Rosa Perez was hesitant at first. After years of trying to attract any kind of media attention, the incarcerated 32-year-old Fort Worthian had given up and was dumbfounded why this Weekly reporter was contacting her to share her story. In my letter, I said I had a special interest in criminal justice stories and that as a journalist I could think of nothing more important than exposing a potentially wrongful conviction. Her handwritten reply contained 10 two-sided letters.
Researching and writing about people who claim to be wrongfully convicted has become a recent focus of my reporting, especially after learning about the plight of Ronnie Turner. Now 18 years into a 45-year sentence, Turner continues to fight a criminal justice system whose members appear to care little for the evidence of prosecutorial misconduct tied to his 2005 conviction. The inmate at the James V. Allred Unit just north of Wichita Falls occasionally sends me copies of letters and complaints he has filed with governmental groups and law enforcement agencies in which he alleges multiple branches of government conspired to falsely convict and imprison him.
An official court transcript of his trial for aggravated robbery — a crime he denies committing — shows Tarrant County prosecutor Richard Bland may have told one witness where Turner would be sitting in the courtroom. This is significant because prosecutors commonly ask witnesses to point out the person who allegedly committed the crime during trials, a method of identification known to be unreliable. The following statement came from one of several eyewitness testimonies.
Prosecutor Bland, the court transcript reads, “told me, ‘[Turner] was going to be sitting there. You sit there, and [Turner] sits there.’ ”
The State Bar of Texas’ website lists Bland as deceased.
Turner’s story, which the Weekly published in January, is notable both for his compelling claim of innocence — backed by ample documents and evidence — and the lack of attention he’s received. He’s been ignored by the Tarrant County district attorney’s office and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Turner claims that the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), which began work on his case in 2018, is a fraud.
The unit, based on open records requests, reviews around 20 to 30 cases a year: 2021 (20), 2020 (22), 2019 (32), and 2018 (26).
Prisoner exonerations make for big news stories, and a review of published local accounts of early prisoner releases revealed few cases in which the CIU’s work resulted in lower sentences or overturned convictions.
One CIU victory was for Walter Roy, whose sentence of life in prison was reduced in June to time served, based on recommendations by the CIU. In a recent public statement, the DA’s office said the CIU’s investigation found that Roy was a participant but not the actual shooter in a 1995 attack at Echo Lake Park on Fort Worth’s South Side which left two injured. Roy was released from prison in June.
CIU offers for reduced sentences are rare and not always favorable for defendants. Last year, CIU revised the criminal charges facing Aaron Dyson, who was sentenced to 50 years for assault with a deadly weapon 25 years ago. Dyson does not deny shooting the man who allegedly killed his best friend. The victim survived Dyson’s attack, but Dyson was falsely charged with engaging in gang activity, which led to the 50-year sentence. In March, Dyson opted for a new trial rather than accept a new, lesser sentence of time served. The gang-related charges, as he recently told the Star-Telegram, should be dismissed.
“The state had an opportunity in 1997 to apply the appropriate charge [of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon] and try me on that charge, and they chose not to,” Dyson recently told the Star-Telegram after pleading not guilty. “They chose to use false testimony to convict me of that higher charge [gang activity], and I suffered greatly from that. I did 24 years in prison for a crime [gang activity] I didn’t commit.”
After the Weekly published Turner’s story, I requested copies of letters sent by prisoners to the DA’s CIU. Turner’s story was compelling, and I wondered if other prisoners had similar accounts of potentially wrongful convictions or overly punitive sentences. The DA’s office responded by attempting to block my request by appealing to the State Attorney General’s office. After three long months, the AG responded in June that the CIU had to give me several letters from the time period I requested but did not explain why the DA had to release only certain letters and could withhold others.
Perez’ story caught my attention. She was given 40 years at the Dr. Lane Murray Unit in Gatesville, just southwest of Waco, for allegedly participating in the 2017 murder of Moses Prieto in Fort Worth. The man convicted of the murder, Juan Jesus Villarreal, told law enforcement that Perez told him to shoot and kill Prieto. In her 2021 letter to the CIU, Perez claims that she was under the influence of drugs when police interrogated her about one month after the murder.
“I don’t remember much of the interview” with Fort Worth police, Perez told the CIU in a letter. “I don’t think I would have lied and said half the things I said if I was sober and in my right mind.”
Perez doesn’t see much hope for help from the CIU.
“It’s hard for me to accept that someone actually wants to help me,” her reply to me opened. “Everyone has been against me since day one. The [CIU] said I need to have some kind of physical proof of something that can be used [to prove my innocence claim]. I honestly think that they don’t care what was overlooked back then unless I have something that can cause them repercussions. This ordeal with my charge is frustrating, extensive, and sounds like a soap opera.”
At 3:30 a.m. on March 15, 2017, Fort Worth police arrived at the 4700 block of Westcreek Drive on the South Side to find Moses Prieto dying of multiple gunshot wounds. Two hours later, Prieto was pronounced dead at John Peter Smith Hospital. Two weeks later, police arrested Villarreal for the murder.
