This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.
On a stifling afternoon in the summer of 1996, Rodney Roberts pleaded guilty to a kidnapping. He had never met the victim, let alone held her against her will. Yet this is what he told the judge in the cramped Essex County courtroom. His court-appointed defender had convinced him his other choice was life in prison.
The state of New Jersey, Roberts was told, had overwhelming evidence that he had raped an East Orange teenager. Plead guilty to the lesser charge of kidnapping, he remembers public defender Charles Martone saying through the bars of the court’s packed holding cell, and the charge of aggravated sexual assault will be dropped.
Those were the terms of the plea deal that had been reached behind closed doors between the prosecutor and Martone, whom Roberts had met only the day before. Now the two stood side by side, facing Superior Court Judge Eugene Codey.
Roberts thought about the jury that had found him guilty of sexual assault and sent him to prison a decade earlier – in the same courthouse. If he pushed for a trial this time, he feared he would be sent away for decades, maybe life. He felt trapped, by the system, by his past.
“I knew I was innocent,” Roberts says today, “but I had to choose the lesser of two evils. It’s like you got to pick between Satan and Lucifer.”
Roberts’ case is far from unique. More than a quarter of convicts who later end up exonerated through DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statements, according to data collected by the Innocence Project.
“Did you hold … an individual age 17, with the initials S.A. against her will and prevent her from leaving with the intent to assault her?” Martone asked Roberts, according to the court transcript. Roberts said yes.
“OK. That’s more than sufficient factual basis,” Codey said. “Did you move her anywhere?”
“From one location to another,” Martone chimed in.
“One … location to another?” the judge repeated.
Roberts remembers looking at Martone, who grinned back. He thought Martone and the judge knew something had gone wrong in the investigation. That was why they were being so reassuring.
“Yes. Yes.” he said.
Chapter 2: Most defendants cop pleas
The year Roberts pleaded guilty to a kidnapping he did not commit, 92 percent of convictions at the criminal court of Essex County rested on plea agreements, according to court data. By the time Roberts had spent 18 years behind bars, that number had risen to 98 percent, meaning 2 percent of defendants exercised their constitutional right to a trial by a jury of their peers.
That’s par for the course across the nation, as courts struggle under a backlog of trials.
“There is no way that we can try all the cases that we have,” said Robert Taylor, the lead prosecutor in Cape May County. “If I can offer a few years less and ensure a conviction, I don’t have the risk of having him being found totally not guilty and receiving no punishment at all.”
The early 1980s expansion of mandatory minimum sentences increased incentives for a defendant to accept a deal, too – especially those with a criminal record such as Roberts.
As in most jurisdictions across the country, the Essex County prosecutor alone decides which charges are brought to a grand jury for indictment – a potent bargaining chip in plea negotiations.
“Deals,” “agreements” and “bargains” evoke voluntary arrangements between equal parties. But Terri Rosenblatt, a public defender at New York’s Bronx criminal court, said it’s “not a bargain in the sense that both sides are equal, not by any stretch of imagination.”
Of America’s 2.2 million prisoners, well over 2 million live – and sometimes die – behind bars as the result of such agreements. The vast majority are poor minorities who lacked the resources to launch a private defense that might have ensured a fair trial.
That was the case for Roberts, who trusted his public defender when he pleaded guilty to a crime he did not commit.
Wrongful convictions like his aren’t the only tragedy in such cases. Roberts’ plea to a reduced charge of kidnapping closed a case of aggravated sexual assault, and police stopped searching for the perpetrator.
That left the 17-year-old victim continuing to walk the same streets as her rapist.
Chapter 3: A rape, an arrest
The case began in the early morning hours of May 8, 1996. A teenager walking down South 18th Street in Newark – toward her aunt’s house – sensed she was being followed.
As she continued along the edge of Fairmount Cemetery, a man put his hand over her mouth, grabbed her neck and, she later told police, threatened to “blow her head off” if she screamed.
The man dragged her into an empty parking lot and raped her, said the teen, identified in court records by the initials S.A. She described her attacker as a dark-skinned man, 170 pounds and 20 years old, wearing a black and red T-shirt, a black hat and brown boots, according to the police report.
Seventeen days later, police arrested Roberts a few blocks away from the crime scene. At that time, Roberts, 29, held two jobs: part-time paralegal and salesman.
