The Crime, Evidence & Trial
On the morning of 4 December 2000, twenty-two-year old Robert Will, his co-defendant, who was the son of an influential Houston police officer, and others were stripping cars for parts in a suburban Houston neighbourhood. When two Harris County Deputies suddenly arrived, the men ran off in different directions. A 38-year-old deputy caught Rob, searched him and cuffed his hands behind his back. The Deputy radioed into the station, “4119, I’ve got one in custody”. Less than one minute later, shots were heard on the radio. There was no sound of an altercation.
The responding Deputy’s partner, had been chasing -and lost - a male figure when he heard the sound of gunfire. During Will’s trial,the deputy's partner was unable to identify the male figure he was chasing. According to Will, once he was handcuffed, his co-defendant shot the deputy wounding Will in the process. The Harris County Sheriff’s Department Gunshot Injury Chart, shows, a traverse gunshot wound to the back of the head which directly indicates that the shooter was behind the Deputy to his left.
Will has consistently maintained that because his co-defendant is the son of a prominent Houston police officer he always kept handcuff keys on his person and was therefore able to free Will from his cuffs. Both men then fled in different directions. Will ran to a nearby parking lot where he ordered a woman out of her car and drove away. The shooter, covered in blood, found his way to Will’s apartment where he saw Will’s girlfriend, his mother, his sister and another young woman. In front of two of these witnesses the co-defendant confessed to shooting a police officer and accidentally shooting Will.
WITNESS TESTIMONIES THE NIGHT OF THE MURDER
Robert Will’s co-defendant initially ran to the apartment of a friend of his, but the friend's roommate refused to open the door. The roommate described him as “crying and sweating at the door”. Unable to gain access to his friend's apartment, he ran instead to Will's apartment.
When there, he confessed to Robert's girlfriend and the other occupants of the apartment that he'd just shot a police officer and accidentally shot Robert. Robert Will’s co-defendant proceeded to remove his bloody clothes and wash and pour bleach over them to destroy any DNA evidence.
Will’s girlfriend testified at an Oct 2011 hearing that she told the co-defendant he couldn’t wear his clothes AND none of his clothes were there when police searched. He took the holster and gun case and spare bullets of the murder weapon and placed them in an outside utility closet with a note that read: “Rob, here’s my stuff”. The co-defendant signed it with the name of a mutual friend of both his and Will.
Several people witnessed the co-defendant at the apartment covered in blood and performing all of the above stated actions that day. All have now provided sworn affidavits.
Meanwhile, Will drove the stolen car to Brenham, Texas (approximately one hour northwest of Houston), where he was fully cooperative with the police officer who arrested him. His hands and gloves were bagged for testing, and his wounded left hand was treated.
The co-defendant was subsequently arrested for capital murder but only charged with car theft. Both he and Will were housed at the Harris County Jail. On December 9th, five days after the murder, the co-defendant's parents brought investigators the clothes he supposedly wore on December 4th, carefully washed and folded in a neat pile.
Will was subsequently tried and convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death, all based on circumstantial evidence, despite the fact that:
He had been searched and handcuffed prior to the murder
There was no forensic evidence supporting the charge. In fact, some items were inconsistent with charging Will, and other items were never tested.
The GSR (Gun Shot Residue) tests are completely inconsistent with Will acting as the shooter.
There were several witnesses that were available to testify that the co-defendant admitted to the murder. Four have supplied sworn affidavits and one testified in court
The United States District Court Judge stated:
“…Will has submitted no less than five witnesses who have stated that [the co-defendant] confessed to murdering Deputy Hill. Beyond that, the trial court’s exclusion of [witness’] testimony linking [the co-defendant] to the murder was almost certainly an error of grave proportion.”
Gun Shot Residue (GSR):
Rob Will is right handed, and on the morning of December 4th, 2002, he was wearing gloves. When he was arrested in Brenham, his hands were bagged for GSR and any other evidence. The medical Examiner’s office uses both a scanning electron microscope (SEM) and atomic absorption (AA) for GSR. The more sophisticated SEM was used for Rob Will’s gloves, and both the AA and the SEM were used on his hands.