During Villarreal’s trial, eyewitness Tiffany Olivero testified that Perez ordered the shooting of Prieto.
“Villarreal looked at Rosa and asked, ‘Dead or alive?’ ” Olivero’s testimony reads. “Rosa responded, ‘Dead.’ Villarreal then shot Moses two more times, and Moses fell to the ground. Villarreal handed the gun to Rosa and said, ‘I need you to get rid of this.’ ”
Perez says she was close friends with Prieto, whom she calls Moe in her letters, and never would have hurt him. She adds that her husband of 10 years left her several years earlier, which led to her being homeless and living with people she found out later were drug dealers.
“Moses was a regular guy who came over all the time,” Perez recalls. “I confided in him that I wanted out of that house, but I was scared and had no one to help. Moses brought two of his friends over, and they got me out of that house. Moses let me move into his house. He lived on the South Side of Fort Worth with his mother and infant daughter. I helped with his daughter.”
The peace was short-lived, Perez writes, because Prieto started allowing drug users and sellers to come in and out of his house. In the months leading up to Prieto’s murder, Perez admits she was using methamphetamines, although she says she was sober on the night of the murder.
Several people, Perez claims, were aware of the planned kidnapping and murder of Prieto except her and another person, “Clay.”
Court documents list Villarreal, Clay, “Kyle,” “Eva,” “Manny,” and Olivero as witnesses to the crime. Perez doesn’t indicate the motive, but court documents describe the cause as a botched “street court” job, the term for settling disputes.
“When we headed out, Manny and Eva drove [Villarreal’s] car with Eva as the driver and Manny as the passenger,” Perez writes. “I followed in my truck with [Olivero] as the passenger. Clay sat behind [Olivero]. [Villarreal] sat behind me in the back seat. I followed Eva and Manny. I am not too familiar with the south part of Fort Worth. I followed them to someone’s house. It was in the middle of the night and dark. Eva stayed in what felt like forever in the middle of the street. I turned my lights off and pulled over.”
Manny stepped out of the car and brought back someone, Perez alleges.
Villarreal “got out with Clay,” Perez claims. I got out and followed when I heard yelling. [Villarreal] pulled the man out [of a vehicle parked near Perez] and started beating him and tying his hands and feet together.”
Perez alleges that Villarreal retrieved a handgun from a nearby truck. Based on the letter, it is unclear whose vehicle it was. Perez says that she saw Villarreal shoot the man whom she later found out was Prieto.
“Clay and [Villareal] were trying to get the guy into my trunk, but he was still fighting back,” Perez alleges. “They dropped him on the ground and [Villarreal] fired off the rest of the rounds. I was in my truck when the rounds were fired. I heard them but never saw them fired. [Villareal] threw the gun at me and told me to drive off. He said if I don’t get rid of the gun, he would get rid of my family and nothing better tie him back to all of this.”
The next day, Perez alleges that Manny told her the man they saw shot the night before was Prieto.
“I miss [Prieto] daily,” Perez writes. “He cared about me, and there were no strings attached to his love. He was as real as they come. He just fell into the drug world and never made it out.”
Perez says she was under the influence of alcohol and meth when she was arrested a few weeks after the murder.
“I had been up for several days on meth,” she writes. “I don’t remember much. [Villarreal] had made it clear that my family was dead if [Prieto’s] death came back to him. I believed [the threat] and falsely took responsibility for a lot of what happened. All of these were lies, but I was in fear of what could happen to my family, mother, brother, and one of my daughters. It never crossed my mind to ask for a lawyer, nor did they tell me that I could. If I had been sober and not scared of Villarreal, I wouldn’t have incriminated myself in that interrogation.”
Prosecutors offered Perez a plea bargain of 40 years, 10 years less than what she could potentially be charged with. Under Texas law, accepting a plea bargain means that defendants forfeit the right to appeal their guilty plea. Prosecutors used Perez’ juvenile rap sheet and past criminal charges to pressure her into accepting the guilty plea. She gave me a document filed by the DA’s office and used in her case. The previous charges include giving a false ID (2003), possession of marijuana (2004), child endangerment (2010), and theft (2011).
“In 2010, my ex-husband was beating me and someone called the police,” Perez alleges. “We were arrested and given child endangerment charges because he had a pocketful of weed. In 2011, my ex-husband got a TV and PlayStation for the kids. He said he was making payments but wasn’t. I was arrested for theft of property.”
The earliest she will be up for parole is 2037.
“I believe I was over-sentenced and shouldn’t be carrying this murder charge,” she writes. “I want to see my kids graduate. I have five kids who I just want to get back to. Prison has been hell since I arrived in 2018. My mom lived off of disability and couldn’t afford to send money. My mom died of COVID-19 in 2021. My father-in-law is 75 and watching both my kids. If he dies, my kids have no one left. More people should have been arrested for [Prieto’s murder] but weren’t.”