A street-racing enthusiast, he and a friend recently had gone in together on a secondhand yellow and black Kawasaki. They soon argued over who owned the bike. Tensions rose.
“I’m actually the one who called the police,” Roberts says today.
An East Orange police car pulled up in front of the two men on Central Avenue. The officer glanced over at the locked-up motorcycle, asked the pair for their names and walked back to his patrol vehicle. When he returned, his tone had changed.
“Put your hands behind your back; you’re being arrested,” Roberts remembers the officer shouting at him.
Still protesting that he owned the motorcycle, Roberts was handcuffed and pushed into the squad car. At the East Orange precinct, an officer notified him that he was being detained for a parole violation.
About a week later, Roberts was transferred to the Essex County jail.
Chapter 4: A new life interrupted
Roberts was familiar with captivity. At 19, he had been convicted of aggravated sexual assault.
The victim, a 32-year-old Newark woman, testified that Roberts was one of three men who stole her new car and raped her in January 1986. Today, Roberts maintains he was the lookout, but a jury found him guilty. He got 20 years.
After seven years at East Jersey State Prison, Roberts was paroled. He moved in with his girlfriend, Novella Hudson, and their son, Rodney Jr. – born while Roberts was behind bars.
Starting a new life in New Jersey, particularly finding a job, proved difficult. Roberts’ older brother, Michael – a soldier at Fort Bragg Army base – said he might have more luck in North Carolina. Roberts started unloading trucks for a tire company on Fayetteville’s docks, building a small nest egg in a few months.
On his return to New Jersey a few months later, Roberts found a paralegal position in Rutherford and worked at a menswear store on the side. He needed both jobs to provide for his son and pay rent on their Montclair apartment – a location Roberts saw as his ticket “out of the hood.”
But since leaving for North Carolina, he had failed to report to his parole officer, a condition of his early release. That mistake was on his mind in June 1996, as he sat in a jail cell for a month without seeing an attorney.
Roberts reasoned through his odds. He assumed police would learn he had paid for the motorcycle. At worst, he would plead guilty to a theft charge if offered a deal with no prison time. He could face a 20-month sentence for the parole violation. But he hoped working two jobs and taking care of his son might be mitigating factors.
It was not until police took him to the Essex County courthouse for arraignment that he began to realize his predicament was far worse: A grand jury had not only indicted him for violating parole and stealing the motorcycle, but also for sexually assaulting an East Orange teenager.
Under the courthouse’s Tiffany skylight dome, Roberts told anyone who would listen that police had arrested the wrong guy for the rape.
Chapter 5: The offer is made
Roberts refused to enter the courtroom.
From his hallway holding cell, he could hear the judge read the charges against him.
Roberts entered his plea from the hallway, too: not guilty of raping a 17-year-old on South 18th Street in Newark. Bail was set at $50,000.
A few weeks later, he was on the jail bus headed back to the Superior Court of New Jersey. A new public defender introduced himself through the holding cell bars: Charles Martone.
Roberts asked Martone the basis for the sexual assault charge. Martone asked him what kind of plea deal he would accept. “I’m not taking a deal; I’m not guilty,” Roberts responded.
Martone returned 20 minutes later with bad news. He had just talked with the teenage rape victim. She knew Roberts from their Newark neighborhood, Roberts recalls Martone saying, and had identified him as her rapist in a photo lineup.
She’s inside the courtroom, Martone added, ready to testify against you. Martone made Roberts’ choice clear: We work out this deal for you or you go to jail for the rest of your life.
Roberts remembered the stern faces of the jury when another judge read a guilty verdict back in 1986, convicting him of sexual assault at 19. He felt he had lost the presumption of innocence.
The Essex County public defender’s and prosecutor’s offices both declined to comment on Roberts’ case. But Georgia State University law professor Russell Covey, an expert on pleas, said this is a common quandary for past offenders.
“Prosecutors can induce those with criminal records to enter guilty pleas in cases where the evidence would not be strong enough to convince a first-time offender to give up his right to trial,” Covey said.
As Roberts understood the deal, the prosecutor would dismiss the sexual assault charge and downgrade the kidnapping charge.
“My attorney said the judge would put on the record that no one got hurt,” he says. “That was the part that made me consider pleading guilty to a crime I didn’t commit.”
Only later did he consider what he had lost. His brothers, sisters and parents would be so disappointed.
“I felt,” he says, “like I betrayed myself.”
