The Department as I Remember It

Earl D. Musick

As Houston police officers we probably did not often think about innocent individuals being convicted of crimes they didn’t commit; we were too busy dealing with the guilty.

Part of this group’s modus operandi involved stealing a vehicle and parking it in front of the target store the day before the robbery.  Since the stores victimized by this group were corporate stores, Dallas merchants knew about the Houston robberies.  It became apparent the group had relocated in Dallas and the group continued to rob the businesses regularly.  The robberies had not stopped as investigators believed; they just relocated to Dallas.

The Dallas suspects’ modus operandi and the suspects’ descriptions were exactly the same as the group of hijackers in Houston.

The Dallas Police Department located a stolen car from Houston parked in front of one of their hardware stores and established a surveillance.  At this location, the hijackers got in a shootout with the police and one of the robbers was shot in the head with a .308 rifle.  This dead suspect was carrying the off-duty Houston police officer’s pistol.

This robber had bragged about how he got the drop on the police officer and took the officer’s gun as his trophy.  His description was very similar to Hudson and now there was no doubt Hudson had been in jail for two armed robberies he did not commit.

The investigators I talked with about this investigation knew the importance of doing a thorough investigation and reporting all the evidence to the prosecution.  Because they conducted a thorough investigation, an innocent man did not suffer the consequences of a wrongful conviction.

Hudson could have easily had his probation revoked, convicted in the robberies and sentenced to life in prison.  Instead his probation was reinstated. I believe he continued to turn his life around and remain a productive citizen.

My fear of possibly allowing an innocent client to suffer the consequences of a wrongful conviction drove me to work day and night to assure his exoneration.

Capital murder defendants are not allowed bond, so our innocent client waited in the jail for a year, while the real killer committed other armed robberies as a free man.  Only by us finding the actual killer were we able to show the prosecutors the error of their accusations.  With the information and evidence we provided, the prosecutors dismissed charges against our innocent client and later with our information, convicted the person really responsible for the crimes. Because of our investigation, both guilty defendants are now in prison with life sentences for their parts in the crimes.

It was very satisfying to set free an innocent man, who was wrongfully charged with capital murder.  Because of our representation, he was exonerated and released from custody.  Witnessing our client’s gratitude and his family’s appreciation was extremely rewarding and in 2008, the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association presented my daughter JoAnne Musick and me their prestigious “Lawyer of the Year” award for freeing an innocent man.

If Sam and I had done a bad investigation, an innocent man might have been convicted of an armed robbery he didn’t commit.  Also, it was a bad investigation by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, faulty identifications from eyewitnesses and a lazy prosecutor that led to a false charge of capital murder.  The wrongful charges caused our client to spend a year in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.  An innocent man might have been convicted of capital murder if not for a good criminal defense investigation and dedicated criminal defense lawyers.

In a conversation with retired Lt. Ira Franks, I learned of an investigation in 1982, where they freed an ex-Houston police officer, who was charged with two counts of robbery he didn’t commit.  While talking about that robbery investigation, I remembered the ex-officer, who worked evening shift at North Shepherd Substation.  Because I knew of the officer, I became interested in the ex-police officer’s story.

Jimmie Carl Hudson graduated from the Houston Police Academy Class No. 46, on Dec. 18, 1970, and was assigned to the Radio Patrol Bureau at the North Shepherd Substation.  He also worked the Jail Division in 1974.  Everyone described Hudson as being a nice guy who came to the Department from a small town. They were totally shocked when he was arrested on armed robbery charges.

Retired Officer Harold “Randy” Crocker remembers occasionally riding with Hudson on the evening shift in Acres Homes.  Randy described Hudson as being laid back and easy to get along with.  He also remembered Hudson was calling in sick a lot before his arrest, but he would never have figured him to be a hijacker.  Like everyone else, Randy was shocked to learn Hudson and a young female were doing armed robberies out of town on his days off.

Retired Officer Michael J. Orlando also remembered Hudson, who shared an apartment on Antoine with his brother, Officer Sammy W. Orlando, and Officer Jerry Cormier.  Michael was as shocked as anyone to learn the police officer he thought he knew was involved in armed robberies.

