s how she did her cleaning, so Dees let it go.
The house was situated on a dead end just off the interstate in this suburb of Mobile, Alabama. To call it a cul-de-sac was probably too grand, but it did have a grassy median around which the houses were arranged in a horseshoe shape, close enough that you could have a conversation from one porch to the next without having to shout. Dees stayed about twenty minutes, until the paramedics arrived. He found out the woman’s name—Valerie Finley—and a few other details: she was 29 years old. She lived here with her husband, Mike, and their two young daughters. Dees reported to the station that it was some sort of home accident—Valerie seemed to have fallen and hit her head—and left.
Three years later Mike’s best friend, Rodney Stanberry, was on trial for shooting Valerie. From the witness stand, the Finleys’ neighbor Tyrone Dortch recalled the morning when Valerie was shot. Around 9:00 am, Dortch said, he had pulled his car into the median to have his mechanic friend take a look at it. He had been under the hood for about two hours when two black men came running out of the Finleys’ house with what looked like a green Army sack.
Dortch watched them. There were some projects nearby, where he would hang out from time to time, and he thought he recognized one of the men from there. Kind of tall, brown-skinned, low haircut. Dortch saw them throw the bag into a faded gray Mercury Caprice parked in the Finleys’ driveway, get into the car, and back out in a hurry. They almost hit his car pulling out.
He would certainly have recognized Stanberry, Dortch told the jury, since Mike had introduced them several times. No, Stanberry wasn’t one of them; Dortch was absolutely positive of that. Of the two men, there was one he had never seen before, and one he had. “And what did you call that person?” asked Ken Nixon, Stanberry’s attorney.
“Oh, I never did really know his name,” Dortch said. “I just knew his face.”
“Have you seen him since then?” Nixon asked.
“In nightclubs,” Dortch answered, “outside court right now.”
Nixon stopped, surprised. “Sir?”
“He’s outside the courtroom now.”
• • •
The man Dortch recognized, Terrell Moore, was never charged with the crime. Instead, Rodney Stanberry was convicted of attempted murder, first-degree robbery, and burglary and sentenced to twenty years in prison. He was 23 years old.
There was one compelling piece of evidence to support Stanberry’s conviction, and that was Valerie Finley, who survived the shooting but not much longer. Her story was sad enough to make you cry and detailed enough to make you believe. She swore to the jury, and felt in her heart until the day she died, that Stanberry broke into her house and stole her husband’s guns, while his childhood friend Rene Whitecloud shot her in the head and left her to die.
But every piece of objective information besides Valerie’s testimony supported Stanberry’s claim that he was an innocent man. He showed the jury route reports from his job as a garbage truck operator—time-stamped and signed by several other people—that accounted for where he was, almost down to the minute, on the morning of the crime. He told a plausible story about what really happened, and the testimony of more than a half-dozen people supported that story.
Stanberry has been behind bars for more than seventeen years. With no DNA to analyze, and an appeals process that values proper procedure over the facts of the case, there is no way for Stanberry to prove his innocence.
Prichard is one of those places outsiders say they don’t like to walk around at night. Poor and predominantly black, the town is known for high rates of crime and a police force that can’t keep up. Snobby folks from Mobile, such as the circuit judge who presided over Stanberry’s trial, make jokes about it. When an African American wearing strong cologne appeared in his courtroom, the judge would sniff the air and say, “Ahhh, evening in Prichard.” Still, it’s hardly the inner city: modest one-family bungalows on small grassy lots predominate, and if there is more peeling paint here than elsewhere, more crooked porches, there’s a sense of community too. The lack of sidewalks or curbs, coupled with a lush overgrowth that the Southern humidity coaxes up every unattended streetlight, makes Prichard’s residential streets feel like country back roads.
Please don’t sell them any guns, Rodney said. Nothing good could come of it.
Rodney Stanberry’s family moved here when he was a teenager. The Bronx, New York, neighborhood where they had lived until then was overrun with drugs and gangs, and Rodney’s parents feared that if they stayed much longer their son and his younger sister would get themselves into trouble. So when Rodney’s dad retired, he made good on the promise he’d been making for years: to move his family down to his native Alabama.
This was the country: pickup trucks outfitted with gun racks threw dust up the roads, and hunting and fishing were state pastimes. Unlike his sister, who never quite felt at home in the country, Rodney thrived there. He took up hunting and gun collecting and started calling himself a “black redneck.” He left high school one semester shy of graduation—he got suspended for cutting school with a girlfriend and missed finals—but he got a good job driving a garbage truck for the waste management company BFI. He lived at home with his parents, saved money, and studied for his Commercial Driver License exam.
During hunting season, Rodney spent almost every weekend fishing, hunting, and target shooting with Mike Finley, a technician at a local manufacturer. They tracked squirrels, rabbits, and deer with guns or bows and arrows. They went to gun shows together, had almost identical gun collections, and shared equipment. Rodney often brought a girlfriend to the Finleys’ house or out fishing with them. “Mike and Valerie influenced me so much,” Rodney says. “Mike was dedicated to his wife. He was a good father. He was one of those, ‘yes dear,’ types. ‘Yes honey.’ It was cute.” Rodney wanted what his friends had. “I wanted to get married, I wanted to have kids, to have a wife,” he says.
But not yet. In his early twenties, Rodney was still a notorious ladies’ man. His charm and easy way with people—not to mention his confidence, bordering on cockiness—allowed him to get away with juggling multiple girlfriends at once. In Prichard there were Tracy and Deanna, on again and off again. Each traded swipes at the other in public, but they tolerated it just the same. Rodney drove a brown Ford Bronco that had “One Night Stand” (a play on his nickname, Stan), stenciled in white script on the front windshield, with “Bumping and Grinding” in matching letters on the back.
In the year before his family moved to Alabama, when Rodney was seventeen, his then-girlfriend Julia gave birth to their son, David. The teenagers’ relationship remained tumultuous for years after Rodney left New York, but he hatched a long-shot plan, he says.