Chapter 6: The sentence comes down
The sentence, seven years in prison, was handed down by the judge on Oct. 17, 1996. Two days later, Roberts was told he was getting the “jail drop” – marched onto a bus at the county jail and taken to the maximum-security East Jersey State Prison, 16 miles south.
His life changed overnight. The mother of his son broke up with him. Then, a few months into his sentence, Roberts found something disturbing in his paperwork: The prison’s administration had classified him as a sex offender.
He started asking prisoners for advice. The word spread rapidly, and groups of inmates started to humiliate him – calling him names, isolating him and beating him up, as they did with others identified as child molesters. Roberts fought back.
As a result, he estimates he spent more than 700 days in solitary confinement.
Roberts says he still can feel the pressure of the iron shackles on his wrists as he was escorted in a chain gang to the segregation building. He still can hear the shouts of other cloistered prisoners welcoming their new invisible companions, followed by the lonely, featureless, cold days and nights.
His first parole hearing came three and a half years into his term, in May 2000. He was brought into a room where two people sat on one side of a long table, while a third observed him remotely, via video conference.
When the parole board member on the small screen alluded to the sexual nature of his crime, Roberts answered that the judge had dismissed the sexual assault charge.
“I didn’t plead guilty to that,” Roberts remembers protesting.
“This is what we have to go by at this point,” replied another panelist, pushing a copy of the police report of the 1996 rape across the table toward Roberts.
Roberts would not admit to the crime or express remorse, both things parole boards listen for as they assess whether prison time has changed a man. His application for parole was denied.
He would have to wait 28 months before becoming eligible for parole again.
Chapter 7: Making the best of things
Back in his prison cell, Roberts felt he had been double-crossed by the justice system. He decided to take matters into his own hands, filing a motion to withdraw his guilty plea in January 2001, more than halfway through his seven-year sentence.
“I had no faith in public defenders at that point,” Roberts says. “I had to be my own lawyer.” Using the prison library’s IBM typewriter, he copied the format of a model motion from a law textbook.
The sexual assault charge had been dropped at sentencing, Roberts wrote. That was why he had agreed to plead guilty to a kidnapping he did not commit. But at the parole hearing, police and presentencing reports were used to label him a sex offender.
“They took what the allegation was, and that became my record,” he says.
Within a few days, his sentencing judge, Eugene Codey, denied the motion – even before an attorney had been assigned to it. The denial was the first in a long series of setbacks.
But Roberts soon understood that his best chance to survive the ordeal was to cling to any silver linings.
“When you’re fighting so hard for your life, you can’t fight and be bitter at the same time,” he says. “Because you gonna be defeated by disappointment. … And I had to fight against that. I had to fight against feeling isolated and alone.”
Realizing he might have to serve the whole seven years, Roberts didn’t want to be forgotten in his neighborhood. He wrote letters to his Newark friends, including someone he had met at West Side High School: Lynda Anderson.
“She replied to my letter, then she came to visit me – and we took it from there,” he says. “She gave me strength – her strength gave me strength.”
Roberts began spending most of his days at the law library. Inside the small, dark and drab room, he was granted his own wooden desk. He started studying for a paralegal degree from a distance-learning school and wrote pro se legal documents contesting his sex offender status.
Sitting on an office chair and surrounded by books, Roberts felt safe.
Chapter 8: Is DNA the proof needed?
In 2002, Roberts sent a letter to the New Jersey attorney general’s office requesting that biological samples be taken from him and compared with semen in the victim’s rape kit.
He soon received a letter advising him that there was no DNA from the kit to compare.
Roberts maintained his innocence. “But the whole jail is saying that,” he said. “So what distinguishes you from the 200, 300, 400 other guys?”
At least Anderson believed him, persuaded by his determination to clear his name. Their friendship from high school had bloomed into a romance. Every Saturday, Anderson woke at 6 a.m. for a three-hour bus ride to South Woods State Prison, where Roberts had been transferred in 2002.
For the two hours allowed by the prison’s rules, the couple would talk, laugh and share snacks. They were not allowed to touch each other’s faces or hands. But they could kiss twice: when she came into the busy hall and just before she left.
“We did a lot of talking,” she says.
Meanwhile, Roberts’ son, now a teenager, was struggling with depression. The teen couldn’t understand why his father would not take responsibility for the rape, even if he was innocent. Roberts’ denials ruined his prospects of early release.