The results of AA tests on both of Will’s hands proved ‘inconclusive’. The following exchange was noted during cross-examination between [one of] Will’s Attorneys, and a senior forensic chemist from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office:
Q. “But yet, again, if there are zero particles of antimony [a particle of GSR] present, under your standards or the Harris County standards, again, you’re not going to tell us it’s negative of antimony. You’re going to say it’s inconclusive, correct?”
A. “Yes, sir.”
Q. “So, moving on to Mr. Will’s test, his hands were inconclusive; in other words, you can’t tell the jury today as you sit here reading this report that having examined my clients hands using an AA atomic absorption test that his hands were positive for gunshot residue. Correct?”
Will’s left hand, which had a close gunshot wound, tested positive for GSR under the SEM. The following exchange is during direct examination of the expert witness by the Assistant District Attorney:
Q. “…suppose someone is actually shot, injured in an area around their hands. Would you expect to see any of these particular elements [gunshot residue] near or on their hands?”
A. “If it is a close-range shot, absolutely. The chances of deposition are very significantly increased.”
Q. “Okay. So, if someone is shot in their wrist, and depending upon the angle of their hand, even if they had gloves on, these chemicals could enter into the upper palm of their hand?”
A. “Yes, ma’am.”
The co-defendant’s hands were neither bagged nor tested for GSR.
The most important fact regarding the GSR testimony and the test results is that Will was shot in his left hand. It is important to note that Will is right handed. His right hand tested ’inconclusive’ (negative) on both the hand itself and the glove he was wearing. This proves that the gunshot injury was not as a result of Will shooting himself. It is also highly unlikely that he was shot by Deputy Barrett Hill, who was wearing gloves at the time of the murder, because his gun was in the holster. The Prosecutors office always contended that Will shot himself.
The GSR evidence proves that Robert had not fired a gun even once, let alone multiple times, that night and therefore could not have murdered Deputy Hill.
Rob Will did NOT confess to shooting a Police officer when he stole the car
During Will’s trial, a witness - referred to as CS - testified that Will stole her car at gunpoint. CS also testified that, “He said he just shot a policeman”. However, during cross-examination with Will’s attorney, it is pointed out that in her initial statement to the police, on/regarding the day of the event, she makes no such assertion. During the day of the murder, and the day her car was stolen, C.S. spoke to no less than eight police officers. She was fully aware that an officer had been murdered, yet she did not once mention to anyone that day that Will made that statement to her when he stole her car. In fact, she never once said anything about Will saying to her that “he just shot a policeman” for thirteen months - until she spoke to the Prosecutors office in preparation for the trial. Unbeknownst to defense counsel, on the eve of her trial testimony prosecutors had shown CS “very gruesome and extremely graphic” pictures of the slain deputy. These photos along with the prosecutors coaching no doubt biased her testimony, causing her to recount a statement that the evidence shows was not part of her actual recollection of events. In addition, a witness who overheard the incident only reported hearing Will say “Get out of the car now!”. This witness did not recount hearing anything about Mr Will’s alleged admission.
Informant Testifies as to the Co-defendant's Guilt
Four inmates came forward and stated that when they were housed together with the co-defendant at the Harris County Jail, he had confessed to them that he had murdered Deputy Hill. He also provided details about the crime that were not publicly known or available. They also stated that Will had always maintained that he was innocent. Three of these four inmates were intimidated into not testifying at trial on Will's behalf, only later providing affidavits.
During the trial, under direct examination between one of Will’s lawyers and a former inmate of the Harris County Jail, the following exchange took place:
Q. “What did he tell you?”
A. “…I don’t remember exactly what he [the co-defendant] told me what happened, but I remember he said that he [the co-defendant] had no choice but to shoot the cop. It was instinct and he ran…”
Q. “Did he tell you ..”he” being [ the co-defendant].. tell you anything about the type of weapon that was used?”
A. “It was a big 40, 40 mag, something like that.”
Q. “Did he tell you anything about his father?”
A. “He said his father was a police officer and that it was really nothing anybody could do to him.”
Note : the murder weapon was a 40 caliber
Another inmate stated:
“I was brought to Court to testify, I was put in the Court’s holding cell area, only a few cells away from [the co-defendant]. [The co-defendant] threatened me and said I’d better not testify about what he told me. I told him I wasn’t going to.”
The co-defendant had no reason to be at the Court’s holding cell area that day; he wasn't due to testify at any trial and therefore should not have been at the Courts.
