She was innocent, she always maintained, right up to the end when she pleaded guilty to strangling Williams, her girlfriend, and dumping her body in North Portland’s Kelley Point Park on a Saturday morning in 2002.
Roberts says she was convinced she had no choice but to plead. Only days before her trial, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office claimed to have new evidence that signals from a cellphone tower would put Roberts near the spot where the body had been dumped.
If true, the evidence would shatter Roberts’ alibi that she was nowhere near Williams at the time of the killing.
Roberts’ own attorney told her the evidence was so strong she didn’t have a prayer of beating a murder charge. Roberts says she pleaded guilty to manslaughter, a deal that allowed her to avoid life in prison. She accepted a 15-year sentence instead.
“My family told me to listen, to trust my lawyer. He said, ‘You need to take the plea,’” Roberts tells WW. “That was closing the book on my life. Everything I had was gone.”
Two weeks ago, Roberts, 49, walked out of state prison, freed after U.S. District Judge Malcolm Marsh found in an April 9 ruling that a jury would probably never have convicted Roberts had she stood trial.
Marsh faulted Roberts’ original attorney for failing to challenge the prosecutor’s claims about the cellphone evidence.
And that evidence, after years of litigation, has not been produced by the prosecutor in the case, Rod Underhill.
At the time, Underhill was senior deputy district attorney, but today he is the Multnomah County district attorney, elected in 2012.
Underhill declined requests from WW to comment on the record for this story. In a May 28 statement to the judge, Underhill said he still believes Roberts is responsible for the murder, but will not press for a trial to prove it. Nor will his office investigate a man currently in prison whose DNA linked him to the victim.
The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the law schools at the University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University, says Roberts is one of only nine Oregon inmates to be exonerated in the past 25 years, and one of only three who had pleaded guilty.
“It’s incredibly rare and happens in only the most extraordinary cases,” says Aliza Kaplan, co-founder of the Oregon Innocence Project. “Even when there is a decent case, there are so many procedural hurdles even to get to the substance of a claim. It’s a really high standard.”
No one questions that the relationship between Lisa Roberts and Jerri Williams was violent. Roberts, a native of Boston, came to Portland in 1998 after a stint in the Army. She was working as a mechanic at the National Guard Armory in Northeast Portland when she met Williams, a prostitute who worked the Madison Suites Motel on Northeast 82nd Avenue.
Police and prosecutors built what they believed was a strong case of circumstantial evidence against Roberts. Friends later told police Roberts and Williams argued and fought. Roberts was involved with another woman, and police believed Roberts was motivated to kill Williams to get her out of her life. The third woman told police she once heard Roberts threaten to kill Williams and put her “six feet under.”
On the afternoon of May 25, 2002, a woman walking with her daughter and her dog found Williams’ naked body in the brush at Kelley Point Park. Police and prosecutors alleged Roberts had strangled Williams, 35, at their Southeast Portland home, stuffed the corpse into a sleeping bag and drove it to the park, where she rolled it into brush about 15 feet from the parking lot.
After being charged with murder, Roberts tried to hang herself in jail. She was sent to Oregon State Hospital for six months before doctors determined she was fit to stand trial.
In 2004, she was assigned a court-appointed attorney, William Brennan. Roberts wanted to fight the charges, but court records show Brennan talked her out of it based on claims the prosecutor, Underhill, made only days before trial. (Brennan died in 2012 at age 70.)
Court records show Underhill told Brennan cell-tower data could pinpoint Roberts’ cellphone when she made a call at 10:28 the morning of the murder. The tower was three miles from Kelley Point Park.
According to court records, Underhill had conversations with a Verizon technician, who said he could determine Roberts’ location based on the strength of her phone’s signal.
“Given all the evidence that was before me, there seemed to be a good possibility that [Roberts] could and would be convicted of murder,” Brennan later wrote. “There was a lot of circumstantial evidence that, if believed by a jury, could have led to that result.”
Once in prison, Roberts decided to fight back against her own guilty plea.
In 2009, federal public defender Alison “Tex” Clark took up her case. Along with investigator Maia Godet, Clark tried to piece together what had really happened on the day of Williams’ murder. “We would sit together and go through the records, trying to replicate the prosecutor’s case,” Clark tells WW. “We couldn’t make it match with the facts.”
