Crime is surging in Houston, and homicide detectives are given free rein as they race to close cases. Investigators are certain that Charles Raby is guilty of Edna Franklin’s murder — and that DNA evidence will prove it. But once Charles confesses, the forensic investigation stops.
A quick listener note: This podcast contains adult language and descriptions of violence.
Broadcaster: Now stay tuned for an NBC News special presentation.
Jordan Smith: On December 6, 1990, NBC preempted their Friday night primetime drama “Midnight Caller,” about a former cop turned talk radio host, for a show about real cops. Titled “Houston Homicide,” it was hosted by Tom Brokaw and kind of like the old reality show “Cops” but more cinéma vérité.
“Houston Homicide” (Tom Brokaw): Tonight, a detective story. We’ll take you inside the working lives of Houston homicide investigators. We’ll be with them during their daily struggles with the awful realities of America’s sudden and alarming increase in the business of violent death.
Liliana Segura: The show opens with the two lead detectives who investigated Edna Franklin’s murder: Houston Police Sgts. Wayne Wendel and Waymon Allen.
They pull up to the scene of a homicide. There’s a man dead in a ditch by the side of the road. Allen is driving. It’s one of those boxy, ’80s unmarked cop cars.
Allen parks behind some crime scene tape. He grabs his jacket with one hand and his gun with the other, which he shoves into the waistband of his pants. Wendel follows behind Allen. He has a dark mustache and glasses. They lift the white sheet covering the body. After examining the scene, they go over to talk to the victim’s brother.
Jordan Smith: Among the Houston homicide cops, Allen was known as a masterful interrogator. He would end up interrogating Charles Raby.
Allen died in 2019, so this is the only time you’re going to hear his voice.
Waymon Allen: There’s not any good time for you to talk to me, I know, and what we’ve told you is devastating, I know. But we need to try to find out what happened to your brother, OK? Can you help me do that?
Jordan Smith: In a tribute to Allen on Facebook, Wendel said they’d cleared so many cases together that he’d lost track. “If you killed someone in Houston,” Wendel wrote, “you would not want Waymon on your case. He would find you, arrest you and he knew how to get incriminating statements from suspects.”
Liliana Segura: From The Intercept, I’m Liliana Segura.
Jordan Smith: And I’m Jordan Smith. Welcome back to Murderville, Texas. Episode Two, “The Cops.”
Liliana Segura: Let’s do a quick recap. After Edna Franklin’s grandsons discovered her body, they told police they had a couple suspects in mind, including Charles Raby. He was on parole at the time. The police wanted to question him, but Charles was avoiding them, which only made them more suspicious.
Jordan Smith: They caught up with him a few days later, and Charles confessed to the crime. But no physical evidence tied him to the scene, and the cops have never found a murder weapon.
Liliana Segura: One of the first things we look at when we start working on a case is the police report. Ideally, it should give you a detailed road map of how the investigation went: where it started, what was learned along the way, and how it was all resolved.
Jordan Smith: The police report in Charles’s case is just thin. To be sure, there are a lot of details — but mostly about how the inside of Franklin’s house looked: where the couches were located, that there was a bag of old car parts in a corner.
Liliana Segura: But aside from the crime scene investigator mentioning that he booked into evidence a small paring knife found in one of the bedrooms, there is no discussion of looking for a murder weapon. In fact, there’s really no investigation documented in this report at all. Instead, the cops asked Franklin’s grandsons who they thought did it, glommed on to Charles, and spent the next few days trying to run him down.
Jordan Smith: How do we know there was no investigation? The cops had an arrest warrant for Charles the day after the murder. Think about that: Franklin’s body isn’t found until 10 p.m. The cops are there all night processing the scene, so they don’t really know yet what kind of evidence they may or may not have. And then, armed with a hunch and a very general description of a dude seen jumping the neighbor’s fence, they seek out a judge who will allow them to pick up Charles, less than 24 hours later.
Oh, and the warrant? It’s for trespassing, for being in the neighbor’s yard. But the search warrant application makes clear this is just a pretense for capital murder — a death-eligible offense.
Liliana Segura: This is just a classic example of tunnel vision. Instead of investigating, developing evidence, and tracing it to a suspect, the Houston PD identified a suspect, then sought to confirm their belief in his guilt. With the police report leaving so many questions unanswered, we wanted to talk to the cops who worked the Franklin case back in 1992.
Jordan Smith: We found Sgt. Wendel on Facebook. He retired in 2005 after a 34-year career with the Houston Police Department. This freed him up for what is clearly a true passion: photography. His landscape and travel photos are all over his Facebook page, which is otherwise full of right-wing memes. Wendel said that working homicide for the Houston PD back in the day was intense.
