Darius Elam, a Chicago native who came to Houston on a TSU track scholarship, has been in prison for 38 years convicted of aggravated robbery. That was the charge authorities sought to try him on, though they deemed him the prime suspect in a murder case. However, he was first arrested for credit card abuse.
But as horrible as all that sounds, the worst part could be that Elam is innocent on all counts, yet still incarcerated. This is according to Elam; persons who testified against him, who have now recanted their stories; witnesses who told authorities Elam was with them when the murder/robbery was committed; the actual credit card abuser and store clerks who informed police that Elam had no part in using stolen credit cards; and the gross lack of evidence linking Elam to any of the charges.
Yet, the decades imprisoned have not stopped Elam from proclaiming his innocence and fighting for his release and exoneration.
The Defender, which has written about this case before, visited Elam at the TDCJ’s Memorial Unit in Rosharon, TX to hear directly from him.
ARREST & CHARGES
DEFENDER: Can you share what led to your initial arrest?
DARIUS ELAM: Because I worked at Florsheim’s I was at the Galleria to pick up my check, and at work. Clarence Richardson, a dude I recognized from campus, was shopping and doing what he was doing with the credit cards. He asked me, could I give him a lift home? I said, “Okay, when I get off work.” Mr. Van Cleve, my manager, said I could get off early. So, I left at about maybe 8:20pm. I accompanied Richardson to a couple of stores. A store clerk alerted to a bad credit card. Richardson told me, “Hey, get away from here.” So, I took a few steps back. [The police later] reported that I ran all through the mall. That’s not true. But anyway, I took a few steps back, trying to process everything. The police got him, they got me, they arrested us. It was initially charged credit card abuse. All the witnesses to the credit card abuse, all of the store clerks said “It wasn’t this guy (speaking about me), the taller guy, it was the shorter guy (Richardson) using credit cards.” But we both were charged with credit card abuse. Then some 90 days later, just me and me alone. Then they charged me with capital murder, murder and robbery. Then they dropped the capital murder and murder, and decided to try me for aggravated robbery.
DEFENDER: Did you ever know or meet Richard Bowen, the person who was murdered?
ELAM: Never met him. Didn’t know anything about him. But when I started researching, trying to figure out who did this, I found some stuff against him that was in the offense report. That’s public records. The guy sold drugs for some guy named Larry. The police confirmed that Bowne was selling drugs for this guy. Two days after the offense/murder, an anonymous caller told police, “We know who did this to the victim,” and mentioned [Larry’s] name.
YELLOW NOTEBOOK PAPER
DEFENDER: Can you speak on the two deciding factors in your conviction, a yellow sheet of notebook paper and a jailed informant’s testimony that he later recanted?
ELAM: Absolutely. When I was arrested, I had two college books, a letter opener and a yellow legal pad, all in my briefcase. If I wouldn’t have had that, I wouldn’t be here. They wouldn’t have anything to put me at the scene of the crime. But I had that, unfortunately. Ultimately, they went inside my property in the county jail property room, where all my property was. And they took the front sheet of the legal pad and claimed they found this at the scene of the crime. This whole sheet of yellow, blue-line writing paper, they claimed they found it in plain view on the front floor, passenger side of the car. An Officer Cooper documented his find 90 days after the offense (Aug 9, 1983; State Exhibit #30). He also claimed it was blood spatter on this paper. There are several things wrong with this. And this is my proof, my evidence. Cooper wasn’t an original processor of the evidence. He wasn’t even part of the crew who would process the evidence. Two guys, an officer named Paul Motar and Gail Schultz, they were the first responders, went to the scene of the crime, found the victim in his car. He had been shot. They did a very meticulous, itemized listing of everything they found. But particularly in the front floor, passenger side, where Officer Cooper claimed he found this [yellow notebook paper] 90 days after the offense, they [Motar and Schultz], made an itemized list of everything they found. There’s no evidence of a yellow sheet of paper with blood spatter. Then a guy came behind them named Fingerhut. He took 24 pictures of the crime scene. Eighteen pictures were items inside the car, and six were on the outside. And there’s no notebook paper with blood spatter. Then they took the car to the HPD vehicle examination stall, and they had CSI, Ms. Danita Smith. She came in and scrubbed the car thoroughly for forensic evidence. She ended up finding the victim’s class ring and wedding ring that were slightly up under the car flooring on the front, passenger side. The same area where Cooper said he found my sheet of paper. Smith wrote down everything she found. That [yellow sheet of paper] is not part of it. That’s four people who didn’t see this [yellow sheet of notebook paper].
