A Houston grandmother named Edna Franklin is found stabbed to death in her living room. Charles Raby, a friend of Franklin’s grandsons, is swiftly arrested. He confesses to the crime. But from the start, things don’t add up.
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Gloria Rubac [on megaphone]: All over Texas, people are watching what’s happening here in Huntsville, the killing capital of the country.
Jordan Smith: Huntsville, Texas. August 21, 2019. It’s hot and humid. The air is thick with the smell of guano. The late afternoon sun is being chased west by dark clouds. There’s a storm coming. A group of protesters has gathered outside the imposing prison known as “The Walls.” We’re minutes away from an execution — the fourth this year.
Gloria Rubac: Tonight, the state of Texas will commit premeditated murder of an innocent man. We know that they don’t have the evidence to prove he had anything to do with this murder, and yet Texas, in its infinite ignorance, is going to kill another innocent person.
Liliana Segura: We’ve just come up from Houston, which is about an hour south. We traveled there to begin reporting on an old death penalty case from 1992.
It involves a man named Charles Raby, who was convicted and sent to death row for the murder of an elderly woman named Edna Franklin. She was stabbed to death in her home on Houston’s north side. No physical evidence tied Charles to the crime. But just days after Franklin was killed, he confessed to her murder.
Jordan Smith: Charles’s case played out during a pivotal time in Houston’s history. The population was booming — and so was crime. There were hundreds of homicides a year, and police were racing to close cases as fast as possible.
Meanwhile, the long-standing culture in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office — which covers Houston — was aggressively pro death penalty. Throughout the ’90s, Harris County sent more people to death row than any other jurisdiction in the country. A lot of people were condemned to die in cases that would never result in a death sentence today.
Liliana Segura: Charles’s case is almost certainly one of those. But there’s another glaring problem with it: Despite his confession, there’s a good chance he’s innocent.
From The Intercept, I’m Liliana Segura.
Jordan Smith: I’m Jordan Smith. Welcome to Murderville, Texas. Episode One, “The Killing Capital.”
Gloria Rubac: Miscarriages of justice take place way too often in Texas, and tonight —
Jordan Smith: Our first trip to Houston coincided with the scheduled execution in Huntsville of a man named Larry Swearingen. There are a lot of parallels between his case and Charles Raby’s.
Both men have proclaimed their innocence. And both cases reflect a host of common problems found in death penalty cases prosecuted in the ’90s.
In Charles’s case, that included lackluster police work, overzealous prosecutors, flawed forensic practices, and seriously questionable defense lawyering. These are the kinds of things that, as journalists, we know lead to wrongful convictions. We’ve seen this over and over again.
Liliana Segura: But Charles’s story is about more than just guilt versus innocence. It’s about the fallibility of memory and the effects of living with trauma. And it stretches far beyond Charles.
It’s about a legal system that promises justice and closure — but instead often creates chaos and confusion for the people caught up in it.
Jordan Smith: And this is especially true when the system gets things wrong. I’ve spent the better part of two decades writing about Texas’s death penalty. In the process, I’ve learned how easy it is to send someone to the row, even when there are serious questions about their guilt.
Liliana Segura: This isn’t unique to Texas, of course. I’ve covered death penalty cases all over the country. We know that innocent people end up on death row. Of the thousands of people sentenced to die in the so-called modern death penalty era, 186 have been exonerated.
But what’s especially terrifying about Texas is just how many people have been executed here in the face of evidence that showed they were innocent. There’s Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of killing his own children based on junk forensic science.
CNN (Anderson Cooper): In Texas tonight, explosive new charges over the execution of a man who at least half a dozen forensic experts now believe was innocent. These new charges are again being leveled against Gov. Rick Perry, who removed four members of a state commission investigating the death of this man, Cameron Todd Willingham.
Jordan Smith: And Carlos DeLuna, who was convicted based in part on a faulty eyewitness identification.
ABC News: It’s just one of many crimes that occur in this country every year that end in the death penalty. But now this killing from 30 years ago is raising the most provocative question: Does the death penalty in our country always punish the guilty or are mistakes made? Is it possible our system has killed an innocent man, Carlos DeLuna?
Jordan Smith: We’ve spent nearly three years investigating the case of Charles Raby. He’s been on death row longer than the vast majority of people sentenced to die in Harris County, which puts him in a dangerous position. He’s in a race against time to prove his innocence.
Liliana Segura: We wanted to bring you here, to Huntsville, because it’s where all of these executions have taken place. It’s a space that most people never see up close, even though executions are carried out in our names. And, more often than not, the prosecutors who win these death sentences don’t actually show up to witness executions.