Waymon Wendel: You had, basically, about a three-day window to clear your case before you got another one. We would get a case about every fourth or fifth day, a new homicide would come up. That’s after going through 30 detectives.
Jordan Smith In other words, they were trying to close cases as quickly as possible. Here’s Sgt. Dwane Shirley. He helped Allen and Wendel on the Franklin case. In fact, it was Shirley who drove Charles to the police station the day he was arrested for Franklin’s murder.
Dwane Shirley: I spent 26 years in homicide. The caseload when I hit there, when I first got to homicide in 1980, the homicides were streaming up every year.
Liliana Segura: Homicides peaked the following year, at 701. By the time Franklin was killed, that number had dropped. But per capita, 1992 was one of the worst years for murder in Houston’s history. Still, Shirley told us that they were really good at catching the bad guys — actually, unbelievably good. He said that, in his day, the clearance rate in the homicide division was close to 90 percent.
Jordan Smith: This claim struck us as problematic because the national average is much lower, and police departments have been known to pad their numbers. Closing a case doesn’t necessarily mean solving it.
Lilian Segura: Of course, a clearance rate as high as Shirley described would be great, if they were actually getting the right person for the crime. Getting the wrong person in a murder case leaves a killer on the streets, but Shirley also suggested that they did pretty much whatever they wanted to close cases, without a whole lot of oversight.
Dwane Shirley: You can’t do now what we did then.
Jordan Smith: What do you mean?
Dwane Shirley: Well, look at all the scrutiny that’s being placed on police officers right now. Every single move they make is subject to videotape.
Jordan Smith: And you think that is hamstringing?
Dwane Shirley: Sure. It hamstrings the entire police department.
Jordan Smith: Why do you think that is? In homicide, why do you think that would have impacted your work?
Dwane Shirley: I think I better not discuss it; you’d better not discuss it. But we were given a free rein in solving a case.
Liliana Segura: And Shirley had a story about Wendel to describe the kinds of things they would do to investigate murder cases.
Dwane Shirley: I have one instance here that was probably not politically correct in today’s climate referring to Wayne Wendel. We were once conducting surveillance on a suspect in a Black area of town, and we didn’t have access to some Black officers to help us stake out this location, so Wayne Wendel dressed up in blackface and conducted surveillance on this location, which today would probably get him fired and charged.
Liliana Segura: Do you remember when that was or what the case was?
Dwane Shirley: I don’t remember what the case was, but it was over on the east side of town, in the ghetto. I remember everybody was kidding him about dressing up in blackface so that he wouldn’t get recognized as being a police officer on surveillance. But the deal is, there was no racial overtones in his actions. We were trying to arrest a murder suspect.
Liliana Segura: We were obviously pretty shocked by this story. When we later wrote to Wendel, he confirmed it and elaborated. “I rode around Fifth Ward in the backseat of a yellow cab,” he wrote. “We were looking for a serial rapist/murderer.”
This might be a good moment to make clear: Charles Raby is white, and so was Edna Franklin. But Wendel’s actions here speak volumes about the culture that existed within the homicide bureau and their attitude towards the communities they were supposed to be protecting.
Jordan Smith: We also asked Shirley about something Charles says happened on the way to the police station — that Shirley told him they could charge his girlfriend, Merry Alice Gomez, with aiding and abetting him, for not turning Charles in.
Liliana Segura: He named you specifically as the officer who took him into custody, I believe, drove him to the station. And according to him, you had said something to the effect of, his girlfriend could be charged with aiding and abetting. But does any of that sound familiar to you?
Dwane Shirley: Well, very slightly, but let me explain something to you. Nothing says an investigator has to tell the truth to a suspect. 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.
Liliana Segura: We told Shirley that Charles maintains his innocence. And we wanted to know, with the rise of DNA testing and exonerations, has he ever worried about the possibility of executing an innocent person?
Dwane Shirley: It’s never given me pause — ever. Because if I ever worked a case and I had doubts about whether or not the suspect did it, I wouldn’t have charged him. I wouldn’t have arrested him. But if I arrest him on a murder charge that he didn’t do, that means the person who did it is still out there.
Jordan Smith: Right.
Dwane Shirley: You know how they do it in Russia, right, when they give you a death penalty? They lock you up. They don’t give you a date for execution or anything. All they do, you stay there, it may be there a week, it may be there a month, it may be there a year. They walk up to your cell, take you out of the cell, walk you out back, and shoot you in the head with a 9 mm. That’s how they do it. There’s no fancy stuff about it.