DEFENDER: What about the inmate testimonies against you?
ELAM: They had a thing called “boogie down” in the eighties where inmates would look for any opportunity they could to get out of their case or get a lesser deal on their case. This leads to the jailhouse snitch. Two guys claimed I bragged to them in just 10 short minutes after meeting total strangers in the city jail, about a murder. Bearing in mind, I wasn’t even charged with murder. I was there for credit card abuse. When Tammie Lang Campbell, founder of the Honey Brown Hope Foundation, requested that the Houston Police Department conduct a post-conviction investigation, one of the jailhouse informants recanted, admitted that they paid him and they dropped his case. After searching online and finding that the Honey Brown Hope Foundation was advocating for my release, he also called Mrs. Campbell and confessed that he lied. He also contacted HPD’s Sergeant Rodriguez, and told him he lied. It’s a blessing that he had a change of heart, but the damage was done, and his lie and the other guy’s lie led me here.
DEFENDER: Did you request a DNA test?
ELAM: The Houston Conviction Integrity Unit (HCUI), a guy named Mr. Baldwin Chan, he was over it at the time, looked into my case. Mr. Chan had his own suspicion about this sheet of paper. Chan said, “If you would agree to the DNA, then I’m going to do all in my power to exonerate you, if the DNA comes back excluding you.” So, we did the DNA testing. It came back excluding me. They got the victim’s son and did familial DNA testing. The expert testified that the victim also is to be excluded. So, it leaves a third party who may be the likely assailant. This is what the Court of Criminal Appeal has to decide; to what extent is the DNA exculpatory or not?
CHICAGO TO TSU/HOUSTON
DEFENDER: Before you even got to Houston, did you come here from Chicago on a track scholarship to Texas Southern University?
ELAM: Yes. I ran the 200 meters. That was my specialty.
DEFENDER: Did you have other offers to go other places?
ELAM: Yes. I could have gone to FAMU, Ohio State. I had eight scholarship offers, but I chose TSU because my (high school track) coach, he was literally coerced and paid $7,500—he told me this later—to pick TSU. And it’s cool. That was my coach. He was like a father image. But he did some good coercion, and you know, here I am. No regrets for TSU though. A great university. But this trouble makes it seem like a bad choice.
DEFENDER: What was your TSU experience like before May of 1983?
ELAM: TSU was great. I pledged Alpha Phi Alpha. As a member of a fraternity, we were really active in school activities. We did everything, because they went through the fraternities a lot. So, it was great. Then, I chose to work part-time at Florsheim’s Shoe Company. I also had a job going door-to-door, selling books in my sophomore year. In fact, I could sell anything to anybody. So, I went to Florsheim’s and sold myself, and they gave me the job. I eventually became the assistant manager, and then went from there.
DEFENDER: What did you major in at TSU?
ELAM: Psychology. I had a hell of an incident with the psychology department. I realized I was in the wrong field of psychology. They took us on the field trip in Houston. I’m not even sure where it was at, but I got to see firsthand people who were psychotic. And I realized, I don’t think I want this branch of psychology. So, I switched to cognitive psychology. That’s what I eventually got my degree in.
MENTALITY WHEN FIRST CHARGED
DEFENDER: I want to go back again if you don’t mind. So, you’re being charged with credit card abuse. You had never been in trouble with the law. You were at the Galleria, working. How did you feel sitting in jail with that charge even before they came with this other charge?
ELAM: Well, because Richardson came correct from the beginning. From the beginning, he explained everything. He told the police everything. That I had nothing to do with the credit card abuse. He told them, “I found these credit cards in a parking lot at MacGregor Park.” He told everything. So, I wasn’t really worried about them convicting me on credit card abuse. I trusted all the store tellers would tell who was abusing credit cards. So, I wasn’t really worried about that. But when it escalated from credit card abuse to capital murder, that got my attention.
DEFENDER: What about advice from your attorney(s) during these cases?