To Rodney Jr., it seemed like his dad was not willing to do what it would take to get out. “I believed the whole point of him staying locked up was because he didn’t want to deal with me,” he says now.
From Roberts’ perspective, with each passing day, he was getting closer to the end of his seven-year sentence. He had no idea there was a new stretch to come.
A series of high-profile gruesome crimes committed in the 1980s and ’90s, some by men with a record of sex offenses, had sparked passage of new federal and state laws targeting convicted sex criminals. The 1994 rape and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey led to the enactment of Megan’s Law, a string of bills requiring states to maintain public sex offender registries.
New Jersey had jumped aboard five years later, passing a statute allowing the indefinite civil confinement of mentally ill sex offenders after they served their prison sentences.
Chapter 9: Prison term up
Roberts couldn’t sleep. His prison term was set to end the next morning, more than six and a half years after he pleaded guilty. Next to his bed sat a small green duffel bag holding remnants of his prison life: a handful of toiletries, a few items of clothing.
He had completed his compulsory prerelease classes, which coach prisoners on life skills such as how to present themselves at a job interview or where to find public assistance. He felt ready.
A few hours after sunrise, the courtyard outside his cell began to fill with the familiar faces of prerelease classmates. Roberts soon joined them.
The process was simple: A warden called out a prisoner’s name, then the prisoner stepped to the side and walked to freedom.
Waiting outside of the massive prison stood one of Roberts’ few unfailing supporters. Anderson, his girlfriend, had missed only a handful of the weekly visits inmates were allowed. She had just turned 37 and had taken a week off work to celebrate her birthday and his release.
The two planned to marry in the coming month.
Name after name was called. Step to the side. Freedom. Finally, Roberts alone was left. He asked the guards sitting in the glass booth that controls the prison’s doors: “Did you forget me?”
“Stand against the wall,” he remembers a warden answering. “We have to check something for you.”
He would not learn until the next day that the civil division of the attorney general’s office of Cumberland County had lodged a detainer against him – a red flag suggesting he should not be released. At this moment, he still had hope. He had served his time, and it was his constitutional right to walk free.
Outside the prison, a guard told Anderson that Roberts wasn’t coming out that day, but he did not tell her why. She stayed in the parking lot for more than two hours, looking at the exit door the others had passed through.
Chapter 10: Unexpected detour
As dusk gave way to darkness, two prison officers ushered Rodney Roberts into a van. One shackled his ankles, waist and wrists. Roberts had no idea why.
The ride took three hours; he lost track of time. He remembers only the gleams of yellow and red light, the back of the officers’ uniforms through the van’s interior window and the faint echoes of city life.
“It was a really bizarre experience,” Roberts says today, his voice faltering. “I didn’t know where I was going.”
He soon would learn: the Special Treatment Unit in Avenel, where hundreds of people viewed as too sexually dangerous to be released are held indefinitely, until they are considered cured of their perversions.
Nearly 5,400 people currently are being involuntarily and indefinitely held in civil commitment programs in 20 states, despite having maxed out their prison sentences for sex offenses; more than 400 of them call the Avenel treatment unit home.
“The longer I work on this case, the more outrageous I find it, and the angrier I am as an American,” said Barbara Moses, a law professor at Seton Hall University. Moses represented hundreds of Avenel’s inmates in a class-action lawsuit demanding that New Jersey provide adequate mental health and rehabilitation services to sexual offenders. A settlement that slightly improved the quality of treatment was reached in 2012.
Civil commitment practices still “compromise the most basic notions of due process,” Moses said, arguing that the practices infringe on the constitutional right against double jeopardy. According to Seton Hall’s Center for Social Justice, 15 percent of those detained at the Avenel unit since the 1999 law was enacted have ever been released.
The rest remain inside the facility – or died there.
Chapter 11: A vow to move forward
When Anderson arrived back at her Newark apartment from South Woods State Prison, she found a note on her front door from Roberts’ godbrother. It said her fiancé had not been released – which she already knew.
But there was more: Roberts had been transferred to a facility in Avenel, a special treatment unit for sex offenders a few miles from her home. The prison administration had informed only the closest kin.
Anderson drove to the unit the next morning. After finding the entrance, she saw two prison guards escorting a hollow-eyed prisoner. It was Roberts.
“He was wearing a dingy shirt and raggedy pants,” she recalls. “He looked like a homeless person – completely lost.”