Liliana Segura: Are you saying that we should do it more like that?
Dwane Shirley: No, I’m not saying we’re doing it like that. But a suspect should have one appeal, and after that, he should be executed.
Liliana Segura: For the record, that’s not actually how they do it in Russia. Technically, the death penalty has been on hold there since the ’90s.
Jordan Smith: Some of the most detailed information in the police report was written by the crime scene investigator. He diagrammed and described the scene — a man named Jim Norris. He had a decidedly less cavalier attitude about the system than Sgt. Shirley. This is because Norris not only saw the system from a cop’s point of view, but later from the other side too.
Jim Norris: My name is Jim Norris. I am — I was a crime scene investigator with the homicide division at this time, in 1992. Right now, I’m 67 years old and the pastor at a small country church. [In 1992] I worked the night shift. It was nothing for me to catch a scene at 2 o’clock in the morning and then work the entire rest of the night on the scene and then all the day shift doing paperwork.
Jordan Smith: We sent Norris his portion of the police report. He recognized it as his work but has no specific recollection of it. The murder took place toward the end of his time with HPD.
Liliana Segura: Norris worked Houston homicide for about a decade before leaving the state for a series of career changes, including a short stint as an emu farmer.
Jim Norris: I picked those emus up in Texas. It was a big thing back then, and it was a shot in the dark sort of thing, but I took those emus to North Carolina with me.
Liliana Segura: More importantly, after moving to Indiana, he began doing work for criminal defendants.
Jim Norris: I was a private investigator, and I concentrated mostly on criminal defense work and that usually involved death penalty cases.
Liliana Segura: Norris knows the system sometimes gets things wrong. In a 2001 profile of him in the Times of Northwest Indiana headlined “Gumshoe With Gumption,” Norris talked about his passion for investigating wrongful convictions, especially in death penalty cases.
“If every time 100 people flew in an airplane one of them died, people would stop flying,” he told the paper. “But we may have 1 out of 100 inmates sitting on death row with no connection to the crime.”
Norris is opposed to capital punishment now. He saw serious flaws in the evidence that police and prosecutors relied upon to send people to die.
Jim Norris: I think that eyewitness testimony was probably the biggest thing that deterred me from believing that the death penalty was right. And then when you got into DNA and you found out how many times blood typing was wrong, and how many people were convicted on that basis, then that kind of solidified the idea we need to take a step back from the death penalty until we can get it more right than what we have.
Jordan Smith: Norris talked about a couple things that we know are leading causes of wrongful convictions, including erroneous eyewitness identification, which is the most common factor found in DNA exonerations and — along with the confession — a key component of Charles’s case.
Remember: Edna Franklin’s neighbor, Hillery Truitt, told the cops that he and his brother-in-law had seen a guy jump the fence from Franklin’s backyard the night of the murder. And even though the pair said they didn’t get a good look at the guy’s face, the cops decided that it was Charles they had seen. But even under the best circumstances, eyewitness IDs are notoriously unreliable. Norris told us that it wasn’t until after he left HPD that he learned just how unreliable they are.
Jim Norris: And I think things like that bothered me for a long time. I’ve tested myself and my own recollection — just take anybody in a restaurant some day and look at them for a minute and then ask yourself the next day what you can tell me about it. Could you 100 percent sure pick that person out of a lineup or photo array? How often, if you did that, would you be right?
Jordan Smith: Norris also talked about false confessions, which have been implicated in hundreds of wrongful convictions.
Jim Norris: False confessions, I think, fall into two categories: a forced false confession and a voluntary false confession. And certainly, a forced false confession is probably the saddest thing that an investigator can be accused of. However, that doesn’t negate the fact that there are voluntary false confessions, and I believe that they’re in abundance.
One of the things that I have found over the years in confessions is that a guy will say whatever he thinks he needs to say that will benefit him at the time. Certainly the one that is a self-interest false confession is something that you’ve got to go back to step one and see: Does the evidence support what he says?
Liliana Segura: Today, Charles insists he didn’t murder Edna Franklin. He says the confession he gave the police was false.
Jordan Smith: Now, you may be thinking, come on: Confess to something I didn’t do? No way. Let alone something so horrible as murder. Something that could send me to the execution chamber? Not gonna happen.
Liliana Segura: A lot of people think that no one would confess to something they didn’t do. They just can’t conceive of it, especially when the stakes are so high. But false confessions do happen, more than you’d think.
The National Registry of Exonerations catalogs all the factors that have led to wrongful convictions in the U.S. Since 1989, there have been more than 2,900 exonerations. More than 360 of those cases involved false confessions. Twenty-seven were death penalty cases.
