Charles Raby is tried for the murder of Edna Franklin. The murder weapon is missing, and no physical evidence ties him to the crime. But he’s up against a powerful prosecutor’s office, and his attorneys call no witnesses. The jury sentences him to death.
A quick listener note: This podcast contains adult language and descriptions of violence.
Linda McClain: Hello.
Liliana Segura: Hi, is this Linda?
Linda McClain: Uh-huh.
Liliana Segura: Hi, Linda. It’s Liliana Segura. How are you?
Linda McClain: Oh, I’m OK. How are you?
Liliana Segura: I’m OK. Thanks so much for returning my call.
Liliana Segura: Two days after we visited Charles Raby on Texas death row, I was startled to see a tweet about his case, directed at me, from a name that I didn’t immediately recognize. As it turned out, it was Linda McClain, the daughter of Edna Franklin: the woman Charles was accused of killing in 1992. After a brief game of phone tag, I caught up with her two days before Christmas.
Linda McClain: Yeah, I was just surprised to hear from you.
Liliana Segura: I was surprised to hear from you on Twitter! [laughs]
Linda McClain: Well, I couldn’t figure out any other way to do it, so I thought, “Well, Twitter, surely somebody will get a message, or I can reach somebody on this Twitter.” But, yeah. Did you have a question?
Liliana Segura: Yeah — well, I was curious how you thought to contact me about Mr. Raby.
Linda McClain: Well, every time something happens with Charles Raby, I’m notified, as a victim, because my mother was murdered by Charles Raby.
Jordan Smith: That’s how she got our names. She wanted to know if we had an agenda.
Linda McClain: I’m assuming in case you’re out there blabbering all over the world, “Oh, this man is innocent. He didn’t do it. He’s innocent. Oh my goodness.” That’s what makes me mad, is these Innocence Project people. They don’t go and find out the other story. And do they even read the transcripts and the confessions and the witnesses? I don’t know.
Liliana Segura: From The Intercept, I’m Liliana Segura.
Jordan Smith: And I’m Jordan Smith. Welcome back to Murderville, Texas. Episode 3, “The Trial.”
Liliana Segura: We’re going to talk more about Linda McClain. We got to know her pretty well. She had a lot to say from the start. Above all: She wanted to make clear that she did not believe Charles Raby was innocent. This was based on his confession, of course, but also her own experiences with Charles and what happened when he was tried for her mother’s murder.
Jordan Smith: Before we get to the details of Charles’s trial, we need to talk a bit about a pretrial hearing that took place in May 1994. It was all about Charles’s confession and whether it should be allowed as evidence against him. This is known as a suppression hearing. The defense tries to convince a judge that certain evidence should be tossed out. When it comes to a confession, the argument is often that the defendant recanted, saying it was made up or coerced by cops. What happened at Charles’s suppression hearing makes his confession all the more vexing.
Charles was represented by an attorney named Felix Cantu. During the hearing, Cantu argued that Charles’s confession had been coerced — that the cops had threatened to arrest his girlfriend, Merry Alice Gomez, and take her baby away, and that’s what had prompted Charles to confess.
Liliana Segura: The state, represented by Harris County Assistant District Attorney Roberto Gutierrez, said this was nonsense. Remember how the cops said they’d given Charles coffee, a Coke, and a burger? They emphasized this to show that there was no coercion whatsoever. And they adamantly denied making any threats, even veiled ones, that they’d arrest Merry Alice. But then, Charles got on the stand.
We brought on actors to read from the court transcripts. Here’s what happened next.
Roberto Gutierrez (Actor): You do agree that nobody mistreated you?
Charles Raby (Actor): No.
Roberto Gutierrez (Actor): And nobody mistreated Ms. Gomez?
Charles Raby (Actor): No.
Roberto Gutierrez (Actor): Your only concern is that she was being inconvenienced some and you were just concerned about her?
Charles Raby (Actor): Yeah.
Roberto Gutierrez (Actor): OK. Well, would you agree with me, Mr. Raby, there was nothing really about that that would have made your signing a confession involuntary?
Charles Raby (Actor): Well, I didn’t want her to go to jail.
Jordan Smith: Gutierrez reiterated that nobody had explicitly threatened to throw Merry Alice in jail. Charles agreed.