Jordan Smith: It’s other people — the prison staff, the families on both sides — who have to deal with the reality, which is an execution in a grim, 170-year-old prison just outside downtown Huntsville, with protesters behind yellow caution tape. All just a few feet away from the ordinary scenes of everyday life. A man with a leaf blower. A woman walking her dog while talking on the phone, asking casually, “Oh, who are we killing today?”
Liliana Segura: This is what prosecutors fight for when they seek the death penalty. And if the state gets its way, this is where Charles Raby will die, whether he’s guilty or not.
Gloria Rubac: So the Supreme Court website has been updated. The denial is for real. Larry’s not having any of his family or friends witness the execution. He will only have a priest, his spiritual adviser with him — who’s apparently a better Catholic than the stupid governor of the state.
[Church bells ring]
Liliana Segura: The bells strike 6 p.m. Less than an hour later, Larry Swearingen will be pronounced dead. His final words: “Lord forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.”
Speaker 1: … Craig Roberts and the Channel Two news team.
Linda Lorelle: Good evening, everyone. Larry is sitting in for Bill tonight. Well, the great debates of ’92 are history.
Jordan Smith: Monday, October 19, 1992: the day of the final presidential debate. Also the day Charles Raby was arrested for murder.
Larry Audas: A recent parolee with a violent history has been arrested and charged with the murder of a Houston grandmother. Seventy-two-year-old Edna Franklin was found dead in her Northwest Houston home last Thursday. Her throat was slashed, and she was nearly decapitated. Houston police say Charles Douglas Raby confessed to the murder today, but he couldn’t tell them why he killed that retired widow, who was in poor health at the time.
Sgt. Wayne Wendel: He does not give us an explanation why he jumped on this woman, why he stabbed her to death. His explanation is that he blacked out and doesn’t know why.
Larry Audas: Hmm. Raby knew Edna Franklin’s grandson, that was the contact. The suspect was paroled two months ago, after serving time for aggravated robbery.
Liliana Segura: Edna Franklin had been found just four days earlier. Her body was discovered by her grandsons, who told police they had a suspect in mind. A friend of theirs, actually: 22-year-old Charles “Buster” Raby. A guy with a mean temper and a reputation for violence. He was quickly arrested and confessed to the crime. Open and shut, right?
Jordan Smith: Not exactly.
Liliana Segura: It was just before 10 p.m. on Thursday when the 911 call came into Houston Police dispatch. Seventy-two-year-old Edna Franklin was dead on her living room floor. She had been repeatedly stabbed and was naked from the waist down.
Jordan Smith: Homicide investigators, Sgts. Wayne Wendel and Waymon Allen, were called to the scene. Here’s Wendel.
Wayne Wendel: I remember the poor victim, Edna Franklin, and the way we found her. She had multiple stab wounds to her chest, throat was cut, and she looked like she had been raped. A poor, innocent old woman like that; who would kill her?
Jordan Smith: Franklin’s two grandsons, Eric Benge and Lee Rose, lived with her in her home on Westford Street. Eric was the one to find her.
Liliana Segura: Eric told the homicide investigators that he’d arrived home after work to find the front door wide open. Their three dogs were running around in the front yard. The porch light was off. In fact, all the lights in the house were off except for one, a dim glow coming from the back bedroom where his grandmother spent most of her time.
She was frail — at least in appearance. She weighed 72 pounds and had bad arthritis. So she had a hard time getting around, especially without shoes on. But, people told us, she was also feisty — a woman not to be messed with.
Eric made his way toward her room. Moving through the house, he stumbled on something that he thought was a pile of laundry, near the doorway separating the living room from the kitchen. This wasn’t surprising. The house was in a constant state of disarray.
Back in Franklin’s room, Eric saw that her purse was overturned. Her credit cards were scattered on the floor. Her shoes were next to the bed. But she wasn’t there.
The back door was unlocked, and a nearby table had been moved. Eric retraced his steps and turned on the light. When he did, he realized that it wasn’t laundry he’d tripped over. It was his grandmother’s body.
Jordan Smith: She was lying facedown. There was a lot of blood. He rolled her over thinking he would try CPR. Immediately, he realized it would be of no use. Her throat had been slashed all the way across, slicing her windpipe. It was at that moment that Eric’s cousin Lee came home.
Eric died in 2012. But Lee talked to us.
Lee Rose: I was in shock, I don’t know how to describe it. It’s just hard to take in. I just walked in and the lights were off, and she was in the living room, and my cousin was already there and it was crazy.
Jordan Smith: Lee was with a friend named John Allen Phillips. Eventually, Lee, Eric, and Phillips all ended up downtown at the police station giving statements.