The trial record indicates that another inmate refused to testify, because when he was bench-warranted back from Texas Department of Corrections. Deputies severely beat him and told him not to testify.
This inmate claimed that he “told them [Robert Will's Lawyers] that police officers or Deputies broke his arm in classification because he was coming to Court to testify”.
Testimony before the Court shows his arm was broken and a fresh cast was present.
Another inmate informant explained that the night after he had initially spoken to Detectives, an inmate known to be dangerous was moved into the cell next to him. He attempted to intimidate him as the co-defendant previously had:
Inmate: “I think it was Wednesday when I came to talk to ya’ll man. And they moved him up there. And he was asking me about it, hey man, so, what? You’re gonna snitch on this and tell about this case and shit, you’re a fucking snitch”.
Detectives: “You realize that there is always the possibility that you might have to testify in Court with regards to these statements”.
Inmate: “I told [Will’s lawyer] that I didn’t really want to… I mean, cause if I go to prison or something and you know, say [the co-defendant] gets charged with it, he goes to prison. I mean he’s got a lot of friends; you know he says he’s Puerto-Rican. So, he’s got a lot of friends, you know what I’m saying, and I’m trying to come home alive, man… And he done told me, my dad’s a cop and I can have you tooken care of and I have pull and I have this and why do you think I am getting charged with a lesser crime?”.
The fourth inmate informant was also a victim of intimidation but testified regardless of this.
An individual who witnessed the intimidation of this inmate informed Will’s lawyers that he “was handcuffed to a bench in the back of the courtroom, by himself, on the “witness bench”. An inmate that was not wearing handcuffs, who he did not know, came up to him and began beating him and screaming, “You fucking snitch, you better not testify!”
Codefendent Attempted to have Will Murdered:
Jail house records show Rob’s codefendent sought to hide his crime by having a notorious prison gang kill Rob The evidence of [Codefendant’s] cover up was reported to or intercepted by the Harris County Sheriff s Office and recorded in its files. It was then turned over to the prosecution before trial. This evidence along with evidence developed as a result of its discovery, shows that [Codefendant] tried to eliminate Rob Will so that he could not say a word to anyone about what he did to Deputy Hill
“4119 I’ve got one in custody”
At 6:36am on December 4th, 2000 the Harris County Deputy radios into dispatch, “4119 I’ve got one in custody”. “4119” refers to that specific Unit. The prosecutor, Charles “Chuck” Rosenthal, Jr. contends that Will shot the Deputy one minute after this call was made. There was no sound of altercation on the recording, only shots fired approximately one minute after this call was made. D.A. Rosenthal contends that the Deputy may have called in that he had Will “in custody”, however, that did not mean that Will had been searched for weapons, subdued, or handcuffed. This scenario offered by the Prosecution is highly unlikely and unbelievable as to have a suspect “in custody” means to have that person either arrested and incarcerated or handcuffed and subdued. “Custody” is different from detaining and individual, which would imply the Officer may simply be holding an individual for questioning (with or without restraints). When a suspect is handcuffed, it’s standard operating procedure for the officer to search that individual for weapons prior to cuffing them.
During the cross-examination of the Dispatch Records Manager and Will’s lawyer, there was the following exchange:
Q. “And you—through your training and experience, you would understand “custody” to mean that he has control of that suspect, correct?”
A. “Yes, sir, I would.”
Q. “As a matter of fact, the dispatcher relays to the other units, recognizing that he has control of the person. On line 65m say: Clear, one in custody at 6:36.”
The two responding officers came upon and chased two suspects; Deputy Hill pursued Will and his partner allegedly pursued and subsequently lost the co-defendant. However, the prosecution claims the co-defendant would not have had time to reach Deputy Hill as there was only 8 seconds between his partner losing sight of him, some 470 feet from the scene of the shooting, and the first shot being fired.
At trial, Deputy Hill's partner agreed that he never made a positive identification of the co-defendant and that he could have been chasing any one of these individuals. But if indeed he was chasing the co-defendant, the radio transcript and his own testimony at trial show that the co-defendant would have had, at the very least, 26 seconds, and not the 8 seconds prosecutors claim, to reach the scene and shoot Deputy Hill.