Roberts told her it was an error; he wouldn’t stay there for long. Anderson believed him, she always had. She started to make weekend trips to the unit.
“It was like going to a chilling mental health hospital, but with military-style force guarding it,” she says today.
Months passed. Anderson began to doubt that the man she loved would be free anytime soon. The state, he told her, was building a case to permanently commit him.
“If you want to go, I won’t be mad at you,” she remembers him telling her. She knew he meant go away for good.
Anderson went the opposite direction. The two had planned to get married at Newark City Hall once he was released, because they couldn’t afford a church ceremony. Instead, they exchanged vows inside Avenel.
The couple were given four hours in a small visit hall for the ceremony. They were not allowed to bring a cake or play music.
Anderson wore a beige and white evening gown. A colleague who is a pastor performed the ceremony. The pastor’s brother and husband served as witnesses. Roberts’ mother and his public defender also showed up.
As he stood before the pastor, Roberts remembers feeling ashamed he couldn’t give his fiancée the wedding she deserved.
“She had to come to a rapist facility to marry her husband,” he says.
Chapter 12: Personality disorder alleged
“Although (Roberts) was not convicted of a sex offense in 1996, and denies he committed the offense, I do not believe him. He did plead guilty to kidnapping which suggests he accepted culpability,” wrote Dr. Donald “Rusty” Reeves, a psychiatrist who examined Roberts in 2004.
Accordingly, Reeves concluded that Roberts was suffering “from a mental abnormality … or personality disorder that makes the person likely to engage in acts of sexual violence if not confined to a secure facility for control, care and treatment.”
To Reeves, the evidence was strong: Roberts had been convicted of sexual assault at 19. In the second conviction, he “progressed from group rape to raping by himself – indicating increased dangerousness.”
Roberts waited more than two years for his first civil commitment hearing, until 2005.
When he finally was brought into a makeshift courtroom in the special treatment unit, Deputy Attorney General Mark Singer was in the midst of a speech, advocating that a vicious criminal should be isolated from the public.
“He’s talking about you,” Roberts’ new lawyer, John Douard, told him.
“Object to this!” Roberts remembers pressing Douard.
Invoking New Jersey’s Sexually Violent Predator Act, Judge Serena Perretti followed the attorney general’s recommendation, keeping Roberts committed.
At the Avenel treatment facility, psychologists provided on-site treatment to those who admitted to perverse behavior and thoughts. The American Psychiatric Association has denounced this “inherently paternalistic” model as a travesty.
Roberts would not acknowledge being a sex offender. As a result, he lived in a segregated section of the facility for treatment refusers. He felt further away from society than ever.
“You’re off the radar – you’re missing from the face of the earth,” he says. “When you look up the facility on your GPS, it comes up as a parking lot.”
Amid the despair came something tangible: New evidence in his case had been unearthed by an investigator from the Office of the Public Advocate named Ronald Price.
Chapter 13: Rape victim tells a different story
More than nine years after an East Orange teenager had been raped in a badly lit parking lot along Fairmount Cemetery, Price tracked down the victim and interviewed her.
She told Price in September 2005 that she “did not even know anyone had been arrested for the crime” and denied ever having identified Roberts as her attacker from a mug shot or a lineup, according to the transcript of her interview with the investigator.
Those statements contradicted the information that persuaded Roberts to confess to a lesser charge of kidnapping.
That same month, the victim – S.A. – was summoned to the prosecutor’s office to give a DNA sample. She told an investigator that nine months after she was assaulted, she had given birth to a boy and believed her 8-year-old was the offspring of the 1996 rape. She asked an officer to conduct a paternity test to determine whether she was right, according to court transcripts.
But the officer and assistant prosecutor Bob Laurino did not order any DNA test. “They said that they don’t think it was in they (sic) client – in – in Rodney’s best interests,” S.A. said during a subsequent hearing.
The victim also had acknowledged having a romantic relationship around the time she was raped, and the prosecutor’s office saw this as reason enough not to do the testing: It might not help prove who raped her.
Going through the case, Price also noticed the police report mentioned a rape kit – a box containing the physical evidence gathered after a sexual assault. Medical personnel had collected a kit from S.A. within hours of her assault.
Price knew that in the 1990s, DNA procedures had been less comprehensive and testing more costly. The front page of the rape kit serology report, which noted positive results for “seminal stains,” asks that “samples of blood and saliva from the defendant” also be obtained for comparison.