We’re going to dig deeper into false confessions, but first, you need to hear what Charles has to say about how all of this happened.
Jordan Smith: We went to see Charles in December 2019. It was just before Christmas. Texas’s death row is in Livingston, down the road from the execution chamber in Huntsville.
To get inside, you have to go through security and a series of gates that lock behind you. Before you reach the visitation area, you pass a glass display cabinet full of handmade crafts. Many are decorated with characters from Disney. They’re made by prisoners.
The visiting area is stark and has all the charm of an old high school cafeteria. There are rows of booths. On one side is where we’ll sit. On the other side are cages behind plexiglass-like windows. That’s where prisoners are brought in and uncuffed.
To communicate, you have to use an old handheld phone receiver. It was hard to hear Charles, let alone record him on the other side of that receiver. So you’re gonna have to bear with us.
Liliana Segura: I’ll just start. This is paused right now, but I’ll just start rolling.
Guard: So that’s going to work for you?
Jordan Smith: Yeah, I think it’s going to work.
Liliana Segura: Yeah. I think we’re good.
Guard: OK. You start at 12:39.
Jordan Smith: Sounds good. Thank you. Hey, Charles.
Charles Raby: How you doing?
Jordan Smith: Good. Nice to meet you.
Charles Raby: That’s how she’s going to do it, sit there like that?
Jordan Smith: Yeah, it’s going to be fine.
Liliana Segura: Charles has blue eyes and a small, upturned nose. He was dressed in the all-white prison scrubs issued by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. At 49, he was a slightly doughier version of the 24-year-old who first went to death row. He was also visibly nervous — like, really nervous. He seemed apologetic about his demeanor. At one point, he told us that he was getting short of breath. “I don’t do a lot of talking,” he said.
Jordan Smith: We only had an hour, and we had a lot of questions. Going in, we understood his explanation for why he confessed to Edna Franklin’s murder. He said it was to protect his girlfriend, Merry Alice Gomez. But we wanted to hear more about what happened at the police station, especially his interactions with Sgt. Waymon Allen. Remember: Charles’s interrogation wasn’t recorded.
Liliana Segura: Charles had been in and out of the system his whole life. Growing up, his father was absent and his mother was neglectful. He was repeatedly removed from her home by the state’s child welfare agency. He barely ever went to school; instead, he ran the streets.
Charles told us that he’d heard the cops were looking for him on October 16, 1992 — the day after the murder — but he really didn’t know why. He’d only recently gotten out of prison. Just knowing that the cops were looking for him was enough to make him want to avoid them.
Jordan Smith: Merry Alice had told him that the cops had asked her to call if she saw him. Charles says that’s why he decided to turn himself in. He was worried she might get in trouble, but before he could, the cops showed up. Here’s Charles.
Charles Raby: And I tell Merry, “Well, they’re here.” He told me to come out, I’m under arrest, you know. He didn’t really tell me what right then and there, but later on. Then, I told Merry to stay in the house and I said, “You stay here.” They asked me about who she was. I told them, “That’s my girlfriend. She can stay here.” The next thing I know, they’re taking her and I asked them, “Where you all taking her?” They told me they were taking her home.
So I really thought they were taking her home. But then we go to the police station, and they started questioning me. I’m like, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about or anything like that.”
Liliana Segura: He recalled going to the bathroom and hearing the baby crying and Merry Alice’s voice. He was surprised. He thought the cops had taken them home. He asked Allen why they were at the station.
Charles Raby: He said, “Well, we just want to talk to them and everything, question them, see what she might know.” I said, “Man, she don’t know nothing. She don’t know none of them people over there.” I’m just kind of paraphrasing everything really, but later on, he seen how focused I was on talking about her. I didn’t want to talk about nothing else but why the hell she’s here, I want her to leave. And that’s when he said, “Well, we told her to call us if she seen you, and the next thing we know, we find her hiding out with you.” And I told them, “Man, we wasn’t hiding out. We were at my house.”
I’ve got to admit that he never actually told me, “We’re going to arrest her,” but he gave me the impression. I’m not stupid. I know, “We could arrest her. You know we could do this and we could do that.” To me, that’s you can and that you will if I don’t start talking to you about those things you want me to say.
Liliana Segura: Charles told us that when he’d gotten arrested with his friends growing up, it was every man for himself inside the police station. But with Merry Alice, it was different. He didn’t want her to get in trouble because of him. It seems clear Allen saw that he cared about her and that he could use that as leverage to get Charles to cooperate.