Michael remembers the last time he saw Hudson after his arrest.  Michael and Officer Randy Service were riding midnight patrol at Northeast and were on a traffic stop when Hudson walked up to them from out of nowhere, in the middle of the night, carrying a suitcase.  Michael described the encounter as being very strange since Hudson was someone he knew and once trusted.  However, on this night it was different. He didn’t feel safe around his old friend and remembers checking him for weapons.

Retired Lt. Allen E. Tharling remembered Hudson being arrested for doing a bank robbery out of town.  He believed the bank was in El Paso, but didn’t remember much about the investigation.  From the Harris County District Clerk’s website, I found Hudson was arrested in Harris County for resisting arrest and driving while intoxicated on April 3, 1977.  He later pled guilty to both charges on June 13, 1977.

The Harris County Clerk’s Office also shows Hudson posted bond on an out-of-county aggravated robbery on Dec. 12, 1979, and pled guilty to that charge on March 12, 1980, receiving a 10-year probated sentence.  These records may relate to the out-of-town bank robbery Allen remembered.

The Clerk’s files show his probation was originally in El Paso and later transferred to Harris County.  From available records, it appears Hudson successfully completed his probation and has no records of arrest after his probation was terminated.

While on probation for the robbery, on April 7, 1982, Hudson was charged with two robberies he did not commit.  The detectives working on those robberies eventually saw firsthand how someone’s past criminal history, their modus operandi and faulty eyewitness identifications can cause an innocent man to be wrongfully charged with crimes he did not commit.

Robert “Bob” A. Armbruster was a newly promoted detective working with Detective Brian Foster in the Robbery Division at the time of this investigation.  Bob said this investigation taught him how unreliable eyewitness identifications can be.

In  Grisham’s The Innocent Man, he describes how the police ignored exculpatory evidence while building their case against Williamson.  In Robbery’s investigation of Hudson, this was not the case.  From talking with retired officers Ira Franks, Brian Foster, Bob Armbruster, David C. Wells and Allen E. Tharling it was easy to see why Hudson became the leading suspect in a rash of armed robberies.

The evidence against Hudson was very strong and the eyewitnesses were positive in their identification and once he was arrested the robberies ceased to happen.

Before Hudson’s arrest, Houston was experiencing an outbreak of well planned and executed armed robberies of businesses like Home Depot and Handy Dan.  The hijackers were armed with assault rifles and carried police scanners and walkie talkie radios during the robberies.  The suspects thoroughly cased their targets and their plans were executed like clockwork.  The robberies became so frequent some merchants hired off-duty policeman in attempts to prevent these crimes.

At one location a uniformed off-duty officer was working an extra job when a robber approached him and put a gun to this head.  The suspect disarmed the off-duty police officer and took his duty weapon, a .45 automatic.  Then the suspect demanded to know if the officer was carrying a backup weapon or if he was wearing an ankle holster.  After checking for extra weapons, the robber handcuffed the officer and the robbery went unchallenged.  The off-duty officer was convinced this suspect had some police training and might be an ex-officer.

Retired Criminal Intelligence Officer David C. Wells had many sources providing him with information about high-profile crimes in Houston.  A club owner, who had provided creditable information to David in the past said he believed Hudson was again doing robberies since he was already back on the streets.  After receiving this information, David contacted the off-duty officer and asked him to look at page 160 of the Houston Police Department’s 1974 yearbook and see if any of those officers looked like the suspect who took his gun.  The police officer immediately identified Hudson and was convinced he was the robber who disarmed him.

A photo lineup was shown to other witnesses and they also identified Hudson as being one of the robbers.  Robbery charges were filed and Hudson was arrested and later indicted on two aggravated robbery charges.  After his arrest the robberies ceased to happen and it looked like Robbery had the right man.  Although the evidence against Hudson was very strong, there was something that just did not add up.

Hudson was employed and worked very long hours in some type of machine shop.  His employer said he was an exemplary employee who worked a lot of overtime, working 10 hour days, six days a week.  He was very dependable and missed very little work.  When arrested he had just gotten off work and was covered in oil and grit from his job.

His probation officer said Hudson reported timely and complied with all his conditions of probation.  Doing robberies seemed out of character for Hudson, but a motion to revoke his probation was filed.  Even though everything appeared to say Hudson was responsible for these robberies, investigators continued their investigation, finding records indicating he was working when one of the robberies occurred.  They presented all the evidence to the prosecutors, even the exculpatory evidence.