Roberto Gutierrez (Actor): In terms of you giving that confession, you were giving that confession because you wanted to come straight with Sgt. Allen?
Charles Raby (Actor): Yeah. And I wanted her to go home. The quicker I got that over with, the quicker she could get out of there.
Liliana Segura: Gutierrez tried to steer the conversation away from Merry Alice: Wasn’t it true that Charles was going to turn himself in anyway, and give a full confession?
Charles said he didn’t know, just that he was going to say whatever he needed to convince them he hadn’t done it.
Roberto Gutierrez (Actor): You’re not telling the judge that the only reason you signed the confession was because you wanted to get her out of there? You signed it because you did it voluntarily, and because it’s true, right?
Jordan Smith: OK. Here’s where you’d think that Charles would say “no.” He would deny the confession was true and reiterate his concern about Merry Alice. But instead, he said this:
Charles Raby (Actor): Because it’s true and, you know, well, he didn’t force me to do it, but I wanted her to go home. I didn’t feel that it was right for her to be there.
Liliana Segura: Now, when I first read this, I was like: What? “Because it’s true?” Did he just admit that the confession had been true all along?
Jordan Smith: Yeah, I really didn’t know what to think. Charles’s whole defense at this point is that the confession was coerced. So, you know, it would’ve been the perfect moment for his lawyer, Cantu, to ask Charles a few questions to clear everything up.
Liliana Segura: But that didn’t happen. Instead, moments after his client appeared to double down on his confession, Cantu asked a convoluted question about what time it was when Charles gave his statement — and that was it.
Jordan Smith: Even in the very best of scenarios, it is super hard for the defense to win a suppression hearing. With Charles’s disastrous turn on the witness stand, there was no way that the judge was going to toss his confession. It was definitely going to be admitted as evidence.
Roberto Gutierrez, the prosecutor who would try Charles for Edna Franklin’s murder, started his career as a journalist. He scored a big scoop when a man tried to break out of prison in Huntsville back in the 1970s. Gutierrez pivoted to the law and quickly proved himself a talented prosecutor. By the end of the ’80s, he’d secured several death sentences.
Liliana Segura: From the start of our reporting, we’ve been unable to reach Gutierrez. We tried various phone numbers and email addresses and sent a letter to an address we thought was his. We also tried looking for him on social media. Nothing.
In the handful of newspaper articles we found that mention Gutierrez, he comes across as a charismatic guy with a self-deprecating sense of humor. In 1991, he chased down a 19-year-old probation violator who was shot in the butt by a bailiff while trying to flee a courtroom. Gutierrez tackled the kid in a hallway and later quipped: “When I got up, everybody thought I got shot. Everybody seemed disappointed.”
Finally, through a public records request, we managed to get our hands on Gutierrez’s personnel file, which was illuminating — not only about him, but the Harris County DA’s office as a whole.
Jordan Smith: Throughout the ’90s, the office was aggressively seeking death sentences. The district attorney was a man named Johnny Holmes.
Maurice Chammah: He had a handlebar mustache. His office was decorated with sort of Old West paraphernalia. And in his office, a culture of seeking the death penalty really developed.
Jordan Smith: That’s Maurice Chammah. He’s a Texas journalist who wrote a book about the state’s death penalty system.
Maurice Chammah: I heard stories about prosecutors who called themselves the Silver Needle Society because they had sent men to death row. There was a rock band formed by prosecutors who in their free time would perform gigs under the name Death by Injection.
Jordan Smith: During this era, prosecutors were evaluated not only on how many convictions they secured, but also on how much prison time those defendants got.
Liliana Segura: Gutierrez consistently got high marks in his performance reviews. He was described as well-liked, hard-working, and willing to take on “tough” cases.
But he was also praised for things that don’t exactly sound like something to strive for if your goal is to do justice. One supervisor wrote: “Roberto will try any case regardless of the strength or weakness of evidence.” Another lauded him for winning a death sentence on a “thin case.”
Jordan Smith: Meanwhile, many of the lawyers representing defendants facing the death penalty were not up to the task. You know how you have a right to an attorney if you can’t afford one? Well, the majority of people facing the death penalty are poor and rely on court-appointed lawyers. Charles Raby was one of them.