Charles Raby: I mean, I’ve been in trouble quite a bit. I’m sure you know that. I’ve been to jail. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been in and out of juvenile and in jail. But this is the first time I ever had anybody use somebody I love against me like that. I mean, this is someone totally innocent, doesn’t have no reason to be there. Then you’re talking about taking her or taking the baby away from her. They really had me. I don’t know any other way to explain it. I just know they found my weak spot, so I just started telling them whatever I thought they wanted to hear, you know.
Jordan Smith: One thing the cops did do before getting the arrest warrant for Charles was to speak to people who had seen him the day of Edna Franklin’s murder. Like the woman who said he’d sat in front of her house, cleaning his fingernails with a pocketknife. So it wasn’t hard for Allen to trip Charles up when he claimed to be somewhere else.
Charles Raby: He was just asking me, “Where have you been, what have you been doing?” And I kept lying to him. He’d say, “Where was you over here?” And he said like, “What’d you do that day?” I said, “Well, I stayed in my grandmother’s neighborhood.” He said, “Well, did you go over here?” I’m like, “Well fuck, how the hell did you know I went over there?” I said, “Yeah, I went over there.” And then just these little lies — so then when I started finally telling the truth, it’s like he ain’t trying to hear it. He done caught me in so many of these little lies, you know? But he tracked me all the way from my brother’s house to my friend’s house. He tracked me from all the way over there to the neighbor. He’s putting me in this neighborhood.
Jordan Smith: Not only did Allen get Charles to put himself in the neighborhood, he got Charles to say he’d knocked on Franklin’s front door.
Charles Raby: Once he got me to admit that I was there at the house, that I actually knocked on the door, that was it. That’s all he wanted. He placed me at the house, said I was there. So, I don’t know. I was willing to do, say anything he wanted me to to get Merry and the baby out of there.
Jordan Smith: So, Charles said, he gave Allen a story.
Charles Raby: I don’t know why I was lying to him like I was, in other words. I just didn’t — it’s just what I do. I grew up on the street. Just don’t tell the cops nothing, right?
He was, just had me, “Well, what’d you do?” By this time, I know somebody’s dead. He done told me that somebody’s dead, right? And that’s when I told him, “Well, I guess I went in the front door, just walked in, knocked on the door, just walked in and there she is, and I just grabbed her and did what I did.” You know, it’s just so many details, it just doesn’t make no sense. I mean, nothing.
Liliana Segura: Charles told us that Allen fed him details about the case. Police thought the murderer had left through Franklin’s back door and had been seen by neighbors jumping a fence. So, Charles said, he fed those details right back to Allen.
Charles Raby: He said, “What about the back door?” I said, “What about the back door?” He said, “Did you go out the back door?” I said, “I guess I went out the back door then.” He says, “Was you confronted by somebody about staying out of his yard?” I said, “Yes, I guess somebody told me to stay out of their yard.”
Jordan Smith: Ultimately, Charles insisted that despite what he told the cops, he did not kill Edna Franklin.
Charles Raby: All I know is I didn’t have no blood. I didn’t kill the woman. I didn’t. I feel for Lee and them, but I did not do it. That’s all I can say.
Jordan Smith: We obviously didn’t get a chance to ask everything we wanted during that visit, but in our mind, that was no big deal. The way it works is that reporters get one visit with the same person every 90 days. So we were already planning our next visit — for April 2020. That didn’t happen.
Liliana Segura: Instead, the pandemic would end up locking down the prison for more than a year. Our reporting, like everything else, suddenly ground to a halt. We would have to continue our investigation remotely. Of course, there was no way we could have known what was coming.
Before we left Livingston, we exchanged Christmas gifts in the parking lot. Then, two days later, I was checking Twitter on my phone when I saw a tweet directed at me from a woman I didn’t recognize. She said, “I certainly hope Charles ‘Buster’ Raby hasn’t convinced you he’s innocent.”
Her name sounded familiar, but I didn’t know why. It was clearly someone who knew the case, but this was still pretty early in our reporting. And I just couldn’t place it. So I called Jordan. I told her I’d gotten a strange tweet about Charles. It came from a woman named Linda McClain.
Jordan did recognize the name.
Jordan Smith: That’s Edna Franklin’s daughter.
Next time on Murderville, Texas: More about Linda, and Charles Raby goes on trial for his life.
Maurice Chammah: I heard stories about prosecutors who called themselves the Silver Needle Society because they had sent men to death row.
Anonymous Juror: It haunted me for a long time that I decided that that guy was supposed to die.
Linda McClain: Do you still want to confess to this? Uh, I wouldn’t have at all. I would have ran screaming from the room.
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.
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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