ELAM: I had an attorney, a fellow frat brother named Jack Terry. His thing was, you shouldn’t really have to worry about this conviction because they can’t really prove anything. So, they appointed me a guy named Tom Roberson. Tom Roberson was a former prosecutor for 13 years. He said, “Look man, I tried cases like this before, prosecuted cases like this. This is not going to convict you,” speaking about my sheet of paper. What I didn’t know until I learned the law, was that when it comes to fingerprint evidence, one of the things they have to prove to make it valid, is to what extent was the item accessible to you prior to the offense? If it’s a readily moveable object, such as the sheet of paper and you have prior access to it, like I did with my own notes, then the courts rule, this is invalid. I didn’t know this until I studied the law and found out that the key to fingerprint evidence is to what extent this item was accessible to you prior to the offense. So, the state burden is to prove you didn’t have prior accessibility to this. Thus, you imprinted this at the time of the offense. For instance, if my fingerprint would’ve been found on the victim’s car anywhere, it’s nothing I can say. But being found on my own sheet of paper, I got prior access to this. These are my notes. I asked Mr. Randy Wallace on Fox News, “How are you going to carry a whole sheet of paper with one finger?” Just my single, right index finger print was found on the paper. That’s it. That’s what he said links me to the offense. See, in the 1980s, the golden standard of forensics was fingerprint evidence. Now, of course, it’s DNA. But in the 1980s, if they said your fingerprint was there, that’s like 100% evidence against you.
DEFENDER: Wasn’t Judge Joshua Hill supposed to make a ruling on your case in December of 2019, but you had to file some legal proceedings to push the process forward?
ELAM: Absolutely. December 2, 2019 was the date he was given after he got 120-day extension. And from December 2, 2019 all the way to December 3, 2022, the court demanded that the clerk just sent us the records. They didn’t even ask [Judge Hill] to do anything. Just send us the records. And then they sent the records piecemeal. So, the court came back and said, “Send the exhibits with the records.” The exhibits consist of the DNA results, the police offense report pictures, everything that would corroborate my claim of actual innocence. They held that back for some reason. So, they came up with another audit, January 31, 2022 and said, “Send us those exhibits; you’ve got 30 days to do this. You should have done it 15 days after the hearing.” My hearing was in July of 2019. So, [Judge Hill’s court] didn’t do anything they was supposed to do. The court, I guess said “Enough is enough.” So, they put the decree down and I’m grateful for that. So, now, we’re just waiting on the court of criminal appeals. That’s where it said now.
DEFENDER: I was told that you requested to see that evidence, but you were told it was destroyed. Is that correct?
ELAM: I don’t know if it was destroyed or not, or they just didn’t want to release it. But what we wanted to do was prove two things. One, there was no blood on this sheet of paper. That was a concoction. And two, there probably was no fingerprint. He claimed they found my single, right index fingerprint on my paper. And it’s possible. I could have done that. But we wanted to prove it because when they interviewed me about 120 days after the offense, at no time did they mention the fingerprint. They asked, “How do you think it got into the car?” I told them it didn’t get into the car. I’m looking at my paper, and they said, “Is that your handwriting?” I’m thinking, “That’s definitely my notes.” I’m trying figure out where did they get this from? It didn’t register until later. When it hit me, it was like, “Boom.” And I told them, “You didn’t find this in the car. You found this in my property. This came out of my briefcase. I remember this specifically being the front page of my legal pad.” They looked at each other and they abruptly ended that interview. And it’s all recorded. So, they kept with the lie, I guess, and just went on with it. And that’s what they’re using to put me at the scene. I was at home baking pies. I got a statement in the court. One of the guys who was with me, he vouched and said, “Man, he was right here with us” at the time they said the offense occurred. I was at home baking pies. My ex-wife, she can vouch. I had a friend named Kathaw and he wrote us affidavit and everything. They never even called him. My lawyer claimed he couldn’t find any of the witnesses. They were right there in the courtroom. I pointed to them and said, “They’re right there. What you mean? You can’t find them?”
WHERE THE CASE STANDS NOW
DEFENDER: What is the absolute latest news on your, on your case?
DARIUS ELAM: Currently my case is pending in the Court of Criminal Appeal. They sent an order to the clerk and the reporter of the 232nd district court asking them to send all the paperwork. Judge Joshua Hill sat on that case for two and a half years, and just did nothing. I had to file what they called a mandamus to push it into gear. But after the fourth mandamus the court demanded that Judge hill’s court send everything. But Judge Hill decided to embrace almost word for word, the state’s opposition against me. The Court of Criminal Appeals has to final say so, but they are to determine whether or not they’re going to exonerate or whatever. But Judge Hill is the judge of my court who could have more thoroughly investigated my case because he was in a position to do so. But he chose not to. So, right now, I’m waiting on the Court of Criminal Appeals. Prayerfully, they would do something. But as of February 16, 2022, they got everything they needed from the law court to make that ruling. So that’s where things are right now.