One afternoon in early 1992, six years after he had left New York, Rodney invited Julia down from the Bronx for a visit. Once she saw all the good jobs and the low cost of living in Mobile, Rodney thought, she might bring David—then five—down to stay. Julia was on a pay phone, and when their childhood friend Rene (pronounced “Rennie”) walked by, he offered to join her. Mardi Gras was coming up the following week, and Rodney promised to take them to parties and parades.
In the days that followed, the plans changed. Rodney found out he had to work and would only have a few hours each afternoon to spend with Rene and Julia. Then Julia found out she couldn’t take time off on such short notice, so she couldn’t come after all. Rene said he’d still come, along with another friend. But who that friend was kept changing.
Everyone told Rodney to cancel. He and Tracy got in a big fight about it. His dad told him, “Leave New York in New York.” But Rene was always a straight-and-narrow type of kid—he was one of Rodney’s few childhood friends who had a straight job, driving a truck for Coca-Cola—so Rodney figured everyone’s fears were overblown. Besides, they had already made the plans and he didn’t want to hurt Rene’s feelings. Since he had to work, Rodney arranged for a local friend, Taco, to introduce Rene to girls and show him around. And since Taco had no car, he, in turn, asked his friend Terrell to join them too. Rene agreed to pay Terrell $150 to drive them around in his Mercury Caprice.
On Tuesday, February 25, Rodney clocked out of work and went to the Red Carpet Inn to welcome Rene, whose bus arrived that day. “I walked into the hotel room and boom,” Rodney says. “There was Angel.”
Angel Melendez—everyone called him Wish—was Julia’s brother, and he shared her fiery temper. Rodney imagined the crowded and raucous Mardi Gras parades and was already regretting that he hadn’t listened to his dad. “If someone steps on his foot, I ain’t going to be able to control him,” Rodney thought. “He can go Jekyll and Hyde in a minute.”
But Rene and Wish had come, and Rodney would try to keep them entertained, in spite of his misgivings. He decided to show them the eight-point buck he had recently shot, waiting in the Finleys’ deep freezer for a trip to the taxidermist. He brought his friends by the Finleys’, and when they met Mike, the conversation quickly turned to guns. Rene and Wish asked Mike to sell them some.
Mike considered it. The Finleys were always tight for cash, and Valerie did often say she wanted the guns out of her house. How much could they pay if he would sell them?
“Put it out of your mind,” Rodney interrupted. “No.”
Later that night, Rodney called Mike. His friends had changed since he last saw them, he said. Hard characters now, into the thug life, they were barely recognizable anymore. Please don’t sell them any guns, Rodney said. Nothing good could come of it.
But Mike didn’t heed Rodney’s advice. Instead he arranged for Rene and Wish to meet a gun dealer. On Thursday after work, Rodney sat frustrated in his Bronco in a Dairy Queen parking lot and watched as Rene paid cash for a Glock nine millimeter, a .25, and a .380.
Excited to use the guns they had bought, Rene and Wish asked Rodney to take them target shooting. So Rodney arranged a Saturday trip to a friend’s property in the country, and when they stopped by Mike’s house to pick up some targets, Mike and Valerie decided to come along. In an effort to keep a low profile, Rodney says, he brought just a single gun, but Mike showed up with more than a dozen, practically his whole collection, including an AK-47 and a TEC-9. Rene and Wish again asked to buy Mike’s guns, but this time he said no. Rodney got into a fight with the pair on the car ride home when he refused to take them to a gun show. They decided to leave on Monday, a day earlier than planned. Rodney was anxious to see them go.
• • •
According to his daily report for that Monday morning, March 2, 1992, Rodney began his route at 2:59 am. He drove a commercial front-loader, one of those giant trucks with a fork to pick up dumpsters. His last stop was at 8:43 am, and then he returned to the BFI headquarters at 9:05 am to have a flat fixed and his brakes adjusted. While he waited, he called Rene and Wish to say goodbye. He had to get to the courthouse by 1:00 pm to apply for his Commercial Driver License, he told them, so he wouldn’t have time to stop by in person. The mechanic logged him out at 9:32 am, and then Rodney drove about an hour up I-65 to the landfill in Chastang. His landfill ticket was stamped at 10:40 am and signed by the administrator there.
After returning the truck to BFI headquarters, Rodney stopped by his parents’ house to pick up his Social Security card. When he arrived there, his sister told him that Taco—the friend he’d asked to show Rene and Wish around—was on the phone. He’d been calling nonstop all morning.
There was no preamble. “Your friends broke in Mike’s house and stole his guns,” Taco said.
Just then, the phone beeped. Mike was on the other line saying he had gotten a call from his sister-in-law that someone had broken into his house. Rodney cut him off. “I already know what happened,” he said.
‘Did she know who hurt her?’
‘She told me she didn’t know,’ her sister said.
“But I didn’t,” he says now, his voice heavy with regret and frustration. “I thought it was a robbery. First thing I wanted to do was get my friend’s guns back. I’m thinking, I’m going to have to pay for his door they kicked in.”
Rodney hung up and went to find Rene and Wish at the bus station, where Taco said they would be. “I’m sorry,” Rene kept repeating. He told Rodney the guns were stashed behind Terrell’s girlfriend’s house in nearby Crichton.
Rodney picked up the guns and brought them back to Mike’s house, thinking the incident was more or less settled. But one of the neighbors told him about Valerie. He drove to the hospital, the guns still in the car. When he arrived, Mike warned him: don’t go in there; Valerie’s brother has a gun on him and I told them it was your friends that did it.
Now Rodney was stuck. This wasn’t a simple robbery anymore. It was a potential homicide, and if he gave the guns to the police, he would be a prime suspect.
So Rodney brought the guns to a field and ditched them there, a decision that would eventually prove costly at his trial. But at the time it seemed like his best option. He called Mike to tell him where the guns were, said that’s where Rene and Wish had left them. Rodney bought a tape recorder and started calling Taco, recording their phone conversations in order to capture Taco explaining what had happened, which he eventually did.