Liliana Segura: At the time, there was no public defender office. There were just private attorneys appointed by the courts. A lot of them were unqualified to begin with. And to make matters worse, they were often denied the resources they needed to represent their clients, like funding for investigators and expert witnesses. Meaning, there was a huge power imbalance. The state had attorneys who were trained for this job, and they had full budgets for these cases.
Jordan Smith: Here’s Jim Marcus. He is a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s worked on death penalty cases for decades. He was just starting his legal career in Houston when all of this was going on.
Jim Marcus: That’s the era, that’s when Mr. Raby was sentenced to death, and so he was fed into this system which was characterized by — plagued by, really — rampant ineffectiveness. Many, many, many people were sent through the system with inadequate counsel.
Liliana Segura: In theory, those defendants would have a chance to challenge their convictions by arguing that their trial lawyers were ineffective. But more often than not, those efforts went nowhere. That’s eventually what would happen in Charles’s case. His challenge was denied by the courts.
Jordan Smith: It’s June 6, 1994. The 248th District Court in Harris County, Texas. Judge Woody Densen presiding over the capital murder trial of Charles Raby. The state would be seeking the death penalty.
Liliana Segura: Charles was seated towards the front of the courtroom. He wore a white-striped shirt with a blue and red tie. Several of Edna Franklin’s relatives were seated in the gallery.
Charles’s mother, Betty, attended the trial too. At 42, she was slight, with blond hair. Watching her son go on trial for his life was another trauma in a life already filled with trauma. Growing up, Betty had been sexually abused by her father. She married Charles’s dad, Charles Elvis Raby, after finishing 10th grade. But he abandoned her when Charles was just a baby.
Later, Betty was repeatedly hospitalized for mental illness. The first time, Charles had just turned 12. Child welfare removed him and his younger sister from their home. For Charles, it was the first of countless placements throughout the foster care system.
Jordan Smith: The trial did not get off to a good start — at least for the defense.
Liliana Segura: The first thing that happened? Cantu, Charles’s attorney, asked Judge Densen for the trial to be delayed. His co-counsel, a guy named Michael Fosher, was nowhere to be found.
Jordan Smith: This isn’t just a minor wrinkle. In death penalty trials, it is standard practice to have two attorneys representing a defendant: first and second chair. Fosher was the second chair, which means Cantu was the lead guy. So you’d think he’d know where his co-counsel was. But Cantu told the judge that he hadn’t heard from him. At this point, Gutierrez piped up helpfully. “I spoke to him yesterday, Judge. I talked with co-counsel at his home.”
Gutierrez said that Fosher had a ruptured disc and was in a lot of pain and had been given medication. As Gutierrez recalled, Fosher said he was going to see his doctor that morning and then would “try to make it to court.”
The judge seemed unfazed by this. “OK. Anything further?” he asked, before starting the trial. It was a sign of the way things would go.
Liliana Segura: In his opening argument to the jury, Gutierrez laid out the state’s case. He contended that Charles had killed Edna Franklin because he was pissed that she didn’t want him coming over to her house.
Remember, the police had specifically argued that if they could get blood from Charles, they’d be able to get his DNA and link it to the crime. But Gutierrez told the jury, “There is no DNA” in this case. In fact, there was no physical evidence tying Charles to the crime. And while the confession was their main evidence, Gutierrez acknowledged that even that was pretty weak.
Charles never mentioned that he’d sexually assaulted Edna Franklin, Gutierrez said. Or had any intention to rob her or burglarize the house. This was an important admission. In order for a murder to be eligible for the death penalty, it has to be murder plus something. So, murder plus rape or murder plus robbery. It’s called an aggravator. And it’s what is supposed to turn a regular murder into one so heinous the state can kill you for it.
Jordan Smith: As Gutierrez continued, he basically gave the jury permission to decide that one of three aggravators existed — rape, robbery, or burglary — but without having any direct evidence that any of them took place. And they didn’t have to agree on which of these things happened.
One of the first witnesses for the state was 25-year-old Eric Benge, Franklin’s grandson, who found her on the night of the murder. Eric talked about why his grandmother didn’t like Charles, which you would expect. But he didn’t stop there.
Gutierrez had him describe the house, from room to room, essentially asking him to analyze the crime scene. This is the kind of testimony that you usually get from a cop or a crime scene investigator, not from a victim’s relative.