As the investigators evaluated all the evidence, they started believing Hutson might be innocent.  Even though the eyewitnesses were convinced Hudson was the right suspect, more evidence was found indicating his innocence.

Finally a hearing was held and Ira testified regarding the exculpatory evidence the investigators had found.  At this hearing, the charges were dismissed and Hudson was released from jail, but there were still doubts about his innocence.

While working in the Department’s investigative divisions, I witnessed firsthand the arrest and prosecution of many guilty criminals.  While prosecuting cases for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, I often said in closing arguments; “I am now asking you to tell the Defendant, by your verdict, something he already knows.  Mark your verdict sheet guilty.”

But what about a person who is factually innocent and caught up in the criminal justice system?

We would like to believe wrongful convictions don’t happen that often, but unfortunately they do.  Our criminal justice system is based on English jurist William Blackstone’s premise,“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

By following this principle we hope to prevent wrongful convictions.  But we learn far too often about exonerations of innocent people who suffered the consequences of convictions for crimes they didn’t commit. So the question becomes: Why does our criminal justice system allow someone to suffer years in prison for a crime he did not commit?

John Grisham uncovered reasons a person might suffer the consequences of a wrongful conviction when he researched information for his first non-fiction novel. His book chronicles Ron Williamson’s journey through the criminal justice system and Williamson’s life on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. 

“The journey also exposed me to the world of wrongful convictions, something that I, even as a former lawyer, had never spent much time thinking about. Wrongful convictions occur every month in every state in this country, and the reasons are all varied and all the same — bad police work, junk science, faulty eyewitness identifications, bad defense lawyers, lazy prosecutors, arrogant prosecutors.”The Innocent Man by  John Grisham (p. 356).

As a former police officer, a former prosecutor and now a criminal defense attorney, I agree with Grisham’s rationale. During my career, I witnessed all of these reasons why innocent individuals might be convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.

In thinking about my police career, I once arrested and charged a factually innocent man with aggravated robbery.  The false charges were the result of bogus information from an informant, the suspect’s association with the wrong crowd and faulty eyewitness identification.  However, our police investigation revealed the suspect was innocent.

Two arrested co-defendants separately proclaimed the wrongfully charged suspect was not present during the residential robbery.  They made us aware that we had charged an innocent man, who was in jail for a crime he did not commit.  My partner at the time of this investigation was Detective Sam Nuchia.  We listened to the co-defendants, gathered information and re-investigated the case and eventually exonerated the wrongly accused suspect.

Throughout the years after his exoneration, I maintained contact with this suspect and a few years back learned he had passed away.  I still talk with his lawyer, who respects Sam and me for doing the right thing in this investigation.  The lawyer also told me how much his client respected us.

I heard from this exonerated suspect another time when Sam was the HPD police chief.  Sam’s wife Liz unknowingly took her vehicle for some work where this defendant was employed.  While talking to her about the vehicle, he asks about Sam and me.  He told Liz about dealing with us when he was younger and running with the wrong crowd.  He told her we were good cops and he had a lot of respect for us.  Instead of being bitter about his false charges, he used the experience to change his life for the better.

Because we did the right thing in that investigation, the two home invaders also gained respect for Sam and me.  While writing this article, one of these men contacted me.  He is now a business owner, respected in his community and a volunteer fire fighter. For more than 25 years, he has been a model citizen.  He is also a family man and the father of a son who did a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

He credits us with the positive changes he made in his life, after being released from prison.

Another experience with a wrongfully charged defendant happened while I was a lawyer practicing criminal defense.  A mother retained my law firm to represent her son, who was charged with capital murder.  During our representation, we learned her son was not involved in the murder or the aggravated robbery that led to the charges. Before this client’s representation, I had never given much thought to the problems of wrongful convictions.  These problems are easy to ignore when you have not spent much time thinking about the consequences.

However, the realization of representing an innocent client, facing the death penalty, caused me to spend a lot of time thinking about the consequences of a wrongful conviction and it scared me.

“The scariest client a lawyer will ever have is an innocent client”.  The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly, p. 113.