Prosecutors theorized that Roberts had dumped Williams’ body at Kelley Point Park before 10:30 on the morning of the murder. The evidence that put Roberts near the park, according to prosecutors, was the cell-tower data. As recently as 2011, the state still maintained that “cellphone tower evidence placed petitioner at the location where the victim’s body was dumped after the murder.”
Roberts’ legal team brought in experts who said it would have been virtually impossible to pinpoint a cellphone’s location based on a signal logged by a single cell tower.
The experts said readings from more than one tower were necessary to begin to locate a caller, and that the height of towers and the phone traffic on the network could all affect the data.
According to court records, Underhill’s assertions that the proximity to the tower could be pinpointed was based on his 2004 conversations with the Verizon technician. The Verizon employee said he couldn’t be specific about how he knew this, because it involved proprietary coding.
A federal judge later ordered Underhill to turn over all records and notes from the case. According to Steven Wax, who leads the office of the federal public defender, none of the records Underhill produced backed up his assertion that cellphone records could place Roberts at Kelley Point Park.
“I look at it as the magical evidence,” says William Teesdale, an investigator for the federal public defender’s office. “The magical evidence that no one can produce.”
The cell-tower data wasn’t the only evidence that ultimately persuaded Judge Marsh that Roberts’ conviction was problematic.
In 2002, when police first investigated Williams’ murder, they found DNA from Roberts on Williams’ body. But they also found DNA from a number of men as well—not surprising, given that Williams was a prostitute.
At the time, police couldn’t identify the DNA. But in 2010, with DNA technology advancing and the case under appeal, Roberts’ new legal team asked for the DNA to be retested, on the theory that one of the men whose DNA showed up on Williams’ body could have been her killer.
Marsh ordered the new testing over the objections of the Oregon Department of Justice, which had taken on the job of defending the way the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office had handled the case.
A database search matched DNA from Williams’ body to Brian Lee “Mississippi” Tuckenberry, 36, a state inmate serving time at the Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras for raping and attempting to strangle an ex-girlfriend.
Roberts’ legal team discovered in the original case files that Portland police had looked at Tuckenberry as a possible suspect in 2003 and 2004.
They learned Tuckenberry had worked as a pimp at the Madison Suites on 82nd Avenue, and he often stopped by the nearby McDonald’s for a morning serving of apple pie. Williams’ son also identified Tuckenberry in a photo as a man who had been trying unsuccessfully to recruit his mother.
Investigators for Roberts’ legal team tracked down two women whom Tuckenberry, according to police reports, had allegedly sexually assaulted and choked. One recalled him telling her during the attack, “I will choke you and kill you like I did the other bitch.”
Tuckenberry has denied killing Williams, both to investigators and to WW.
“You got that all wrong. My DNA wasn’t found nowhere,” he tells WW. “Go find someone else who did it. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Judge Marsh in his April 9 ruling called the evidence against Tuckenberry “compelling” and said that the federal public defender’s team “has presented persuasive evidence that the prosecution’s theory of how the murder was committed is wrong.”
“It is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would find petitioner guilty of intentional murder or manslaughter, beyond a reasonable doubt in light of the totality of the evidence,” Marsh added.
Marsh ordered Underhill to either put Roberts on trial or release her from prison. Underhill announced May 28 he would not continue pursuing the case against Roberts. She got out of prison that same day.
But Underhill, the Portland police and the Oregon Department of Justice say they still believe Roberts was the killer and that there is no reason to investigate Tuckenberry.
Underhill spokesman Don Rees says Tuckenberry would be a good alternative suspect if the DA’s office weren’t sure Roberts was guilty.
“It is a common defense to point the finger at someone else,” he said.
Today, Roberts is adjusting to life outside of prison, drinking Sprite, eating Chinese food and learning about iPhones and SmartCars. She says she holds no hard feelings toward Brennan, the lawyer who steered her toward prison, or Underhill.
She is thankful that he chose not to prosecute her a second time.
“We’re all human. We all have a pulse. We all make mistakes,” she says. “But admit to your mistakes. I would have more respect for him if he did.”