In the police report, Wendel described how he started the search for possible suspects. “I asked Eric Benge to make a list of people who have been over to his grandmother’s house within the last few weeks. He then began to tell me about a white male friend of theirs by the name of Charles Raby.”
Charles — who pretty much everybody called “Buster” — had recently been released from prison. Eric told Wendel that Charles had come by the house earlier that month looking for a place to stay. But his grandmother had run Charles off because he was drunk. In response, Charles had supposedly broken a beer bottle on her front porch.
Liliana Segura: The other potential suspect Eric and Lee offered to the cops was a guy named Edward Bangs. He was a friend of theirs too. In the days before the murder, he’d been painting the outside of Edna Franklin’s house. He’d also stolen from Eric, according to the police report, a shotgun and a paycheck. Even so, the cops appear to have totally ignored Bangs.
Charles was on parole after all; he and a couple other guys, armed with knives, had robbed a convenience store for beer a few years earlier. So, from the start, all eyes were on Charles.
The morning after Edna Franklin’s body was found, a neighbor named Hillery Truitt called the police to say he might have some information. Truitt’s property backed up to Franklin’s. According to Truitt, his brother-in-law, Martin Doyle, was pulling up to his house around 8:15 the night before when Doyle saw a man jump the backyard fence. Truitt and Doyle followed the man onto the street. This is what Doyle remembers:
Martin Doyle: He was just casual dressed. He just used one hand to jump over the fence, that’s a little unusual. So he was pretty athletic. Didn’t get a look at his face, I got a look at the man. A younger white guy, I could tell that.
Jordan Smith: But you never saw his face?
Martin Doyle: No, I didn’t see a direct face.
Jordan Smith: Truitt told police that the man was in his early 20s, 155 to 165 pounds, with dark hair. He was wearing jeans, a dark shirt, and a dark jacket.
When they caught up to him, the man said he was taking a shortcut because there had been an accident a street over. Truitt didn’t think much of it until he saw the news of Edna Franklin’s murder. This isn’t a very strong eyewitness account. It’s generic, and they didn’t even get a good look at the guy’s face.
Neither man reported seeing any blood on the fence-jumper, which is odd given that Eric Benge, who’d only rolled his grandmother over, reported his arms being covered in blood. He had to wash his hands, and he still left traces of blood on the phone he used to call the police.
Nonetheless, the cops decided it was Charles the men had seen. They declared him the “best suspect” in the case. People who saw him in the neighborhood the day of the murder seemed to support this theory.
One woman said Charles came by her house that afternoon to look for her son, who wasn’t home. He sat on her porch for a while and took out a pocketknife, which he used to clean his fingernails. She told the cops he was wearing dark stonewashed jeans, a black concert T-shirt, and a black leather jacket.
Liliana Segura: By the end of the day on Friday — less than 24 hours after the murder — the police had gotten a warrant for Charles’s arrest.
The sergeant who attended Franklin’s autopsy said he’d been told that the stab wounds could have been caused by a pocketknife, presumably like the one Charles carried. But in the police report, there’s no mention of any search for a murder weapon. In fact, to this day no murder weapon has ever been found. Wendel and his partner went on a hunt for Charles.
Wayne Wendel: I think it became an obsession with Sgt. Allen and I to find this guy. And Raby was on parole. He went to prison for robbery, which is a violent crime.
Raby became the focus when we couldn’t catch him. He was dodging us, every address that we had for him, he was just there. But eventually his luck ran out. We cornered him.
Liliana Segura: Charles was avoiding the cops at various points over the weekend, which only made them more convinced of his guilt. At one point, they caught up with him at his girlfriend’s house. But he ran out the back door.
They found him on Monday, October 19, at his mother’s boyfriend’s house — where he was living part-time — just a few blocks from Edna Franklin’s place. He was with his girlfriend, Merry Alice Gomez, and her infant son, Christopher, when the police pulled up.
Merry Alice Gomez: We agreed that he was going to turn himself in Monday to see what — because all they wanted to do was talk to him. So I said, “Well, I’m going with you.” He said, “How?” And I said, “I’m going with you.” I packed the baby best I could, and I was gonna go with him. I said, “If you’re not in trouble, if they just want you to question, I’m gonna go with you.”
Jordan Smith: Charles was handcuffed and put into the back of a police car. Merry Alice and Christopher were placed in the back of a second car. At the station, Charles was taken to an interview room and uncuffed while Merry Alice was taken to a family waiting room nearby.
According to Charles, he didn’t know Merry Alice was at the police station. He thought she’d been driven home.