And Rodney threw himself into trying to help the police capture Rene and Wish. He took a day off to go to the Prichard Police Department to provide them with names, dates, information, photographs. He called the police in New York State to ask them for help in locating the men. One detective did ultimately find Rene and take a sworn statement from him, which corroborated Rodney’s story. But the Prichard cops told the New York cops to back off. In fact, instead of working with Rodney, the Prichard police started to think he was being a little too helpful.
“To continuously come tell you about this person, that person, you know,” one of the detectives testified at Rodney’s trial, “anyone that comes and keep pouring on information all the time, it has to be a suspect in your mind.”
The police arrived in Valerie’s hospital room shortly after she awoke from a coma. “She was very heavily medicated,” her sister Brenda Gay testified at trial. “When they came over there the nurses was just getting her out of bed and putting her in a chair, but she wasn’t used to even sitting up and she was in a lot of pain and she couldn’t hardly talk.”
But Valerie could point and nod, and she held her sister’s hand as two detectives—a man and a woman—asked her questions.
“Okay, Valerie,” the man said. “Do you remember what happened, on March 2, in your home?”
The conversation was recorded to a cassette tape, and though Valerie couldn’t say much, it is easy to infer from the way the detectives phrased their questions that she was shaking her head no. “You don’t really remember what happened?” the man asked.
“Think about it,” the woman prodded. “Can you tell them anything that happened dear?” she asked, probably referring to Brenda and the other detective.
The man tried again. “You can’t tell us anything about what happened, on March 2 in your house?”
The woman turned to Brenda. “Did she know who hurt her?”
“She told me she didn’t know,” Brenda said.
• • •
Valerie Finley was the youngest of nine kids from a tight-knit family. “We welcomed any and everybody into our family,” says her sister Jo Ann Young. But they never were fond of Valerie’s husband; they thought Mike was a cheapskate, and they hated that he kept all those guns in the house. Jo Ann recalls a fight she once had with Valerie while they were sitting in the car in the driveway. It was a typical sister spat—Jo Ann can’t remember what about—which ended when Mike emerged from the house shooting into the air. “I said, from that point on, I’m finished with him.”
Jo Ann was at the University of South Alabama hospital when Valerie was wheeled into surgery, and from almost the moment she arrived, it became clear she had not hit her head, as the police had said. For one thing, there was a bullet-shaped hole in her skull. Then the neurosurgeon found metal fragments in her brain. That afternoon Mike confirmed that she had been shot during a botched robbery. Mike knew who had done it, he said. Friends of Rodney’s, some guys from New York, had come to clean out his gun cabinet.
Rodney came to the hospital with his girlfriend, but they stayed out in the hall—never came in the room, never said hello or gave their regards to any of Valerie’s family. As Valerie went into surgery, “Mike was running around, running around, running around, trying to get in touch with these people,” Jo Ann says, referring to Wish and Rene. “There were papers that had to be signed because she was so critical. And he couldn’t stand still.”
Mike Finley (left) and Rodney Stanberry after a successful hunt in Axis, Alabama, a few months before Valerie Finley was shot. / Courtesy of Denise Stanberry
Days went by, and Valerie’s family’s suspicions grew. On Tuesday, Mike came to the hospital wearing a watch and two rings that had been stolen during the break-in. “And I said, ‘Mike, I thought they stole your watch,’” Jo Ann recalls. “And he said, ‘yeah, but this man called me and told me where to go pick it up.’” It wasn’t just the jewelry, either; he had gotten all his guns back. “Living in Prichard, if somebody’s got that many guns, you know how fast they can sell those guns on the street?” Jo Ann asks. “If somebody steals your wallet, do you honestly believe in anywhere U.S.A. that you would get your wallet back? Your ring, your wallet, and twenty guns?”
It took the police two days to declare the incident an assault, so it wasn’t until Wednesday that an officer finally went to the house to collect evidence. By then, Mike had already mopped, cleaned up, and put the furniture away. “Instead of being with his wife at the hospital,” Jo Ann says, “he was home cleaning up all the evidence that was in the house.” The cop didn’t find any fingerprints. He didn’t ask to see the guns.
The family began to whisper among themselves that Mike had something to do with this. They traded suspicions around Valerie’s hospital bed. Look at him, they said. Look at the way he’s walking around. His story about these guys from New York just doesn’t add up. Where are they? And how was he able to get the guns back so quickly? “I said, Lord, please,” Jo Ann says, thinking back. “I can tell you just like it was yesterday. Lord, please. Let him have nothing to do with this. Even though I didn’t particularly care for him. That was my prayer.”
• • •
It was Rodney’s photographs that detectives brought to Valerie’s hospital room that day when she was first sitting up. Taken about five years earlier, during Rodney’s last visit to the Bronx, there was one of Rodney and Wish, and one of Rodney, Rene, and another friend. Rodney had provided them to the Prichard Police in his efforts to help them.
“Okay,” the detective said during that same tape-recorded conversation when Valerie indicates that she doesn’t know who had shot her. “If I were to show you some pictures is it any way possible you may could tell, shake, nod your head, and tell, say if you know, saw those faces before?” Valerie must have nodded. “You can?”
Responding to the detectives’ questions, Valerie “communicates that yes, she recognizes those people,” says Nancy Steblay, a psychologist at Augsburg College who specializes in eyewitness identification and reviewed Valerie’s testimony at my request. “We don’t know why she recognizes these people. We don’t know if she’s just acknowledging that these people could have been in her house. These are guys she knows.”
The detective pulled the pictures out and asked her another question. “Okay, on these pictures, do you see anybody in here that you know possibly came in your house on March 2? You do?”
It’s not entirely clear how Valerie responded to their questions. She may have squeezed her sister’s hand. She may have nodded or pointed. But the tape ends with a question: “Was it that one?” the detective asked. “Okay, take a good look at it now. Take your time. That one?”
Lineup procedures such as the one used in Valerie’s hospital room are notoriously inaccurate. Three quarters of the wrongful convictions so far overturned through DNA testing involved mistaken eyewitness identifications. Over the years scientists have developed many safeguards to compensate for the ways we know eyewitnesses’ memories consistently fail. The police used none of these safeguards with Valerie.
