A Temecula man convicted more than 19 years ago in the death of a woman whose was body was dumped near a lake in the Temescal Valley was exonerated after a review of forensic evidence, culminating in his release from prison and the filing of murder charges against two other men, Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin announced Monday.
"What happened to Horace Roberts is tragic," Hestrin said. "We as prosecutors always strive to be vigilant and follow the truth. Once I learned of the new DNA findings, I immediately directed that all charges be dismissed. Mr. Roberts has my commitment that we will aggressively apply new technologies to past, present and future prosecutions."
Roberts, now 60, was convicted in July 1999 of second-degree murder in the April 1998 death of Terry Cheek. According to prosecutors, Roberts and Cheek worked together and had been involved romantically, even though she was married.
Her remains were found in a rock outcropping near Lake Corona, and sheriff's investigators soon turned their attention to Roberts based on evidence gathered at the scene and interviews conducted in the days following her death. The California Innocence Project, which took on Roberts' case in 2004, alleges the exonerated man was made to appear guilty by the victim's husband, now-62-year-old Googie Rene Harris of Jurupa Valley, and his nephew, now-51-year-old Joaquin Latee Leal of Compton.
Both men were arrested Friday and charged with first-degree murder. Each defendant is being held in lieu of $1 million bail -- Harris at the Smith Correctional Facility in Banning, and Leal at the Byrd Detention Center in Murrieta -- with arraignment scheduled Tuesday at the Riverside Hall of Justice. Hestrin credited attorneys at the California Innocence Project with prompting the D.A.'s Conviction Review Committee to take a comprehensive look at Roberts' case.
The county's top prosecutor said the project's examination of DNA evidence not introduced during Roberts' trial proved pivotal in ultimately exonerating him. The same DNA evidence will now be used in the proceedings involving Harris and Leal. Hestrin offered Roberts all available resources from the D.A.'s Victims Services Division.
Roberts was freed from prison on Oct. 3 and is already visiting family in South Carolina, according to his supporters.