Liliana Segura: It’s not entirely clear how long Charles was questioned. The interrogation was not recorded. And the police report contains only a vague summary of what Charles was asked and how he answered.
Jordan Smith: In contrast, the report spends a lot of time describing how Charles had waived his right to an attorney and had consented to having blood and hair samples taken. And it goes into detail about how well he was treated — he was given multiple cups of coffee, a hamburger, and a Coke — things cops often include in their reports as evidence that a person wasn’t held against their will or coerced into talking.
What’s striking is how quickly things seemed to unfold. According to the police report, Allen started interviewing Charles around noon. He asked some basic questions about whether he knew Edna Franklin and her grandsons, then moved on to what Charles did on Thursday, October 15.
Charles gave him a summary of his whereabouts that day, which was all over the place. He walked around Houston’s north side, visiting various friends and family members, and eventually made his way toward Franklin’s neighborhood. But he denied going to Franklin’s house.
At 12:40 p.m., Charles asked to use the bathroom. What happened next is really important: Charles says that during this bathroom break he heard a baby crying and Merry Alice’s voice cooing. When he asked why she was at the station, he said he was told that police were keeping her for a little while, just in case they needed to talk to her.
Liliana Segura: It wasn’t long after Charles returned from the bathroom that he confessed to killing Edna Franklin. It kind of comes out of nowhere. Allen got him another cup of coffee and asked a few more questions, including whether he’d gotten into an altercation with Franklin a couple weeks earlier. No, Charles said. But he said that her grandson, Lee, had told her that Charles was a burglar, so Franklin told Charles not to come around any more. He said he complied with her wishes.
But then, a sudden turn of events: Allen told Charles he knew he was lying. Here’s how it’s described in the police report. An actor will read it for you.
Sgt. Waymon Allen police report (read by actor): Allen advised Raby that he had been identified jumping over a fence leaving Edna’s house Thursday night at about the time she was killed. Raby looked down at the floor and his eyes filled with tears. Raby stated: “I was there. I went in through the front door” and “I saw her on the living room floor.”
Liliana Segura: According to the police report, it’s at this point that Charles asked if he could talk to Merry Alice. Allen said, sure, briefly, and when Charles returned, he gave a full statement. But according to Charles — and Merry Alice — he didn’t get to talk with her until after he’d made a full confession.
Merry Alice Gomez: Next thing you know, they come in, told him we got three minutes. I think there was like three cops in that room with us. It was a little room. He had the handcuffs on. I couldn’t stand to see Charles in handcuffs.
All he wanted to do was hold the baby, so that’s what he did the whole three minutes, he was like this. The world wasn’t there — just him and Chris. And he asked me, “Are you OK?” And I said, “Yeah.” And I’m right here, like, “Are we leaving?” [crying] He just gave me a kiss on the cheek, and that was it. He walked out, and I never saw him again.
Jordan Smith: You’re going to hear Charles’s entire confession later. But for now, what’s important is how he said the murder happened. He repeated a bunch of stuff about visiting people and then said he made his way to Franklin’s house. He was looking for Lee and drinking Mad Dog 20/20. Here’s what he said next. An actor will read it for you.
Charles Raby’s confession (read by actor): I walked up to the front door. The front door had a screen type door in front of a wooden door. I knocked on the door. I did not hear anyone answer. I just went inside. I sat down for a little bit on the couch. I called out when I got inside but I did not hear anyone say anything. I heard Edna in the kitchen. I walked into the kitchen and grabbed Edna. Edna’s back was to me and I just grabbed her. I remember struggling with her and I was on top of her. I know I had my knife but I do not remember taking it out. We were in the living room when we went to the floor. I saw Edna covered in blood and underneath her. I went to the back of the house and went out the back door that leads into the back yard.
Shortly after I had left Lee’s house on Westford I was approached by a man and this man told me something like, “I had better not catch you in my yard,” “jumping his fences.” Or something like that. I woke up later on the ground near the Hardy Toll Road and Crosstimbers. I walked home, on Cedar Hill from there. I remember feeling sticky and I had blood on my hands. I washed my hands off in a water puddle that is near the pipeline by the Hardy Toll Road. I do not remember what I did with my knife.
Charles Raby’s confession (read by actor): I think I was wearing a black concert shirt, the blue jeans I’m wearing and my Puma tennis shoes. I also had on a black jacket.
Liliana Segura: So, according to the confession, Charles was still wearing the same pair of jeans he had on when he stabbed Franklin to death. Police collected these clothes as evidence. But there’s no mention in their report of any blood on them or scratches or anything else on Charles’s body.