One safeguard is the use of “fillers”: people who fit the description of the suspect but who are known to be innocent. A witness who picks a filler “is guessing, and can’t be trusted,” Steblay says. Because it’s common for a witness to feel compelled to choosesomeone, even if she isn’t sure, she should also be told that the perpetrator may not be in the lineup. In addition, the officer conducting the lineup should not know which person is the suspect. “It’s not intentional, but it’s so natural for the lineup administrator, if you pick the person they had in mind, to smile, react, to reinforce,” says Gary Wells, a psychologist who pioneered research into eyewitness memory.
That day in Valerie’s hospital room, the police were “essentially saying, ‘tell me if these people are involved. Could these people have been in your house?’ That’s a very suggestive procedure,” Steblay says. By their questions alone, “the police are suggesting that these are the people involved.” What’s more, “She can’t make a wrong pick,” Steblay says. With no fillers, “no matter who she picked from those pictures, that was going to be their suspect.”
The mounting evidence about mistaken eyewitness identification doesn’t trouble Buzz Jordan, the man who prosecuted Rodney, because, he argues, these errors occur when a victim doesn’t know the suspect. “That doesn’t apply in this case,” he told me. “If you get robbed by a stranger, you’re going to have difficulty identifying me. That’s problematic. She knew Rodney Stanberry. So that’s not even a legitimate argument in this type of case.”
But research is full of examples of “unconscious transference,” a phenomenon in which a witness “incorrectly attributes a face’s familiarity to the wrong source because he unconsciously transfers memory of the individual from one context to another,” psychologist Daniel Schacter writes in his book The Seven Sins of Memory. Since she had met both Rene and Wish, “she’s looking at pictures in which she’s seeing three familiar faces, essentially. And now she’s trying to put these faces into the context of that crime,” says Steblay. “The police are basically giving her the faces. ‘Here’s who we think might have been in your house.’ Now she just has to put it together. Who did what?”
Do you remember getting lost in the mall as a child? You were about five. Maybe you wandered off to look at a toy store. You panicked and cried until a kindly older person helped you to find your parents. You don’t remember? That’s because it never happened. But in a seminal 1991 study, experimental psychologist Elizabeth Loftus prompted five of her 24 subjects to remember a scene like this in detail: the bright red letters spelling Kay-Bee, the elderly man’s blue flannel shirt as he guided them back to their parents. Even after they were told that the event had not happened, several study participants continued to “remember” it. Researchers have successfully coached research subjects to remember spilling a bowl of punch on the parents of the bride at a wedding, staying overnight at a hospital for a high fever and a possible ear infection, and other events that did not happen.
In the course of her work, Loftus discovered that false memories usually develop according to a “recipe,” as she calls it.
First, the person must believe the event is plausible. A suggestion by someone she trusts is often all it takes to foster that belief. Next, the person must come to believe she personally experienced the event. “Plying the person with false feedback is a particularly effective way to accomplish this,” Loftus writes in the journal American Psychologist. “With guided imagination, with visualization of the stories of others, and with suggestive feedback and other sorts of manipulations, a rich false memory can develop.”
All of these elements were present in Valerie Finley’s hospital room.
From the moment she recognized Rodney in the photographs, “it sounds like there’s a lot of conversations around her about what’s going on. People in her hospital room constantly,” Steblay says. The family’s suspicions about Mike, Rodney’s unusual behavior at the hospital, and Rodney’s friends from New York were all topics of bedside conversation, speculation, and anger. “I suspect they’re talking about this and they’re having these conversations, and she’s struggling to put together a narrative about what happened.”
Valerie’s eventual court testimony further suggests an attempt to bridge the gaps in her memory. She talks about things she “must have” done or often did. From the length of time she talked to her sister that morning—crucial information to pinpoint the time of the event—to exactly what she saw when she looked out the window, “it seems like she’s filling in a lot of pieces by what should’ve happened, usuallyhappened,” Steblay explains. “She said she saw the telephone pole. Really? You looked out the window and thought, ‘there’s the telephone pole’? I think what she’s talking about is, what do you usually see when you look out the window?”
In other words, “What we think we know, what we believe with all our hearts,” as Loftus writes in her book Eyewitness Testimony, “is not necessarily the truth.”
• • •
It was October 1992, and Ryan Russell was in the Galaxy nightclub in Prichard, looking for Terrell Moore. Russell, who passed away just a few months ago, was a private investigator working for Rodney’s defense lawyer, Ken Nixon. Russell was a man of dubious ethics—even friends and colleagues remember him with choice words—but he was damn good at his job.
This part of town made Russell nervous, but he had heard Terrell would be there, and when he spotted him in a gray shirt, black tie, and baseball cap, he made his way over. Terrell told Russell he had lied to the police. He told officers that Rene and Wish had borrowed his car, that he had had no idea what they had done with it. He was on probation and didn’t want any trouble. But now, he told Russell, “I am willing to come forward and come clean.” They walked out and sat in Russell’s car and talked.
‘You know, I have a problem with this whole procedure,’ said Judge Ferrill McRae.
“They paid me $150 to show them around town first,” Terrell said, speaking of Rene and Wish. “I showed them around town and then that Monday that’s when they really came out to me and told me, ‘we paid you $150 really so we can make a hit and you can be our getaway.’ They told me that if I didn’t cooperate they was going to do me in and my family.”
Rene stayed behind in the hotel room with Taco, while Terrell drove Wish to the Finleys’ house in his blue-and-silver Mercury Caprice. Valerie answered the door. Wearing a mask, Wish pushed in with the nine-millimeter pistol that Mike had arranged for him to buy, and held it to Valerie’s head, demanding she tell him where Mike kept his guns. “Then she started pleading for her life,” Terrell said. “She said she had kids, she said that she was married, this and that. I walked up to her personally,” Terrell said. “I said, ‘Miss, we’re not going to hurt you,’ I said, ‘just tell him where the guns are at so we can leave.’”