The following stories are from letters received by the CIU and released to us via open records request. We are referring to the prisoners by the first letter of their first name to protect their privacy and shield them from retaliation.
Conviction Integrity Unit:
This wrongful conviction has devastated my marriage, disrupted my education, and robbed me of my freedom. I was convicted out of 372nd court presided by Judge Elizabeth Berry with possession of [drugs] with intent to sell despite my witness’ testimony (under oath) that the drugs found in my car belonged to him. I was never Mirandized when arrested. My attorney failed to object to several blatant and inappropriate acts and statements from the judge that were clearly on the court transcript. I have witnesses from the night of the arrest who have evidence/statements that were not available at the time of trial due to the [incompetence] of my legal assistance. He was never available when appointments were made. I was denied justice even with a confession of guilt from my sole witness. You cannot make this stuff up!
Signed, T., 1/11/2021
Conviction Integrity Unit:
I am charged with aggravated robbery. Four months later, I am charged with aggravated sexual assault while in jail. The court-appointed attorney refused to review the jail footage or interview staff and other witnesses. The court-appointed attorney said we could beat the robbery charge but to plead guilty to the sexual assault because the judge wanted to give me life without parole. My attorney never showed me the evidence the state had against me. Why? Because it didn’t happen.
My attorney refused, flat out refused, to review jail footage that could prove my innocence. He refused to speak with either officer working the [jail floor at the time]. I’m begging for your help.
Signed, A., 5/10/2021
Conviction Integrity Unit:
Attorney at the time did not have [state-mandated] Brady disclosures that showed the detective believed that [I] was not responsible for the offense. I was considered a suspect based on [J.] providing [V.] with my information. I was misidentified as a suspect by the detective. The [Brady] disclosure was uploaded into [the county’s database] after I had taken a plea deal.
Signed, M., 6/16/2021
Conviction Integrity Unit:
The victim was never truthful about the alleged offense. I am [convicted] of a [rape] I never committed. DNA evidence was tampered with. I was offered 25 years with a “take it or be ready for trial Monday.” Judge Louis Sturns is a close friend of the victim. I was told my case would be moved out of Sturns’ courtroom. But that never happened. My attorney asked for more money. I gave her the title to my truck. I don’t know why we never went to trial.
My trial counsel failed to follow through on the motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence.
I have been in a sexual relationship with the alleged victim for 30 years. I became a suspect because we were dating at the time of the alleged offense. The sex was consensual. She never said she was forced or threatened by me. [A detective] talked her into changing her story.
Signed, J., 7/28/2021
Turner’s efforts have shifted to disciplining, disbarring, and potentially criminally charging prosecutors, judges, and CIU staffers. He believes they all broke state law while prosecuting his 2005 trial or allegedly covering up those acts of misconduct in the years since.
“Dear Mr. Brown, I have submitted a sworn affidavit to the United States Office of the Attorney General,” one of Turner’s recent letters reads. “I filed a complaint of witness tampering and obstruction of justice against prosecutor Richard Bland. I also filed a complaint of conspiracy to cover up the witness tampering against all the judges who heard the evidence from the post-conviction writ of habeas corpus I filed. Witness tampering is a felony offense. My case should have been overturned years ago.”
Under Texas law, witness tampering is a second- or third-degree felony.
Turned also filed a grievance with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
Accompanying his letters are copies of sworn complaints that Turner recently sent to the Texas Bar Association and Texas Rangers. Turner told me the CIU has ignored evidence of prosecutorial misconduct tied to his conviction.
Reporting by the Washington Post found that wrongful convictions are often the result of official misconduct. Citing a recent report by the National Registry of Exonerations, a project managed by three universities, reporters found that prosecutor misconduct was responsible for 30% of 2,400 wrongful convictions between 1989 and 2019, yet only 4% of the prosecutors involved were disciplined.
On its website, the local DA’s office states that evolutions in forensic sciences, changes in court opinions, and new legislation governing the criminal justice system “make it critical that our office remains at the forefront of developing and implementing mechanisms that ensure” that the innocent are freed.
The CIU, based on the DA’s website, receives external requests from convicted persons.
“If any claim merits further investigation, CIU will determine what further investigation is warranted through a Phase 1 review that may include reinterviewing original law enforcement personnel, forensic personnel, witnesses, and attorneys,” the DA says on its website. “A Phase 2 review involves seeking relief for an applicant through either a writ application to the Court of Criminal Appeals or a commutation request to the governor.”
Perez writes that she stays out of trouble as much as possible. She says she recently enrolled in college classes, but enrollment is difficult because anyone with a long sentence like hers is automatically put at the bottom of the waiting list.
“I lied to protect my mother, brother, and daughter,” she writes. “My brother doesn’t speak to me anymore, and my mother passed away on July 27, 2021, from COVID-19. My time is way too excessive. I’ve almost died here from heart complications. Nothing scares me anymore. The truth needs to be told.”