In February 1987, in Houston, Texas, a fourteen-year-old girl was forced into a car by two Latino men. She was taken to a house where both men raped her. After the sexual assault, she was placed in the car again and left on a roadside.
In her initial statements to police, the victim characterized her assailants as the skinny one and the fat one. She also provided details about the house and the route the assailants took to get there. One of the assailants had called the other by the name of George, but the victim indicated that she thought this was a fake name, as the assailants had discussed not using their names.
Based on this information, police went to the house belonging to Manuel and Uvaldo Beltran, brothers who were acquainted with George Rodriguez. Because the name George was used in the attack, Rodriguez became a suspect because one of the investigating officers knew of the Beltrans and knew that Rodriguez was an associate of Manuel. When questioned, Rodriguez claimed that he was at work at the time of the crime, a claim confirmed by his work records.
Uvaldo Beltran told police that he had been at home watching television when his brother and Isidro Yanez walked through with the victim and went to a bedroom. Manuel Beltran admitted to the crime, telling police that he and Yanez had brought the victim to the house and raped her in the bedroom while his brother was in the living room watching television. Yanez had previously been named in a similar crime in the area. Police also confirmed that Yanez’s car was used in the abduction.
Before the police spoke to Uvaldo Beltran, they had already shown the victim a photo array that included George Rodriguez’s photograph. She identified him from this array.
Despite the evidence pointing to Yanez as Manuel Beltran’s partner in crime, police continued to consider Rodriguez a suspect. Proclaiming his innocence, Rodriguez agreed to take part in a show-up procedure, where the victim identified him, partly by the way he stood, as the fat perpetrator. She later testified that she had only been able to view his face for 3-4 seconds during the attack.
It was not until two months after the attack that the victim was shown a picture of Yanez. His picture was included with that of Rodriguez in a photo book. The victim picked out both pictures, noting their similarities, but eventually identified Rodriguez again as her assailant.
The Biological Evidence
Rodriguez became the main suspect after false evidence was returned from the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory, then under the direction of Jim Bolding. The laboratory tested the victim’s rape kit and clothing. A hair found in the victim’s underwear was said to be microscopically similar to the hair standard from George Rodriguez.
Semen found on the victim’s clothing and rape kit samples was said to include Manuel Beltran. Bolding testified that Rodriguez could not be excluded from these samples but that Yanez definitely could not have contributed to the samples. At the trial, this testimony represented the only physical link between Rodriguez and the crime.
This testimony was later proven false by the State’s own testing. Bolding’s testimony at trial had falsely excluded Yanez.
Conviction and Post-conviction
In October 1987, despite the statements of the Beltran brothers and the acknowledged similarities in features between Rodriguez and Yanez, George Rodriguez was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison.
Rodriguez lost all of his appeals. In 2002, the Innocence Project began working on Rodriguez’s case. Most of the probative biological evidence had been destroyed in 1995. The hair that was microscopically matched to Rodriguez, however, was located. This was the same evidence that, coupled with the false serological conclusions, convinced the police to focus on Rodriguez and turn away from Yanez.
Rodriguez successfully petitioned for post-conviction DNA testing of the hair in 2003. Results of mitochondrial testing obtained in 2004 indicated that Rodriguez could not have been the man who left the pubic hair found in the victim’s underwear. Importantly, Yanez could not be excluded as a source of the hair.
Additionally, further serological testing by the prosecution revealed that Yanez was mis-typed at the time of trial and should never have been excluded as a potential contributor of the semen from the rape kit and the victim’s clothing.
Based on these scientific results, Rodriguez’s conviction was vacated. At the end of August 2005, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals formally vacated the conviction. At the end of September 2005, the District Attorney moved to dismiss all charges.
After 17 years in prison and one year on bail waiting for the court’s decision, George Rodriguez’s conviction was vacated, confirming the results of post-conviction DNA testing.
Charge: Aggravated Sexual Assault of a Child, Aggravated Kidnapping
Conviction: Aggravated Sexual Assault of a Child, Aggravated Kidnapping
Sentence: 60 years
Incident Date: 02/24/1987
Conviction Date: 10/29/1987
Exoneration Date: 09/29/2005
Accused Pleaded Guilty: No
Contributing Causes of Conviction: Eyewitness Misidentification, Unvalidated or Improper Forensic Science
Death Penalty Case: No
Race of Defendant: Latinx
Race of Victim: Latinx
Status: Exonerated by DNA
Alternative Perpetrator Identified: No
Type of Crime: Sex Crimes
Forensic Science at Issue: Flawed Serology, Hair Analysis