The guns were in a steel cabinet, and as soon as Valerie gave the men the keys, Terrell started stuffing rifles and pistols into a pillowcase he had taken from the children’s room. “As I was walking out the back door,” he said, “I heard a shot go off. I ran inside and I found Mrs. Finley lying on the floor and I asked him why did he shoot her. She already gave him the guns. And he said that he was afraid that she might recognize his accent from Saturday when they went to the gun range.”
When they got back to the hotel, Wish reported to Rene that he had “dusted the bitch.” They asked Taco to hide the guns for them and said they would be in touch later to arrange to have them sent up to New York.
“You swear before God Almighty right now that you are telling the truth and the whole truth so help you God?” Russell asked.
“Yes, I do.”
“Are you willing to testify to what you have just told me right now on this tape?”
“Yes, I am.”
• • •
But that’s not how it happened. By the time he was subpoenaed to testify at Rodney’s grand jury trial, Terrell had gotten a lawyer. He took his lawyer’s advice and invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. So Buzz Jordan, the assistant district attorney who was prosecuting the case, offered Terrell a peculiar deal: if Terrell would tell his story to Jordan, Jordan would grant Terrell immunity from prosecution for anything he said that day, in his lawyer’s office. But Jordan would not extend the immunity any farther than that.
Terrell agreed, and in the presence of his lawyer, he confessed again, told Jordan the same story he had told Russell six months earlier. Jordan dismissed all of it as “a pack of lies.” He couldn’t corroborate any of it, he said. He didn’t even know whether therewere any guys from New York. He suggests perhaps Mike Finley paid Terrell to confess. Jordan proceeded undeterred with his prosecution of Rodney.
At trial, Jordan argued that because Terrell planned to plead the Fifth again and therefore could not be cross-examined, the confession amounted to hearsay and should not be admitted.
“The whole theory of the hearsay is that the other side doesn’t have an opportunity to cross-examine the person about the statement,” Nixon says now. “And it seems ludicrous that they claimed they didn’t have the opportunity to cross-examine him when they were the only ones questioning him” during the meeting where Terrell was granted immunity.
This clearly bothered Judge Ferrill McRae, despite his reputation for coziness with prosecutors such as Jordan. “You know, I have a problem with this whole procedure,” McRae said when Nixon challenged the immunity agreement in court. “We’ve got a case called Brady, and if there was anything in the world out there to clear this man, under the Brady case there’s a duty on the district attorney…to make sure that information is brought forward.”
McRae was referring to a landmark 1963 Supreme Court case, which established that the district attorney’s office is obligated to turn over any evidence that might help prove a defendant’s innocence—even if it means losing a case. Brady reaffirmed one of the most fundamental principles of the American criminal justice system: a prosecutor’s responsibility is not to win convictions but to do justice.
Jordan could have extended the immunity agreement to cover Terrell’s trial testimony, but he chose not to. So Terrell wouldn’t take the stand, and all Nixon had was the confession. He fought hard to have it admitted.
In most states and under federal law, it probably would have been. As long as there is evidence to corroborate it, a “statement against penal interest”—a statement so clearly harmful to a person’s welfare that the only reason he would make it is if he believed it were true—is typically “a black-letter hearsay exception,” says Talitha Powers Bailey, a law professor at the University of Alabama who is not involved in Rodney’s case. And there was corroborating evidence: testimony at trial by Taco and by Tyrone Dortch, who saw two men burst out of the Finley’s house on March 2. The man he recognized, whom he later saw outside the courtroom? Terrell Moore.
But Alabama law leaves the admissibility of even this kind of exceptional, corroborated hearsay up to the discretion of the judge, and Judge McRae ruled despite his reservations that if Terrell was not available to be cross-examined—and he wasn’t, since he pled the Fifth—then the confession could not be admitted.
To this day, Jordan is untroubled by his role in convicting Rodney of a crime that another man confessed to. “The entire Terrell Moore thing was a fabrication,” Jordan says. “If you knew Valerie Finley—everybody keeps forgetting about her. She was the key to the case. She was the eyewitness.”
• • •
When it came time to testify at Rodney’s trial, Valerie was confined to a wheelchair, partially paralyzed, and living with her mother. She and Mike had divorced and were in the midst of a bitter custody dispute, which she would eventually lose. After the shooting, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and doctors told her that as a result of her injuries she was too weak to undergo chemotherapy. So when she sat on the witness stand and told her story, Valerie was dying. She was 31.
Here is what she said: the girls had stayed at her mother’s place the night before, so she had the house to herself. She was chatting on the phone with her sister Brenda. They often had long leisurely phone calls in the mornings after Mike left for work. When the doorbell rang, she put the phone down and went to her daughters’ room to look out the window. From there, she saw Rodney’s Bronco in the driveway. She made her way to the front door to let him in. En route, she noticed Rene—she never did know his name, she just called him “Ponytail”—on her back stoop.
When she opened the door, Rene came around to the front and pushed in after Rodney. Rene pulled a gun out of his shirt. He called her “bitch” and told her to sit down behind the sofa, against the wall. They started searching the house for the keys to the gun vault. Rodney found them and took a pillowcase from her daughter’s bed to stuff the guns into. The robbers argued about whether there was room in the truck for the microwave or other appliances. “The next thing after that I remember,” she said, “I was in [University of Southern Alabama] Hospital.”
“Just so we’re absolutely clear on this,” Jordan asked, “did anybody else come into your house on that Monday besides Stan and Ponytail?”
“I didn’t see anyone else.”
“They were the only two people?”
“Yes, sir. . . .”
“And you’re absolutely sure that Stanberry and Ponytail were the two individuals that came in your house and that assaulted you?”
Jordan never explained how Rodney could have returned his truck to BFI, picked up his Bronco, driven to Prichard to shoot Valerie, then returned the Bronco, picked up his truck again, and resumed his route without anyone noticing. Instead he asked insinuating questions, such as “Mr. Stanberry, it’s true, isn’t it, that you work alone?” and “Nobody rides with you?”
‘We can’t give new trials to everyone . . . who establishes that they might be innocent.’