Timeline/Excerpts from Radio Transcript:
At 6:37:02, Deputy Hill's partner states “He’s running along the bayou”
43 seconds later at 6:37:45, Hill says “4119, I’ve got one in custody”.
Will is apprehended.
18 seconds later at 6:38:03, Hill's partner asks “19, I got any units in route to me? ”.
26 seconds later at 6:38:29, First shot fired as heard over the open radio.
Deputy Hill's partner testified at trial:
“I didn’t catch the second man, lost sight of him, but he was on the east side, I saw him disappear around a tree. I asked [the] dispatcher if any other units were en route and where I had lost sight of him”.
He stated he had lost whoever he was chasing before he radioed in and enquired about additional units en route to him.
If it was the co-defendant that he was pursuing, the co-defendant would have had from at least 6:38:03 (when the deputy radioed in) until 6:38:29 (when the first shot was fired) to reach Hill - a total of 26 seconds.
Although it would not be unrealistic to assume that Hill's partner did not lose sight of the suspect at the exact second he radioed and therefore, the co-defendant would potentially have had more than 26 seconds to reach Deputy Hill, Prosecutors claim he lost sight of the co-defendant 470 feet from the scene of the crime by the bayou, near the bridge, a young fit man, as the co-defendant was, could easily run 470 feet in 26 seconds.
However this distance is merely speculation on the Prosecution's behalf, no solid evidence exists to prove its accuracy.
The Deputy's partner did state that he lost the suspect when he “disappeared around a tree”. The suspect must have been near the wooded area and not on the bayou or near the bridge by Darbydale. As trial testimony and crime scene photos show, this is a flat area completely devoid of trees and bushes. There were no trees for a suspect to disappear behind.
He also stated at trial:
“(I) made it to the bayou, looked toward the bridge at the end of the street to the east then started making my way back to where I lost sight of the suspect.”
Thus, he did not lose the suspect on the bayou or near the bridge, but closer to the actual crime scene, where there were trees.
Taking all these facts into consideration, the co-defendant would have in fact had to run less than 470 feet (as he was not last seen on the bayou) and had more than 26 seconds to reach Deputy Hill, meaning the co-defendant could have easily been the shooter.
The two witness statements The deputy's partner gave directly after the crime differed from his trial testimony and when he took the stand to testify, he offered several different and inconsistent versions of the events of that day.
Prosecution’s expert witness contradicting the thesis that Robert Will would be the shooter
According to the prosecution's ballistic expert witness, the first shot was fired from a distance of less than 8 inches.
If the first shot took off Will’s knuckles, as they claim, and it was shot from less than 8 inches, Will’s blood/DNA would have been present at the site of the wound and on Deputy Hill's clothing. This was not the case.
Further testimony stated that a trail of Will’s blood was found leading from the crime scene, confirming that Will was bleeding profusely. If he had shot his own left hand less than 8 inches away from Deputy Hill, a significant quantity of Will’s blood should have been found on Hill's clothing, especially if Will had stood over Hill as he lay on the ground and shot him repeatedly.
Only one small drop of Will’s blood was found on the tip of Deputy Hill's boot. No other blood was present. Also, at close range, Will would have been unable to avoid getting blood splatter from Deputy Hill on himself and all over his own clothing.
Blood stain tests were conducted on both Deputy Hill's and Will's clothes. A senior forensic expert testified at trial:
“The officers clothing, his uniform shirt, his shirt and pants they came back having the officer’s blood on them.”
He also testified:
“The clothes Mr. Will was wearing, the jacket he had on… Purple pants that he had on, his shoes all came back as having his blood on them, except his socks, I didn’t test them… all came back with blood being consistent with him, his own blood on his own clothing...it was his blood and no one else’s, not the Deputy’s”.
Forensic Pathologist Dr. Jesse Adams’ testimony does not support the Prosecution's theory, that Will shot Deputy Hill from the ground and then fired additional shots when Deputy Hill was on the ground. At trial he stated the following with regard to one of the Deputy Hill's gunshot wounds:
“This would be consistent, with the shooter being to the side of the Deputy or the Deputy’s head being turned away from the shooter. It would be consistent with both those scenarios. It would be consistent if they were approximately the same size and in the standing position.”