There’s at least one problem with this. According to the confession, Charles came into the house through the front door.
Liliana Segura: Gutierrez asked Eric to tell the jury about the “point of entry.” He had Eric hold up a picture taken of his bedroom on the night of the murder and asked him:
Roberto Gutierrez (Actor): Is there anything particular about the bed?
Eric Benge (Actor): Yes. You can see where he climbed through the window.
Liliana Segura: Eric replied.
Eric Benge (Actor): It looks like there are two footprints on the bed.
Liliana Segura: Gutierrez asked him to mark the photo and show the jury where these “indentations” were. For the record, Eric was not actually qualified to say one way or another whether anyone had stepped on the bed. In the crime scene photos, there’s nothing that resembles a footprint; it’s just a rumpled sheet. Later, an actual expert, called by the state, would testify that there were no footprints found on the bed.
In any event, Gutierrez tried to bolster Eric’s testimony with some unusual circumstantial evidence: marijuana. According to Eric, he smoked pot regularly. And everybody knew this. What’s more, everyone knew where he kept it. So on the night of the murder, Eric went to look for his pot — and he found it right in its place.
There was only one person who didn’t know where Eric kept his pot. That was Charles Raby.
Jordan Smith: OK, hold up. Eric is basically saying that whoever killed his grandmother would’ve stolen his pot, if they’d known where it was. And since it wasn’t stolen, only one person he knew could’ve been responsible: Charles.
We’re not sure what this is supposed to tell the jury. But it’s bizarre. And rather shocking that the prosecution would’ve brought this in. Even more shocking? Charles’s lawyers didn’t object to any of this — not the window, the sheets, or the pot.
Even more important, they didn’t do anything to address the glaring holes in the state’s case: the total lack of physical evidence linking their client to the crime. The state called a series of experts to explain away the lack of forensic evidence pointing to Charles.
Liliana Segura: But first there was Dr. Eduardo Bellas, the medical examiner who did Franklin’s autopsy. He described Franklin’s injuries in painful detail. Eight of her ribs had been broken in the struggle with her attacker, he said. He found defensive wounds to her arms, signs that she’d fought back. Ultimately, she was stabbed five times — including twice through the heart — and slashed across the neck, deep enough to sever her windpipe. All of these wounds could’ve been made with just a small pocket knife, Bellas said — like the one Charles carried. Bellas also examined Franklin for signs of sexual assault but found none. But that didn’t mean it didn’t happen, he told the jury.
An examiner from the Houston Police Department crime lab testified about underwear found next to Franklin — underwear the state assumed she’d been wearing that night. This witness concluded it had been forcibly ripped apart.
Another crime lab analyst testified that hairs found clutched in Franklin’s hand belonged to Eric Benge, not Charles. Gutierrez suggested that since Eric lived there, it wasn’t weird that his hair would be on the carpet or that some of it would have wound up in Franklin’s hand when she fell to the floor during the attack.
Jordan Smith: There was a fingerprint examiner who said he found nothing at all at the house: no bloody fingerprints or shoe prints anywhere. He gave the jurors several reasons why he found no prints. One of the most absurd was that the wind could’ve blown them away. For the record, that’s not a thing.
And then there was Joseph Chu, another HPD crime lab analyst. He typed Charles’s blood — he has Type O blood — and then compared it to blood evidence found at the scene. His testimony was brief, but really important. Particularly the following exchange, in which he was questioned by Cantu. Actors will read it for you.
Felix Cantu (Actor): And your conclusions from that analysis?
Joseph Chu (Actor): From the evidence, it is inconclusive test results, so I cannot do any comparison.
Felix Cantu (Actor): So it was inconclusive results?
Joseph Chu (Actor): Yes, you can say that.
Jordan Smith: He said it was inconclusive. Remember that.
Liliana Segura: Aside from a few other witnesses — the cops who arrested Charles, the people who said they saw him around the day of the murder — there wasn’t much else to the state’s case.
Except the confession, which Gutierrez read to the jury. The state rested its case and turned it over to the defense.
You might expect Charles’s lawyers to have called their own experts — like, maybe a pathologist to challenge the medical examiner’s claim that even the smallest of knives could have caused Franklin’s wounds, or Merry Alice to describe what happened at the police station. But instead, they called no witnesses and said they too would just rest.