During the trial, Jordan implied that Mike had orchestrated the shooting. He continually mentioned Mike’s life insurance policy, which would have paid out $35,000 in the case of Valerie’s death. Nixon asked her about it too. “You think that your husband hired somebody to kill you?” he said.
Valerie Finley was, by all accounts, a truthful person, a gracious person, a kind woman who loved her family. She meant no one any malice. She believed every word she said.
“Valerie,” Jordan asked. “Before this happened, were you able to walk?”
“Were you able to use your left arm?”
“And since this happened, can you use your left arm?”
“Can you walk?”
Valerie didn’t answer. The court reporter noted, simply, Witness sobs.
• • •
Rodney has twice been denied parole. All of his state appeals have been denied. His federal appeals have been denied. He appealed to the Supreme Court, but it declined to review his case. His last shot came in 2001, when he was granted a Rule 32 hearing, a last-ditch procedure that Alabama inmates can use when their other legal options have run out. Most states have a similar post-conviction remedy for convicts who have exhausted their appeals.
At the hearing, Rodney and his new lawyer Dennis Knizely argued primarily that Judge McRae erred in preventing the jury from hearing Terrell Moore’s confession. Presiding over the hearing was the very same judge—Ferrill McRae.
This is how Rule 32 hearings are typically done, so a new judge doesn’t have to learn the details of the case from scratch. But the practical effect, says lawyer Randy Susskind of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, is that “sometimes it does feel like you’re litigating in front of somebody who has an interest in protecting the conviction.”
One of the documents Rodney brought up at the hearing was the signed statement that Rene made to a detective in New York in August of 1992, just months after Valerie was shot.
“Sometime in late February 1992, I went down to Alabama w/ Wish for the Mardi Gras,” Rene said. “While I was down there I bought a Glock 7 semi-auto,” Rene said, likely referring to the Glock 17, a popular handgun.
In the statement, Rene describes partying in the hotel room he shared with Wish and leaving his gun on a nearby desk before going to sleep. “When I woke up in the morning,” he continues, “(about 8:00 am–8:30 am) Taco was also in the room but Wish was gone. Also missing was my Glock 7. About 9:00 am–9:30 am, Wish appeared in the room w/ a friend of Taco’s . . . showing us two (2) large sacks full of several weapons (guns). . . . When I asked Wish where he got the guns he motioned a cutting gesture w/ his hand over his neck which we all understand as a signal for death.”
Ken Nixon, Rodney’s original lawyer and now a witness, evaluated the statement. “It verifies,” Nixon told the judge. “It is consistent with Mr. Stanberry’s version of what happened and the other witnesses who said Mr. Stanberry was not there.”
Jordan also took the stand, where he dismissed Rene’s statement. Even if it had been admitted at trial—hell, even if Nixon had brought Rene down from New York to Mobile to testify—it wouldn’t have changed the outcome. “I would have had a field day if Mr. Nixon would have put ‘Ponytail’ on the stand,” Jordan told the judge. “That would have just given me one more nail to put into this case. . . . With Mr. ‘Ponytail’ here, with Valerie being able to identify him, put him on the stand . . . . It would have just corroborated everything that Mrs. Finley said in my opinion.”
The judge agreed. Much of his ten-page order denying Rodney a new trial was lifted directly from Jordan’s version of events, including his assertion that “the appearance and presence of [Rene] at this trial would have backfired on the defense.”
Aside from Mike Finley, Taco Jones, Tyrone Dortch, and five of Rodney’s coworkers who testified at Rodney’s trial, there was one additional person who would not have corroborated everything that Valerie said: Terrell Moore. Hoping that Terrell would finally “come clean,” as he had promised Ryan Russell he would, Knizely called him to the stand at the hearing. Terrell seemed prepared to testify.
But Knizely had no sooner asked Terrell his name than Martha Tierney, the assistant district attorney, jumped in. “Judge, I hate to interrupt Mr. Knizely, because I have the world of respect for him,” she began, “but if Mr. Moore is going to testify about the things we anticipate he will testify about, and I’m concerned this is a state forum, and that he would take this stand unrepresented and with no grant of immunity to make statements that could have life consequences for him. I just wish that the Court be apprised of that and our concern about that, sir.”
Knizely was incredulous. “Judge, from our understanding, the State’s [position is that] the man—he has no credibility. And are they are telling us now they are going to prosecute him if he confesses to it?”
It was a good question. If the district attorney’s office truly believed, as it had maintained all along, that Rodney was guilty and Terrell was (for some inscrutable reason) lying about his involvement, then why threaten to prosecute him? To prosecute him, the state would have to believe he was guilty. It would have been almost impossible for both Terrell and Rodney to be guilty, since one story contradicted the other. And yet Tierney was simultaneously defending the verdict against Rodney and threatening to prosecute Terrell. It seemed she was trying to scare Terrell off the stand in order to preserve Rodney’s conviction. The Mobile District Attorney’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment, submitted via email, by phone, and in person.
Tierney pressed on. “If he comes in here and says ‘it’s me pals,’ then it’s goodbye sunlight for the rest of his living life, and he’s young,” she said.
Finally, after some additional back-and-forth, Knizely was allowed to proceed. “Mr. Moore,” he began, “you recall whenever a lady named Mrs. Finley was shot? Do you remember back in those days when you were called as a witness in this case?”
Tierney interrupted again. “Judge, may I object sir, for one minute? Could you just, Your Honor, if I may respectfully ask that at least you instruct him that he does have the right under the Fifth Amendment not to make any statements.”
“I thought I just did that,” McRae said, “but I’ll do it again. Under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution,” he told Terrell again, “you do not have to answer any question which could even possibly incriminate you. Do you understand that?”
“Yes, sir, I understand it.”
“Okay, proceed,” McRae said. But Tierney interrupted again.
“And that the State would use anything he says today, Your Honor, against him.”
“The State can and may,” the Judge said.
“Yes, Your Honor, I understand,” Terrell said, “and I plead the Fifth Amendment.”