There was no record of Roberts ever having been asked to supply a DNA sample.
Chapter 14: Another setback in the quest for proof
Price and attorney Douard tried to track down the full 1996 rape kit. They came up empty.
In the New Jersey state laboratory’s communication log, an April 14, 2005, entry for an outgoing call to the assistant prosecutor from Essex County reads: “The kit did not contain the vaginal swab, the genital swab or the victim’s saliva content. He will look into it and get back to me.”
Almost three months later, the same lab technician called the assistant prosecutor again. About their discussion, he wrote in a looping scrawl: “Everything that Newark P.D. had was sent to lab. I advised him that we were going to scrape more of the slides to try and generate a profile. He agreed that this was okay.”
So all the lab had to work with were vaginal slides obtained after the incident, from which only female DNA could be gleaned.
In a plea agreement, the prosecutor doesn’t have to present evidence to the court. That means he or she might not even be aware of contradictory or missing evidence that would have to be turned over to the defense in a case headed to trial.
Nothing in the physical evidence had ever tied Roberts to the crime for which he had already spent nine years incarcerated because it never had been tested. And now the most important components of that evidence seemed to be lost.
Chapter 15: Tipping the balance
Roberts took matters into his own hands. In 2006, he filed a petition with the Essex County Superior Court asking to withdraw his guilty plea to a kidnapping charge based on new evidence – or actually the lack of physical evidence tying him to the related rape that had landed him in a sex offender civil commitment program.
He was assigned a new attorney, Stefan Van Jura, an assistant deputy public defender. But before Van Jura could submit any documents, the judge who had originally sentenced Roberts to seven years in prison for the kidnapping – Eugene Codey – denied the motion with a simple explanation: He had turned down a similar request five years earlier.
His letter to Roberts said it all: “I stand by my ruling contained in my April 17, 2006 correspondence. Please proceed to file your appeal.”
Roberts did just that. A year later, he got his first break: The appellate division reversed the judge’s decision.
Van Jura submitted the lab’s test results – including the DNA from the victim only – and the victim’s signed statement saying she never identified anyone as her rapist.
The judge was unswayed.
“The statement given by S.A. almost ten years after the date of the incident is riddled with inconsistencies, and is inherently suspect and untrustworthy,” Codey wrote. He also rejected a claim that Roberts had received ineffective legal counsel in 1996.
It took another appeal, and two more years toiling away in the library of the sexual predator unit, before Roberts’ case landed back in court. It was a frustrating process as he combed through out-of-date legal databases, available only on CDs. He fought not to get discouraged.
One morning, when Roberts grabbed his mail, he found a letter from the appellate court. It said a court would reassess the validity of his conviction in the presence of all parties.
That meant the victim and the man who had been convicted of charges related to her rape would face each other in court for the first time. Roberts felt certain that would finally tip the balance: “I thought that was gonna be providing the chance for me coming home.”
Chapter 16: Meeting the victim
In the Essex County courtroom, S.A. said she didn’t recognize Roberts, the man who had spent more than 13 years incarcerated for raping her.
“I want to know, why did you confess to something that you didn’t do to me?” she asked him from the stand in 2010. The court’s rules prevented him from answering her. Even if he could have, Roberts says, he wouldn’t have been able to find the words.
The public defender who had represented Roberts in 1996 also testified. Charles Martone was the one who had grinned at Roberts when the plea agreement came up, the one Roberts had trusted to get him the best deal possible.
Martone recalled the large backlog at the pretrial disposition court, but he didn’t remember anything about Roberts or his case.
“I was assigned to go through that backlog, offer plea offers that the state gave me to the individuals, advise them that this was the lowest plea offer,” he testified. “If they were guilty, they could decide to take it. If they were not, to take the case to a trial.”
His workload was overwhelming, he said, forcing him to divide his attention among up to 120 cases on any given day. But Martone said he never would have misled a client.
Retired Newark police Detective Derrick Eutsey also took the stand. He described the photo lineup he had conducted with the victim in 1996 and how she started crying when she saw Roberts’ mug shot, then signed the back of it.
In her testimony, S.A. said she didn’t remember having ever seen Roberts or identifying him. The signed mug shot had been lost, according to the prosecutor. Eutsey couldn’t be reached for comment.