Then it was time for closing arguments. Co-counsel Michael Fosher — the lawyer who was MIA at the start of the trial — spoke first. An actor will portray him.
Michael Fosher (Actor): First of all, I would like to apologize for the way I look.
Jordan Smith: He explained that several months earlier, he’d fallen and hurt his ribs. He’d been dealing with medical problems ever since. The weekend before the trial was especially tough, he said. So he’d been given a kind of neck brace.
Michael Fosher (Actor): Which is very uncomfortable, very hot, and makes me sweat.
Jordan Smith: Fosher emphasized that there was no evidence to back up the aggravators alleged by the state.
Michael Fosher (Actor): They haven’t proven the burglary, they haven’t proven the robbery, they haven’t proven the aggravated sexual assault.
Jordan Smith: It was clearly a gruesome crime, he conceded, but —
Michael Fosher (Actor): I’m telling you, you just can’t assume that a person has committed a crime without valid proof.
Jordan Smith: Then Fosher did something astonishing. He conceded Charles’s guilt.
Michael Fosher (Actor): The state has proved there was a killing. They have proved that Mr. Raby committed this killing.
Jordan Smith: Reading the transcript, it just comes out of nowhere. And it’s really surreal and a crappy strategy. He’s saying, look, my guy killed someone, but it was just a regular murder. Not a death-eligible one. So, convict him, but don’t kill him.
When I read all this, I was like, O-M-F-G, what is happening? That’s literally what I wrote in my notes.
Liliana Segura: I had a similar reaction. The state really hadn’t proven their case. Yet Fosher is telling the jury that his client killed Edna Franklin — before they’ve even gone back to deliberate.
Then, when Cantu took over, he basically made the state’s case for them. Instead of reiterating that there was no physical evidence tying Charles to the crime, he seemed to get carried away, pointing out just how gruesome it all was.
Cantu took off his jacket and started vividly illustrating the many wounds Franklin suffered. “It indicates the level of intensity, the level of just the madness, and the craziness of that moment for somebody to stab another person,” he said.
Jordan Smith: It should come as no surprise that the jury quickly convicted Charles of murder. What was left to decide was whether he would be sentenced to life or death. That would happen after another mini-trial, what’s known as a punishment hearing.
Liliana Segura: In a death penalty case, one of the most important things a defense team is supposed to do, in advance of a sentencing hearing, is a deep dive on their client’s early life — to uncover any potential abuse, neglect, or trauma. This is called mitigation: developing evidence that explains how a person ended up on the wrong path, which can be used to persuade a jury to spare their life. It’s extremely sensitive and time-consuming work, best done by an expert known as a mitigation specialist. But there was no such expert on Charles’s team.
Instead, the defense called an array of relatives and other witnesses who seemed to bolster the state’s case, like Robert Butler, Charles’s former stepfather.
Charles lived with him on and off from the time he was 4 years old. According to court and child welfare records, Butler routinely beat Charles with a belt. Once, he forced Charles to eat a pencil — because he caught him chewing on its eraser.
Another time, he made Charles wear a brick around his neck for a week as punishment for breaking a lawnmower.
But on the stand, Butler downplayed his treatment of Charles. He conceded that he gave Charles “a little whipping” on two occasions but blamed Charles, saying he just refused to behave.
Jordan Smith: Charles’s mom, Betty, also took the stand. While she briefly mentioned the brick and pencil incidents, Cantu failed to elicit testimony that would have put these events into context. They were part of a much longer history of abuse and neglect that the jury never got to hear.
The picture they were left with was that Charles was just incorrigible, and that everything that happened in his life was basically his fault. And it was no match for what happened when the state’s witnesses took the stand.
Liliana Segura: Gutierrez presented an overwhelming series of friends, neighbors, jailers, and just about anyone who could cast Charles in a violent light. Most damaging among them: Charles’s ex-girlfriend, Karianne Wright. Her testimony was devastating, truly excruciating to read.
They’d met when Karianne was just 13; Charles was 15. She described him as charming at first. But then, after she got pregnant with his kid, he’d turned mean — volatile. She described physical beatings of her and of other people, and numerous instances of rape.