“It would be possible that if the defendant and victim were standing face to face being handcuffed someone could approach from the left and shoot. That would be consistent with the entry and exit wounds. Someone could have been hiding in the bush and approached from the left side.”
This testimony supports Will’s version of events and throws into doubt the prosecutors’ version, which supposes the first shots were fired while Will was on the ground, the remainder of the shots being fired as Deputy Hill lay on the ground.
The Clorox bottle: an incoherent conviction piece
Prosecutors claim that: “Will also apparently doused himself with bleach while driving away, which would only make sense as an attempt to clean himself (of blood, gunshot residue or some other trace of the murder).”
A Clorox bleach bottle was removed from the vehicle that Will had stolen. The Deputy who conducted investigations at the scene of the arrest stated:
“We did remove a Clorox bottle that had what appeared to be gasoline inside. Deputy Kuhlman took that out and brought a canister, a gas canister, and emptied gas [from the Clorox bottle] into it…We kept the Clorox bottle”.
The Clorox bottle was in fact filled with gasoline not bleach. The gasoline from the Clorox bottle was emptied into a gas canister by a Deputy, not Will, and after they had emptied the Clorox bottle, the officers retained the bottle. Therefore Will did not and could not have “doused himself in bleach” as Prosecutors claim “as an attempt to clean himself (of blood, gunshot residue or some other trace of the murder)”, as there was no bleach in the first place.
Will’s gloves were tested and analysed and there was no evidence of gasoline or bleach on them, making it extremely unlikely that Will had handled the bottle. Forensic experts also confirmed by testimony that the gloves had not been the subject of any cleaning process, which would have removed any such evidence.
Statement of Washington County Sheriff, who arrested Robert Will
Prosecutors claim that “Will did not shoot the officer who actually arrested him hours later, but he did drive away from the initial traffic stop and position his vehicle in a secluded place before jumping out and charging the officer. Only the precaution of keeping Will face down on the ground at gunpoint, instead of the probationary officer to approach him without backup, may have prevented the second murder.”
Robert Will never made any attempt to murder the Washington County Sheriff.
At trial the arresting officer testified:
“He [Robert Will] didn’t try to shoot at me. He didn’t make any gestures consistent with shooting at me”.
Will was parked as the deputy sheriff approached and although he did initially drive off about 100 feet, he claims this was only because he did not realize the person approaching his vehicle was an officer. Once he realized it was a police officer, he stopped the vehicle in a populated area and got out. The Deputy explains what happened next: “He did not then try to discharge his weapon at me… He never went for the gun in his waistband. He put his hands in the air. He dropped to the ground. He spread his hands from his body”.
The Prosecutors' claims are unfounded and completely contradictory to the arresting officer's testimony.
Fingerprints were taken from items at the crime scene, including the shell casings of the bullets. Also tested were items found in Will’s utility closet at his apartment, which witnesses stated the co-defendant left there. These items included the murder weapon's holster, additional bullets, a loaded .38 calibre Smith and Wesson revolver, two shotguns, a bulletproof vest, a dagger, and ammunition. A photograph of the co-defendant wearing the bulletproof vest and holding one of the firearms was admitted into evidence as proof of the co-defendant’s ownership of these items.
Will’s fingerprints were not found on any items at the crime scene, in the utility closet or on any items deemedto be associated with the murder of Deputy Hill.
The co-defendant’s fingerprints were never submitted for comparison.
All of Will's clothes were tested. The only DNA found to be present was that of Will. One of Will’s gloves contained both his DNA and that of an “unknown” donor which was not a match with either Will or Deputy Hill.
No other DNA specimens, including the co-defendant’s, were ever submitted for comparison.
Similarly, all of Deputy Hill's clothing was tested and apart from one small drop of Will’s blood on the tip of his boot, none of Will's DNA was found to be present on any item.
The co-defendant’s pants were tested after his father handed them in to police. The pants were stained with blood but Forensic Services were unable to extract any DNA as the pants had been bleached, destroying all DNA/blood evidence. A fact previously confirmed by witnesses at Will’s apartment.
The DNA evidence does not support the Prosecution's assertions that Will shot himself and Deputy Hill at close range and then stood over the victim, repeatedly shooting him.
As previously stated, the gunshot wound trajectories were not consistent with the Prosecutors' version of events.