Jordan Smith: From the jump, his confession doesn’t match the physical evidence. This should have raised big red flags for the investigators.
At the time the cops secured this confession, there was no physical evidence tying Charles to the bloody crime. Still, they plowed ahead — remaining confident that, in the end, physical evidence would prove that Charles committed the murder. And not any old physical evidence but DNA evidence.
Liliana Segura: All of this is laid out in a three-page document within the police report. It’s the sworn affidavit in which the cops persuade a judge that they have probable cause to arrest a suspect.
The affidavit was written by Sgt. William Stephens, who said that if they could just get Charles into custody and get a blood sample, then they’d have what they needed to charge him with murder. Stephens had attended the autopsy. He wrote that he noticed Edna Franklin had human hair clutched in her fist, which he believed had been “pulled from the head of the person who stabbed Franklin as she was fighting for her life.” The hair was brown, like Charles’s. Most importantly, Stephens wrote that he was “personally aware that DNA can be found within human hair and that the DNA within each person is unique.”
“If a blood sample is taken from Raby,” he wrote, “the DNA can be extracted from this sample and compared with the DNA found in the aforementioned hair for purposes of determined [sic] whether or not Raby committed the murder of Franklin.”
So the police are promising that DNA evidence is going to prove that Charles Raby committed this murder — DNA evidence from blood, specifically.
Jordan Smith: The cops asked the Houston Police Department crime lab to test multiple items of evidence for DNA, which was fairly new technology at the time. The HPD lab had just begun in-house DNA testing earlier that year. It was a big deal that was supposed to revolutionize the city’s crime-fighting efforts.
Liliana Segura: But, ultimately, the cops didn’t wait for any of this testing to be done. Instead, once Charles confessed, pretty much everything else faded away.
Liliana Segura: This was a really brutal stabbing, but the weapon, the knife, was never found. What do you remember about that, in particular? Do you remember searching for that knife?
Wayne Wendel: Yeah, we searched all over the yard for it, the house, turned every piece of furniture around, upside down, had crime scene go over the yard with a metal detector. We just never found it.
Liliana Segura: Did that bother you?
Wayne Wendel: It didn’t matter anyway.
Liliana Segura: It didn’t matter, you said?
Wayne Wendel: All these questions you’re asking are moot because Raby confessed. He confessed to killing her.
Jordan Smith: In the eyes of Sgt. Wayne Wendel and the Houston Police Department, Charles’s confession made everything else moot. It neatly obscured the lack of physical evidence tying Charles to Edna Franklin’s murder.
Liliana Segura: The thing is, there was plenty of physical evidence in this case — evidence that was withheld, misrepresented, or never tested. And that evidence tells a different story. One in which the state went after the wrong man.
Jordan Smith: This season on Murderville, Texas:
Anonymous Juror: I would never, ever be able to do that again. It’s haunted me for a long time that I decided that that guy was supposed to die.
Wayne Wendel: Some things are left out of there on purpose because I really don’t want the defense to know everything.
Sarah Frazier: There is no way for them to know that the most important forensic evidence in the case points to a different person having been the killer.
James Jordan: It’s not about your guilt or your innocence in Texas. It’s hell to be fucking poor and broke in Texas.
Dwane Shirley: I would lie to a suspect in a minute. It wouldn’t bother me. I’m not going to threaten him, I’m not going to beat him. But if I had to lie to get him to tell me a confession or the truth, I’d lie.
Linda McClain: If it wasn’t for his confession, he might not have gotten convicted. If it wasn’t for him telling that what he did that day and what he did that night and what he did the next day, he might not have been convicted. He should’ve never said anything. He should’ve just kept his mouth shut.
Charles Raby: All I know is I didn’t have no blood. I didn’t kill the woman. I didn’t.
Liliana Segura: Murderville, Texas is a production of The Intercept and First Look Media.
Andrea Jones is our story editor. Julia Scott is senior producer. Truc Nguyen is our podcast fellow. Laura Flynn is supervising producer. Fact-checking by Meerie Jesuthasan. Special thanks to Jack D’Isidoro and Holly DeMuth for additional production assistance. Voice acting in this episode by Dan Triandiflou and Jake McCready.
Our show was mixed by Rick Kwan, with original music by Zach Young. Legal review by David Bralow.
Executive producers are Roger Hodge and Christy Gressman. For The Intercept, Betsy Reed is the editor-in-chief.
I’m Liliana Segura.
Jordan Smith: And I’m Jordan Smith.
You can read show transcripts and see photos at theintercept.com/murderville. You can also follow us on Twitter: @lilianasegura and @chronic_jordan.
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