The victim was questioned about the sexual relationship she had around the time of the rape, a relationship the prosecutor’s office had decided was reason enough not to conduct a paternity test on her son four years earlier. “That was after (the rape),” S.A. said. “It wasn’t prior.”
Based on S.A.’s testimony, the judge ordered a paternity test. “If it comes back that it’s his (Roberts’) child, end of case,” the judge wrote. “If it doesn’t, then we go in another direction.”
Chapter 17: A persistent new lawyer
DNA evidence would play a key role in Roberts’ bid to overturn his own guilty plea. But things did not start out well.
First, New Jersey State Police analyzed DNA samples taken from Roberts, the victim and the son she believed resulted from her 1996 rape. They found Roberts wasn’t the dad.
The judge, Codey, wrote that the tests were inconclusive because S.A. had “candidly admitted that she was having intimate sexual relations with an individual” who could have fathered the child – and the victim and the court had no clue about that man’s whereabouts.
In his written decision issued in May 2010, Codey concluded: “It is obvious to even the most casual observer that this application … is a blatant attempt to withdraw a voluntarily entered plea … solely to enhance his efforts to have his status as a Sexually Violent Predator reconsidered.”
For the third time, Roberts appealed. The court reversed Codey’s decision. Codey retired in September 2011, and Judge Sherry Hutchins-Henderson inherited the case.
Eighteen months later, it was assigned to Michael Pastacaldi, a young private attorney who handles cases from the state on a contract basis. He wasn’t convinced of Roberts’ innocence.
“Why would someone plead guilty to something they didn’t do?” he remembers thinking. “It sounded like sour grapes.”
But the lawyer put aside his own skepticism, exploring the possibility of further DNA testing. He called the prosecutor’s office to ask whether a rape kit existed.
“He was the most persistent lawyer I ever had,” Roberts says today.
On May 16, 2013, the Essex County prosecutor’s office ordered investigators to look again for the missing evidence. Just a month later, they hit pay dirt at the New Jersey State Police lab: the original rape kit, still sealed.
Three months later, Pastacaldi remembers getting a call from the prosecutor’s office: “We got some results, and it looks like it’s good news for Roberts.”
The tests were positive for male semen, and it wasn’t Roberts.’
Chapter 18: Free at last
Roberts was freed from the Avenel Special Treatment Unit on March 14, 2014, 18 years after he pleaded guilty to a crime he did not commit. It had taken the prosecutor’s office months to sort through the related charges, including those that had landed him in the sexual treatment facility after his seven-year prison term.
The announcement of a release was unusual enough to stir up the treatment unit’s population. Fellow inmate Terry Newby remembers a spontaneous cortege of inmates escorted Roberts through the unit’s sunny courtyard, carrying his bags and cheering.
Roberts’ wife, Lynda, was waiting for him outside the entrance. A guard told her she was standing too close to the door, so she went back to her car and parked alongside the train tracks that flank the unit to the south, her engine running.
“We just wanted to put as much distance as possible as fast as we could between this place and us,” she recalls.
Roberts rushed out of the sex offender facility. He remembers seeing his wife, her arms wide open, her smile so big it really looked like it stretched ear to ear.
“I did enough crying when he was locked up,” she says.
It was the first time the couple could hug without a time limit. Inside, they had been allowed only two kisses per two-hour visit.
They drove to a nearby Wal-Mart, where they bought underwear and pajamas for Roberts – the basics. When they got to Lynda Roberts’ apartment in Newark, they sat quietly for an hour without touching, as if an invisible prison glass partition still separated them.
Realization slowly seeped in: They were finally truly together; Rodney Roberts could literally embrace the freedom he had been craving for so many years.
Chapter 19: Life on the outside radically changed
Fitting in outside the apartment was tough. Rodney Roberts had grown up in this Newark neighborhood, but two decades had transformed it from the one he remembered as a 29-year-old.
“No one talks, no one communicates anymore,” he says. “So many social etiquettes we held dear in the community have been abandoned.” He was shocked to notice how few people would abandon their fixation on their cellphones to offer their seat to an old woman on the bus.
Prison itself, and the time there, had transformed Roberts, too.
“I don’t have the desire to wanna prove myself anymore,” he says.
Roberts, now 50, sees his son regularly. The boy he used to call “Little Rodney” grew up, cared for by his mother and uncle. Rodney Hudson Roberts Jr. is 6-foot-4, towering over the dad who once worked two jobs to cover their rent.
