How Wrong Man Was Convicted in Killings

Times Staff Writers

Even back in 1992, Los Angeles police detectives suspected that a serial killer was stalking prostitutes in South Los Angeles.

In the space of three months, they found the bodies of three strangled African American women in various stages of undress in and around 97th Street Elementary School.

There were no witnesses. There were no clues leading to a suspect. So detectives tried to make their own luck, searching for suspects in reports of recent sexual crimes. That’s when they found David Allen Jones.

Jones was in jail, charged with the attempted rape of a prostitute near the school. He also had been arrested at the school with another prostitute years earlier, records showed.

Jones, a barely literate part-time janitor described by a psychiatrist as having the mental capacity of an 8-year-old, waived his right to a lawyer and was interrogated by police three times over two days.

Transcripts from two taped interviews show that he repeatedly denied killing the women, but under detectives’ prodding admitted to having sex and smoking crack cocaine with the victims at the places where their bodies were found.

Jones also said that he fought with the women and placed them in a police-style chokehold when they demanded more money or drugs.

That was enough for authorities, who filed murder charges against Jones. And it turned out to be enough for a jury.

Despite evidence that hair, blood and semen samples collected at the scenes did not come from Jones and that no witnesses or physical evidence tied him to the crimes, Jones was convicted in 1995 of killing Tammie Christmas, Mary Edwards and Debra Williams and raping a fourth woman.

In fact, Jones didn’t kill any of them.

Police announced Saturday that DNA evidence has conclusively linked convicted rapist Chester Dewayne Turner, 37, to the deaths of 12 women, including two that Jones had been convicted of killing. Among Turner’s victims were prostitutes, homeless women and passersby.

Police also have cleared Jones of the third murder for which he was convicted, although no physical evidence in that case remained.

Jones, 44, could not be reached for comment. He was incarcerated for more than 11 years before being quietly released in March, and has filed a damage claim against the city.

Authorities have yet to explain their actions in getting an innocent man convicted, but a review of transcripts of two interrogations, court hearings and his trial shows that the case was based on the inconsistent statements of a man who was found to have an IQ of 60 to 73 and cannot read words longer than four letters.

The only corroborating evidence was that the victims had died of asphyxia and were found where Jones said he left them.

“He admitted to having sex with them. He admitted to having raped before,” said juror Stanley Buliavac, who said he would convict Jones again today on the same evidence.

During detectives’ first interview with Jones about the killings, which was not taped, Jones was shown photos of bodies at the crime scenes, according to records. During subsequent taped interviews, detectives asked leading questions and corrected Jones when he gave statements that contradicted the evidence or his prior statements.

When detectives asked Jones about his interactions with Williams, they twice corrected him on the locations of the crimes.

“You remember yesterday we showed you that picture by the water fountain there?” said Frederick Miller, the lead robbery-homicide detective on the case, referring to the unrecorded interview in the county jail.

Jones accepted the location, but said the woman was unhurt when he left. Miller corrected him again.

“Well, yesterday you said that — that she fell. You saw her falling back down the steps. Do you remember that?” Miller said. “Remember we showed you that picture…. Remember she’s laying down in the steps down there? You said that she fell trying to get over that gate?”

“Oh, yeah,” Jones replied.

Then Jones denied having fought with the woman. Miller again reminded him that he had admitted to it the day before.

“Now, you know, you tell just the truth, you know. I’m just trying to repeat what you told us yesterday,” Miller said.

“There’s a lot of things I do forget,” Jones replied.

“I know. That’s why, you know, I’m just trying to remind you. I’m not trying to tell you what you did,” Miller said.

Miller, now retired, and Deputy Dist. Atty. Anne Ingalls, who prosecuted Jones, declined to comment, as did Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. Los Angeles Police Department officials say they soon will begin an inquiry into the detective work that led to Jones’ conviction.

“We’re going to go back and look at these cases and do what we call a biopsy,” said Capt. Al Michelena, head of the LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division.

Constance L. Rice, a civil rights lawyer selected by the Los Angeles Police Commission to assess the department’s handling of the Rampart Division police corruption scandal, said the transcripts of Jones’ interrogation were troubling.

