Police lost evidence, DA lost murder case

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“Not guilty.”

Daniel Francis has been in the Jefferson County Jail on bonds totaling $2 million since Oct. 11, 2016, facing allegations of murder and aggravated robbery, waiting to hear those two words that would set him free. Friday, Feb. 9, Francis got what he was looking for – mostly.

Found not guilty in the murder case brought against him, Francis was then brought back the jail where he’s spent the last two Christmases, subject to a $1 million bond hold for the aggravated robbery charge connected to the murder case for which he was just found innocent. There, he would sit until the Jefferson County District Attorney’s (JCDA) Office decided whether to continue to prosecute a case it had already essentially lost once, or let the accused go in the interest of justice. Francis was ready to hear the prosecutorial decision Tuesday, Feb. 20, at a hearing set in District Judge Larry Gist’s courtroom.

No decision was announced.

Accused and arrested

When Tuderriel DeWayne Richmond of Port Arthur was found shot to death in a ditch by his 15th Street home in 2014, police set about an exhaustive search to uncover the murderer in our midst. Following lead after lead, according to evidence presented in the murder case against a prime suspect just over three years later, Port Arthur police detectives chased down multiple persons of interest before soliciting intel that led to two men being charged with the crime.

Pulling in prime witness and potential suspect Jamar Eglin on drug possession warrants in April 2015, the convicted felon on probation facing additional charges told Port Arthur police he had somewhat indirect knowledge of Richmond’s killers. According to Eglin, he overheard conversation between Scott Washington and Daniel Francis wherein both men talked about Richmond’s murder. As the story related to police went, Washington and Francis went to Richmond’s home to rob the victim, and their ensuing actions resulted in Richmond’s death.

Investigators confiscated cell phones, performed exhaustive video interviews with an array of suspects and witnesses, sent off items left behind at the crime scene by the suspected killers for DNA testing, and sharpened their case against the persons of interest.

Francis and Washington were both subsequently charged in Richmond’s killing, each indicted and arrested on counts of aggravated robbery and murder in the fall of 2016.

By the time Francis’ murder trial began in 2018, however, none of the cell phone evidence, video interview footage, or DNA matches implicated the accused – partially because much of the evidence was lost by the investigating agency.

“On June 15, 2015,” around 9 a.m., Port Arthur Police Department ID Tech Dave Mai wrote in a letter to department heads, “in the process of recovering 6T (terabytes) of drive space, I inadvertently corrupted the drive space.

“Video can be searched but unable to view or burn video.”

According to the video vendor Mai had come check out the system, there was nothing that could be done to save what was lost.

“I understand the inconvenience and the problem this may have caused,” Mai wrote in the memo titled “Video Evidence Files Corrupted.” The only solution Mai could offer, he said, was to “purge all video prior (to the corruption). We are unable to do anything with the video, and it is only taking up space.”

On the bright side, Mai reminded, “Once it is done, we will have approximately 17T (terabytes) of video storage space available and will not have to purchase storage space for a couple of years.”

Mai speculated that most video evidence to be used for cases was already with the DA’s office. Not so, according to the police supplement filed in the murder case against Francis. Instead of supplying the DA’s office with the requested video evidence, the Mai memo was enclosed in its place.

None of the cell phone evidence was ever presented, either – and neither could it be used to connect the accused to the crime. One of problems noted by Port Arthur police included “technical difficulties,” according to Chief Patrick Melvin; another noted problem was lost evidence; yet other cell phone data search was commissioned but produced nothing.

DNA evidence in the case only returned to the other man charged with Richmond’s murder, Scott Washington.

After presenting both sides to a 12-person jury in Judge Gist’s court, the panel took less than 30 minutes to return a verdict of not guilty.

Francis’ attorney, former judge Langston Adams, said the family would get justice when Washington, posited by Adams as Richmond’s true killer, was finally tried and convicted of the murder. Washington was set for trial the Monday following Francis’ court appearance. That trial date has since been indefinitely postponed.

Although the state dropped the $1 million bond for murder against Francis after the defendant was found not guilty, the “free” man was still in custody on a $1 million bond for the same victim’s alleged aggravated robbery when he was called to court for a status update on the still-pending case Tuesday, Feb. 20.

Prosecutor Chris Cadena said he offered defense the opportunity to have the robbery case heard at the same time as the now-defunct murder case, but his offer was rejected. Not only would he not make a decision yet as to how to proceed with the pending case against Francis, he said, Cadena also iterated that he stood opposed to lowering the bond holding Francis in the custody of the county “due to certain circumstances of the case.”

Judge Gist, over the prosecutor’s objections, decided that even with the two priors on Francis’ criminal record, a million bucks for a robbery accusation was too stiff a bail imposition. After Gist lowered the bond to $25,000, Francis posted bail and was set free from jail Tuesday, Feb. 20.

Defense attorney Adams is now preparing for an aggravated robbery case where – to date, even years later, he said – no robbery has been reported. Although the police informant testified that Francis and Washington set out to rob Richmond, nothing was notably taken from the crime scene. Police report Richmond was found in possession of over $1,000 in cash in his pocket, drugs were in the open when police pulled up, and his cell phone still on his person when he arrived at the hospital.

“Nothing was reported missing,” Adams summed up. “The only thing missing is all the evidence the police lost.”

Jennifer Johnson can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 231, or by e-mail at jennifer [at] theexaminer [dot] com.