“I’m glad that it didn’t ruin his life or affect him any further than it did, you know?” Rodney Jr. says.
One of Roberts’ closest relationships did not survive his incarceration. He last saw his father in 2013, when he was allowed to leave the sexual treatment unit accompanied by guards. By the time he got to Saint Barnabas Medical Center, his father was on respiratory support, unconscious.
When Roberts talks about the police who arrested him, the public defenders who failed to prove his innocence or the judge who kept him locked up for years, no sign of resentment crosses his still-boyish face. Instead, to Roberts, the system as a whole – not its foot soldiers – is the guilty party.
“Over the years, it started to become less and less about me and them,” he says.
Chapter 20: A ‘miracle’ with wrinkles
Roberts sees his exoneration as a miracle. But it also disqualifies him from the re-entry programs set up for felons and parolees, which offer their employers tax deductions.
And when potential employers note the 18-year gap in his work history, he finds it hard to explain.
For months, Roberts picked up temporary work where he could while Lynda Roberts – a shop steward for a metal stamping company – remained the main breadwinner. He applied for job after job – as a warehouseman, driver, paralegal, salesman.
After almost a year and a half, at the end of summer 2015, Rodney Roberts was hired as a warehouseman on the night shift. He still hopes to find a post as a paralegal or public advocate, taking advantage of skills and a certificate he acquired via correspondence course while in prison.
Twenty states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Nevada, don’t offer compensation for the time people have spent wrongfully behind bars. Of those that do, it’s far from automatic.
In New Jersey, the Senate proposed a bill to expand the state’s compensation policies in 2007. But when Gov. Chris Christie signed the bill into law in 2013, he vetoed provisions for including those who pleaded guilty, arguing that such imprisonment “flowed from the defendant’s own misstatement.”
Once again, Roberts’ hasty decision back in 1996 to avoid the unknowns of a jury by pleading guilty to kidnapping looms large.
“That’s not recognizing how our system really works,” says Lin Solomon, a private attorney who tried to win compensation for Roberts. “It negates the role of the police, of the prosecutor, of the public defender in the guilty plea.”
Over 2 million Americans currently are incarcerated following a plea agreement and not a trial. Few get the second chance Roberts got. Yet at the same time, barely a month passes without the exoneration of a convict who falsely confessed to a crime. The National Registry of Exonerations, established in 2012 by the University of Michigan Law School, lists more than 230 such individuals – nearly 13 percent of the roughly 1,900 post-conviction exonerations publicly reported since 1989.
Chapter 21: Deep scars remain
The court-appointed lawyer who recommended Roberts take a plea deal back in 1996, Charles Martone, is retired now. He receives a $50,875-a-year state pension for 28 years of service in the public defender’s office. New Jersey Superior Court Judge Eugene Codey, who convicted Roberts and turned down several of his bids to withdraw his guilty plea, collects $107,044.
Neither Martone nor Codey responded to numerous interview requests for this story.
Solomon tried to avoid filing a lawsuit seeking compensation for Roberts’ wrongful imprisonment, she said, by opening settlement negotiations with the city of Newark, Essex County and the state of New Jersey.
“A trial just seems like further waste of public funds,” she said.
Negotiations proved futile, however, and last September, his current lawyer, Mirel Fisch, lodged a civil rights complaint against the county, the Newark Police Department and the city of Newark, among others. All of the defendants have filed motions to dismiss Roberts’ complaint, which are pending.
Meanwhile, another exonerated man eased Rodney and Lynda Roberts’ economic hardships. In 2014, Jeffrey Deskovic had been awarded more than $41 million in New York state for the 16 years he spent in prison after being wrongfully convicted for the rape and murder of a 15-year-old. He helped the couple when they were behind on bills or rent.
No amount of money will heal Rodney Roberts’ deepest wounds.
Years after leaving prison, he still catches himself having loud conversations when he is alone, a habit he picked up in the place he calls “the dungeon,” solitary confinement. His body, too, is indelibly marked by prison life: A 3-inch scar divides the back of his neck and, when he rolls up his sleeves, his arms bear witness to attacks by other inmates with shards of mirrors and sharpened fiberglass.
Often at night, Roberts replays the sequence of events that led to his conviction. He still cannot fully explain why he pleaded guilty in the first place. Only one message pops into his head, again and again: “I feel like I was robbed of two decades of my life.”
This story was produced by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.