Forensic scientists also testified that Will’s clothing had neither been cleaned nor bleached, which would have enabled the removal of DNA evidence prior to testing.
The “Wall of Blue” and Juror Impartiality
Will expressed concerns, on several occasions, regarding the amount of uniformed police officers that were present at his trial on a daily basis. At one point the Judge ordered the doors of the Court to be locked because of the overwhelming number of police officers present.
This presence in Court is known by police officers as “the wall of blue,” a tactic often used to influence and/or intimidate the juries of defendants accused of murdering a police officer.
During Will’s trial there were countless uniformed deputies or police officers displaying badges of mourning sitting with the family of the slain Deputy. These seats were closest to the jurors’ seats. In the December 2001, Houston Star, a newspaper for local law enforcement personnel, the following notice was on the front page:
“The trial of Robert Gene Will II, who was charged with capital Murder of a Police Officer after the murder of one of our brothers begins January 7, 2002, in the 185th District. This is a reminder for as many uniformed deputies, that can be there, attend.”
The defense objected to this “Wall of Blue", but the Judge overruled their concerns, saying the officers had a right to be present. It must be questioned whether having that many uniformed police officers standing arm-in-arm against Will had a prejudicial effect on the sitting jurors?
When these facts were presented to the Court of Criminal Appeals, it was noted that they: “found no evidence that jurors’ sympathies were susceptible to being swayed by the police presence, such as it would, for instance, if the jurors had close ties to law enforcement.”
Meaning, had the jurors had “close ties to law enforcement” they would have in fact been “susceptible to being swayed by the police presence” in the Court on a daily basis.
The Voire Dire Transcript provided the following information:
One Juror had friends who were police officers and a brother who was a State Trooper.
Another Juror had a friend who was a police officer who had actually been involved with this very case, the murder of Deputy Hill. This juror also spoke to this officer, who was testifying, during the trial, outside the courtroom.
A Juror stated that a good friend of her husband's was with the Houston Police Department.
Three jurors did indeed have “close ties to law enforcement”.
This would have made them already biased in favour of the police even without the addition of a large police presence in the courtroom, which surely could have only added to that bias.
Charles “Chuck” Rosenthal, Robert Will’s Prosecutor
The Prosecutor at Will’s trial was Charles “Chuck” Rosenthal, a man who was forced to resign in 2008 after being besieged by scandals, including accusations of intoxication at work, sending sexist and racist emails, having an adulterous affair, and deleting over 3,500 emails that were under subpoenas and a court order.
Mr. Rosenthal had shown a history of poor judgment in office, including throwing firecrackers down his office stairs following the Oklahoma City Bombings, and sending two undercover police officers into the city jail to pose as defence attorneys in order to get information from individuals who were under arrest for cocaine charges.
DA Rosenthal also was aware about the serious problems with the police department crime lab, and under his watch, three men were exonerated of their crimes, based on shoddy work undertaken by this lab. Rosenthal also argued on behalf of the State of Texas in Lawrence v. Texas, where he sought to defend Texas’ anti-gay sodomy laws.
During the Sentencing Phase of Will’s trial, when the jurors listen to mitigating evidence, and any evidence that points to the possibility of Will being a future danger to the public, DA Rosenthal made the following statement about Will:
“…it goes to the fact that what we really learned from September 11th is that evil exists in this world. If we didn’t know it before, we know it now. And we know the embodiment evil came out and has manifested itself in Robert Gene Will, II.”
Will had strong mitigating evidence that consisted of prolonged physical and sexual abuse, a father who was a heroin addict and who was subsequently murdered when Will was 10 years of age. There was testimony stating that Will functioned in an exemplary manner when in controlled and disciplined environments (ie. he had only been written up for 3 very minor infractions during the 13 months he had been incarcerated in the Harris County Jail, even though the deputies watching over him saw him as the killer of their friend and colleague). Furthermore a review of Will’s life history shows that he has no history of violent conduct. When arrested he had completed a year of college, maintaining a 3.75 GPA and was looking forward to starting his second year. Will was also a very active father. None the less, the jurors returned with a verdict of “Death”, as is common in most capital cases. It should also be mentioned, that since his incarceration Will has continued his college education, become a certified yoga instructor, a fine artist and published writer. He is currently working on a paralegal degree.