• • •
In a small apartment on the outskirts of Durham, North Carolina lives an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina Central University, a historically black college. Her apartment is sparse and painted in shades of white, with almost no decorations on the walls and only the most basic of furniture. But books are everywhere, in small piles: on tables, stacked against the walls. The Federalist Papers, Martin Luther King’s Why We Can’t Wait, The Rise of Southern Republicans, Sue Grafton paperbacks. She also writes books. One of them is called Travesty of Justice: The Politics of Crack Cocaine and the Dilemma of the Congressional Black Caucus.
She is shy and private, and aside from her students, whom she mentors with a patient devotion, she largely keeps to herself. But Artemesia Stanberry feels driven into the wider world by what she sees as her family’s own travesty of justice: her cousin Rodney’s conviction.
Growing up, Artemesia wasn’t close with Rodney’s family. She saw them from time to time when they were visiting from New York. So it was unusual when, in her twenties, she got a call from Rodney’s father, her uncle Earsell. She was living in Washington, D.C., pursuing her PhD in Political Science at Howard University and working as a staffer on Capitol Hill. She had only heard the briefest details about Rodney’s legal trouble but figured, “If the jury convicted him, he must be guilty.”
But Earsell told her more about the case and asked her to take a look at some papers. When she sat down to read the trial transcript, she tells me, “I just cried, because I knew right away that individual has been wrongly convicted,” she says. “I was convinced almost immediately.”
She began reaching out to the NAACP and members of Congress she’d met in the course of her work. She wrote Rodney a letter and committed to helping to clear his name. She runs a Web site, freerodneystanberry.com, devoted to her cousin’s cause. She sends long emails to everyone she can think of (Innocence Projects, the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office, county commissioners, journalists and editorial boards), and has gotten zero traction. “You think, hang in there, we’re going to get this done,” she says. “Year after year after year, it doesn’t get done.”
Yet Rodney’s case might be playing out very differently if he lived near Artemesia. Not because he’d be closer to her geographically, but because she happens to live in the only state in the country with the formal means to look at post-conviction claims of innocence.
In 2006 North Carolina established the Innocence Inquiry Commission, which sidesteps the usual legal channels to look at the actual facts of whether someone might have been wrongfully convicted. North Carolina’s is the first, and, to date, only, program of its kind. Many other states have such commissions in name, but they are largely “advisory” in nature; their roles tend to be limited to issuing reports that no one reads and that have no influence on policy. Individual district attorneys have occasionally been aggressive in seeking to overturn false convictions, but the Commission, unlike a district attorney up for reelection, is a neutral player concerned only with the truth. It has to date exonerated four wrongfully convicted men.
It’s easy to see why the justice system has trouble accommodating the protests of the wrongfully convicted. “The post-conviction process in general is not really designed for innocence claims,” Christine Mumma, one of the Commission’s architects, says. “The system is set up, really, for guilty people.”
The truth is the jury’s job. The jury is the fact-finder, the arbiter of innocence or guilt. “Jury verdicts are considered to be almost unassailable, in factual matters,” University of Alabama law Professor Bailey says. Even a Rule 32 hearing is designed only to weigh whether the defendant got a fair trial according to the law. If Rodney had succeeded in that hearing, he would not have been exonerated; he would have gotten a new trial, with a new jury.
Sometimes, of course, juries are wrong. But there is almost no legal mechanism to appeal a conviction on this basis, to say to an appeals court, the jury was wrong. I didn’t do it. That’s because appeals courts only rule on the law: their sole job is to ensure due process. They decide whether a particular piece of evidence was properly admitted or whether a defendant suffered from ineffective assistance of counsel. Theresults of due process—whether an innocent person is incarcerated or a guilty person goes free—are largely immaterial, so long as they were arrived at in accordance with federal and state statute, the state constitution, and the U.S. Constitution.
Asked if he wanted me to relay a message, Mike said, ‘I thought he would have gotten out by now.’
This holds true even in capital cases. “This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is . . . ‘actually’ innocent,” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in response to a petition by Troy Davis, a Georgia man convicted of killing a police officer and later executed. “Quite to the contrary.”
Victims’ advocates are—understandably, from victims’ points of view—concerned with closure, and the many and varied procedural bars that prevent innocent people from airing the true facts of their cases were put in place to prevent convicted people from dragging those cases on and on. Laws such as the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, passed in 1996 in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombings, establish arbitrary statutes of limitations on when convicted people can file claims for relief, with the aim of hastening executions. “We can’t give new trials to everyone who establishes, after conviction, that they might be innocent,” Texas Judge Sharon Keller told Frontline in 2000, explaining why she denied relief to a man who turned out to be innocent. “We would have no finality in the criminal justice system, and finality is important.”
Mumma began thinking about these issues more than a decade ago as a clerk for North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Beverly Lake. While at the court, Mumma watched appeal after appeal denied on procedural or legal grounds when the facts seemed to indicate that the appellant had been wrongly convicted. It was frustrating to realize that, legally, her hands were tied.
So Mumma and Lake worked with the North Carolina legislature to craft the Innocence Inquiry Commission. When the Commission receives a seemingly credible claim of innocence, its investigators do an exhaustive inquiry. If the claim holds up, the investigators report what they have uncovered to an eight-member panel. The panel includes, among others, sheriffs and victims’ advocates—not typically inclined to give a convicted person the benefit of the doubt. In order for his case to qualify for review, the appellant must waive his right to attorney-client privilege and to other types of trial protections. He must waive his right to Fifth Amendment protections. If the panel finds anything incriminating, it can be used against him. If the panel agrees that there is “sufficient evidence of actual innocence to merit judicial review,” the case goes before a three-judge bench.
“Proving anything to one judge is hard enough,” Mumma says. “The burden is very very high.”
Being a state agency gives the Commission teeth: it can issue subpoenas, access police files, search evidence rooms, and order DNA testing, all without asking a judge. Without these powers, the Commission could not have secured its most recent exoneration.
