California county pays $11 million to wrongfully convicted Marine veteran who served 20 years in prison

A judge's gavel. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Riverside County has paid $11 million to a former Temecula man who spent 20 years in prison for the murder of his girlfriend before he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2018.

Attorneys for Horace Roberts, now 63 and living in South Carolina, signed a settlement agreement with the county on May 25 to end a federal lawsuit filed by Roberts on Sept. 28, 2020. The county treasurer cut a check to Roberts and his attorneys on July 6.

The settlement did not cover Roberts’ attorneys’ fees or any liens associated with the lawsuit.

Attorneys for Roberts declined to comment, and Roberts could not be reached for comment. Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Roberts alleged in his lawsuit that Riverside County sheriff’s investigators framed him for the April 14, 1998, murder of his 32-year-old girlfriend and co-worker, Terry Cheek, by suppressing evidence from prosecutors and falsifying police reports. And they essentially ignored all the evidence that pointed to the real killers.

Prior to his arrest and his life being upended, Roberts was a 40-year-old father of two and working in a supervisory capacity at Quest Diagnostics in San Juan Capistrano, where he was employed for a decade and where he met Cheek. Roberts also served 8 1/2 years in the Marine Corps and was honorably discharged in 1987, according to his lawsuit.

DNA evidence obtained by the California Innocence Project helped link Cheek’s estranged husband, Googie Harris Sr., his son, Googie Jr., and Joaquin Leal, Cheek’s nephew by marriage, to her murder.

Declared factually innocent

Roberts was released from Avenal State Prison on Oct. 3, 2018, after a Riverside County Superior Court judge declared him factually innocent. Harris Sr. and Leal were subsequently arrested and charged with Cheek’s murder. Harris Jr. was arrested and charged more than a year later, in December 2019.

California Innocence Project attorneys said Harris Sr.’s jealousy over Roberts’ involvement with his estranged wife was the motive behind the killing. They said the three suspects fabricated evidence to frame Roberts, and even went so far as to attend parole hearings demanding Roberts stay locked up.

But according to Roberts’ lawsuit, that is only half the story. While the California Innocence Project maintained that Roberts’ conviction was not due to police or prosecutor misconduct, Roberts’ lawsuit alleged that the murder investigation was tainted by falsified police reports and suppressed evidence pointing to the real killers. No physical evidence found at the crime scene linked Roberts to Cheek’s murder.

Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin said in 2018 that evidence against Roberts at the time of Cheek’s murder included the location of Roberts’ truck, found abandoned on Interstate 15 about a mile-and-a-half from where Cheek’s body was dumped; Cheek’s purse, found at Roberts’ home; and Roberts not being truthful with the police about his whereabouts.

Evidence allegedly suppressed

The lawsuit said Cheek had left her purse at the Temecula home she shared with Roberts, but sheriff’s investigators wrote a false report saying members of Cheek’s family told them she had her purse with her the night she was last seen alive — witness statements that never existed.

“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,” according to the lawsuit.

Cheek left her home for work the night of April 14, 1998, and was never seen alive again. Four days later, on April 18, her body was found by three fishermen, dumped on a rocky embankment at Corona Lake, off Temescal Canyon Road. A length of black-and-orange rope and a men’s Lorus wristwatch was found near her body. She had been strangled.

The black-and-orange rope found at the crime scene was the same kind of rope used by Harris Sr. for a dog run at his home, said an attorney for Roberts.

Tire tracks found near Cheek’s body that arced back to Temescal Canyon Road did not match those of Roberts’ truck, which Roberts had been letting Cheek drive, according to the lawsuit.

Multiple witnesses, according to the lawsuit, told investigators that the wrist watch found at the crime scene did not belong to Roberts. Investigators, however, noted in a report that Roberts’ wrist was the exact same size as the Lorus watch owner.

DNA lifted from the watch matched Harris Jr., leading to his 2019 arrest. The technology for such DNA testing was not available at the time of the killing, and when the California Innocence Project brought its findings to Hestrin, he reopened the murder investigation, ultimately leading to Roberts’ exoneration and the arrest of the three suspects.

Investigators, according to the lawsuit, also had evidence from multiple witnesses that Cheek was in a volatile relationship with Harris Sr., and court records showed that Harris Sr. was abusive, threatening and had surveilled Cheek on several occasions.

During an October 2018 press conference, Hestrin called Roberts’ conviction and imprisonment a “tragedy” and offered a public apology.

Harris Sr. and Leal will next appear in Riverside Superior Court on Oct. 22 for a pretrial hearing. Under a plea agreement with prosecutors, Harris Jr. pleaded guilty on Feb. 7, 2020, to accessory to murder after the fact and will be sentenced on Feb. 15, 2022, said John Hall, spokesman for the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office.


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