“This is nothing but detectives trying to put a fabricated story in the mind of a retarded man,” Rice said. “You could have had him convinced he was Spiderman for the afternoon.”

Jeffrey C. Eglash, a former federal prosecutor and former inspector general for the Los Angeles Police Commission, agreed that detectives were “putting words in his mouth” during the interview, but said that those are accepted police tactics. Police are allowed to lie and trick suspects into telling the truth, he said.

“With the benefit of hindsight, here you have some ambiguous statements, you have a mentally impaired suspect and you have a failure to corroborate with blood and other evidence,” Eglash said.

But Deputy Dist. Atty. Lisa Kahn, who secured Jones’ release from prison based on the DNA evidence, said the case against him at trial was strong.

“If the Jones case came in the door for me today to file and prosecute,” she said, “it would be an easy call.”

It is clear what initially attracted detectives to Jones, then 33, as a possible suspect.

He lived on 101st Street, not far from where the bodies were found, and already was in jail awaiting trial on charges after confessing that he had raped a woman and put her in a chokehold to subdue her. That alleged crime took place two weeks after the Edwards murder.

Miller was investigating the deaths of three women found from Sept. 30 to Dec. 16, 1992, at or near 97th Street Elementary School in an area known for prostitutes and drugs.

He said in court that he did not tape-record his first interrogation of Jones in county jail because jailers forbid the practice.

The next day, Miller interrogated Jones at the LAPD’s Parker Center headquarters, and this time he taped it.

He also drove Jones to the crime scenes, according to court records, and said he videotaped Jones pointing out where the events had occurred.

Jones’ story did not explain all of the evidence. He said his interludes with the women were limited to oral sex and drug use. Autopsies showed that two of the women had been sodomized.

After his interrogation, Miller turned Jones over to detectives investigating another killing, that of prostitute Crystal Cain on Sept. 13, 1992, about a quarter of a mile from the school.

In a rambling interview, Jones eventually admitted having fought with Cain. But again he denied killing her.

Authorities charged him with the four murders and collected samples of his blood and hair for comparison with evidence found at the crime scenes.

In March 1992, an LAPD criminologist compared Jones’ blood type to that of semen and saliva found on three of the victims. The evidence came back as type A. Jones is type O.

“Somebody else was touching her breasts. So what?” Ingalls, the prosecutor, would later tell jurors. “The woman does work the streets.”

Although DNA evidence was being used at the time — in the O.J. Simpson murder case, for instance — prosecutors and police chose not to run the test in these cases.

On the eve of the trial, another criminologist compared Jones’ hair to that found inside the mouth of Christmas and other hairs found on Williams’ arm and clothing. None of the hair belonged to Jones, according to court records.

Alternate Public Defender Patrick Thomason argued that Jones’ statement was invalid because he did not have the mental capacity to freely waive his rights. He pointed out that at the beginning of one interrogation, Jones declined to give up his right to have a lawyer present. He then changed his mind.

Thomason also called a psychologist, who testified that Jones was mentally retarded and easily led in questioning.

Two judges ruled Jones’ statements admissible at trial and an appellate court later upheld the decision.

The interrogations were the heart of the case, along with the testimony of the woman who claimed that Jones had raped her in his backyard.

“What happened to her is what happened to each one of those women,” Ingalls told jurors in her closing argument. “The defendant took them by surprise, he made a stealth attack, took them into a chokehold.”

Thomason, Jones’ lawyer, said the unknown person who left behind the saliva and semen was the real killer.

Jurors handed prosecutors a partial victory. They convicted Jones of the rape and of murdering Edwards. They decided that he was guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter in the deaths of Christmas and Williams. They acquitted him of the murder of Cain because the crime “didn’t fit” the pattern, according to one of the jurors. Unlike the others, Cain had been badly beaten.

Jones was sentenced to 36 years to life in prison.

Five years later, while serving time at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, Jones still professed his innocence. He enlisted a more literate inmate to compose a letter to the FBI for him, explaining that Jones had been “falsely accused and falsely imprisoned.”

“Had DNA been used in this case,” the letter reads, “it would have been obvious that I was not the assailant.”

Jones signed the letter, misspelling his own first name.