Willie Grimes, who is black, spent more than 24 years in prison for the 1987 rape of a white, elderly North Carolina woman who never positively identified him. (It’s “hard to see any difference” among the men she observed in a lineup, she told a judge during a proceeding that the jury never heard. “They all look the same.”) Grimes appealed, but all of the biologic evidence from the case was missing. The rape kit, hairs collected from the victim’s bed, and scraps from fruit that the attacker ate on his way out of the victim’s house were nowhere to be found. The Denver Post ran a story about Grimes in 2007, and the reporter was told by the court clerk’s office, “It’s a mystery to me why we don’t have it.” Grimes asked the local innocence project to take his case, and they, too, were told the evidence had been lost or destroyed.
But when the Commission asked the local police department for access to their case files, they found a fingerprint card with prints lifted from one of the banana peels that the attacker had discarded. The prints matched another man: one of the police department’s key suspects at the time of the attack, a man who fit the victim’s description. A man with a long history of rapes and other violence against women.
The Commission previously used its powers to uncover a “DNA hit” in the case of two men who had each served a decade for a murder they did not commit. In that case, in addition to the DNA results—which implicated other murderers—the subpoena uncovered a confession from another person that corroborated the DNA results. But because the two men had already been convicted, the prosecutor never turned the results over to them. “Here were these two significant pieces of evidence that the state was aware of, but there was no duty to turn them over post-conviction,” the Commission’s executive director, Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, told me. “We were not aware of [the results] when we started our investigation and our jaws hit the floor when we uncovered the hit.”
Including Grimes’s case, “there were seven cases where we have found evidence where other agencies have looked and could not find them,” Montgomery-Blinn says. If a nonprofit agency, such as an innocence project, is told by a police department or court’s clerk that evidence is nowhere to be found, “they can’t say, ‘look again.’ Or, ‘I want to come in when you look and look with you.’ We have the power of the state to say that.”
The Commission’s first exoneree was Greg Taylor, who served seventeen years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. “If I was in any other state, I would still be in prison for the rest of my life,” Taylor told me.
The Commission operates on a shoestring, with an annual budget of less than $400,000. But its staff has spent hundreds of thousands of hours sifting through more than a thousand claims of innocence to arrive at these four exonerations. Some critics ask whether it is worth all the trouble. To which Montgomery-Blinn answers, “Why don’t you go ask Greg Taylor if it was worth it?”
• • •
When Artemesia heard about Willie Grimes, she was “surprisingly happy and sad.” She was, she told me, “glad for the exoneration, sad that it took more than two decades for it to occur, and, obviously, thinking about Rodney.” Rodney’s mother died last September, and Artemesia had just returned home from her funeral when Grimes was cleared.
Last anyone heard, Terrell Moore lives in California. I tried to reach him, but he seems intent on not being located. Even his mother says she doesn’t know where he is.
Wish, Angel Melendez, is dead. He was killed on his own block by a fellow drug dealer before Rodney’s case even went to trial. “From what I heard, he was walking around fluffing his feathers like a rooster,” says Jorge Resto, a childhood friend of Wish and Rodney’s. Wish “tried to play like he was a big man in the Bronx, and one of the other drug dealers shot him.” At the time of Valerie’s shooting, Resto was a New York state trooper in upstate Orange County (he is now retired). It was he who connected Rodney with the detective who took Rene’s statement. By then Resto had left the neighborhood, but he says he heard later that Wish “was walking around bragging because of the shooting down South. He came up here and thought he was invincible. Thought nobody would mess with him because he got to shoot somebody and get away with it.”
Rene Whitecloud is serving a life sentence for murder—a killing that occurred, Rodney points out with frustration, after Rene returned home from Mobile. If only the police had apprehended him. . . . Rene was eager to help with this story, and called me often, repeating again and again, “It wasn’t me and it wasn’t Rodney.” Who was it, then? I asked him once. Was it Wish? The usually voluble Rene was silent for a moment. “I don’t want to talk bad about my boy,” he finally said. Despite the fact that Valerie identified Rene as the shooter, he was never tried in Alabama.
“I was satisfied that he was being handled by New York for some type of serious offense up there,” Jordan told me. “That was a discretionary decision. I suspect that New York prisons are a little worse than Alabama prisons.”
Mike Finley remarried. He and his wife live on a corner lot in Mobile in a one-story house with green shutters. I went there one day and introduced myself, said I was writing about Rodney’s case and Valerie’s shooting all those years ago. “But he didn’t do the shooting,” Mike said. That’s what I wanted to talk about, I told him. Mike had just returned home from work and asked me to wait while he showered.
I lingered at his house. The sky was richly blue, dotted with a handful of cotton ball clouds. Mike’s backyard was scattered with kids’ toys. It was a warm Alabama fall, and mosquitoes lit on my arm, hovering over the front stoop and the lush green lawn. A bamboo wind chime clinked pleasantly.
It was Valerie’s sister Jo Ann who helped me find Mike. She hadn’t talked to him in twenty years; the animosity was so bad, she said, that, after spending time with the children, Valerie’s family would drop them off on the corner and let them walk home rather than pull up outside Mike’s house. But she wanted me to see this man for myself. And here he was emerging from the house, smelling like soap in a black T-shirt and jeans. He looked younger than his fifty-odd years, his hair and close-cut beard still a deep brown that matched his eyes. Drops of water still glistened on his head, and he held a cold Corona in his hand.
“What I went through, I really wouldn’t wish on anyone,” he told me. He waved at the driver of a passing car. “What my kids went through, too. Financially, emotionally. To relive it?” He shook his head. “I’m not trying to do that right now.” His demeanor was gentle but his meaning was clear. I told him I was going to see Rodney in prison the next day, asked if he wanted me to relay a message. He looked surprised. “I thought he would have gotten out by now,” he said.
I showed him a picture that Rodney’s family had given me, a 25-year-old shot of Rodney and Mike posing triumphantly with a deer they had just killed. “I remember that day well,” Mike said. “I still have the antlers in the house.” He looked off into the distance. “I really don’t want to relive that,” he repeated, and then he climbed into his Jeep and drove away.
This article was generously supported by the Nation Institute Investigative Fund.