There’s no question Charles was violent toward Karianne. He’s told us as much.
Jordan Smith: You know, she basically tells a giant, long tale of horrific abuse —
Charles Raby: Yeah, yeah.
Jordan Smith: — at your hands.
Charles Raby: Right.
Jordan Smith: And can you explain all that?
Charles Raby: Back then, I felt I was justified. And I did, I did beat her up. I beat her up twice. But I didn’t beat her with my fists. I smacked her around, but I never hit her with my fist.
Liliana Segura: On the stand, Karianne depicted the abuse as far, far worse: just relentless beatings, which seemed to escalate dramatically over time. There’s no way to know the truth of exactly what happened between them, and you’ll hear more from Karianne later. But it makes sense that she would describe this on the stand: That’s the kind of testimony you expect at a punishment hearing. Still, at times her testimony veered into speculation about whether Charles would pose a danger to society going forward.
Jordan Smith: This is another important aspect to Texas death penalty cases. The idea is that if you’re so dangerous that you would pose a threat to society, even to the community inside prison, then there’s nothing that can be done but execute you. Frankly, it’s pseudoscience at best. But it’s been in Texas law for decades. And prosecutors often bring this kind of stuff out at trial, usually through expert testimony.
For what it’s worth, Karianne is not an expert. Yet she said things like, Charles “lives and breathes” violence and knows “nothing more.” That everyone would be safer without him. Did she think he could be rehabilitated, Gutierrez asked. No chance, she said.
We were surprised the defense didn’t object to the testimony. Instead, when his turn came to push back against this picture of Charles as an ongoing danger to society, Cantu again seemed to do the state’s work for them — by calling a notorious Texas psychologist named Walter Quijano. He’s one of a handful of self-proclaimed experts in so-called future dangerousness.
If you know Quijano’s name at all, it’s probably because of his quack theory: that being Black makes you more likely to be violent in the future. He peddled that crap in at least six capital cases in Texas.
Liliana Segura: Typically Quijano would be called as a witness by the state. But in Charles’s case, he was called by the defense. And by the end of his testimony, Quijano had concluded that Charles was a psychopath who would always be a threat. On cross-examination, Gutierrez asked, well, if that’s the case, wouldn’t sentencing him to death be the best way to deal with it? “That would do the work,” Quijano replied.
On June 17, 1994, Charles was sentenced to die.
Liliana Segura: Do you remember when the verdict came down?
Charles Raby: Yeah.
Liliana Segura: What was that like?
Charles Raby: It sucked something out of me. I mean, I knew they was going to find me guilty from the start. But it was a hard thing, especially knowing my mom’s sitting back there, you know.
Liliana Segura: We wanted to talk to as many people involved in the trial as possible — the judge, prosecutor, defense attorneys, and jurors. We spent a lot of time tracking the jurors down on our trips to Houston. None agreed to meet us in person.
One guy shared some thoughts in an email, saying that no one disputed that Charles had confessed, and if there was any evidence of innocence, the jury never heard it. A couple more people agreed to talk to us on the phone.
Jada Lancaster Wiley: That is certainly something I’ll never forget. That was a very disturbing and emotional jury that I sat on. That was a very hard decision to make, concerning Mr. Raby — my thought was, who died and made me God to judge this man’s life?
Jordan Smith: This is Jada Lancaster Wiley. The way she described it, the jury was unanimous in its decision that Charles was guilty. But exactly what he was guilty of was a different question.
Jada Lancaster Wiley: I thought it was murder-rape.
Jordan Smith: What was it that convinced you about that? Do you remember?
Jada Lancaster Wiley: The way her clothes were taken off.
Jordan Smith: But not everyone agreed it was rape. And one guy, he couldn’t decide if there even was an aggravator.
Jada Lancaster Wiley: He had a really hard time debating whether it was a capital murder charge or a lesser charge. He had a hard time with that.
Jordan Smith: Another juror, who did not want his name used, said that it was a traumatizing experience.
Anonymous Juror: I can tell you that ever since that trial, I would never again in my life convict someone of murder. I don’t think that is my job in life. That’s God’s decision. I did it because we “followed the law,” and that’s what the law told us to do, but if I was ever confronted with something like that again, I would have to tell the judge and everyone that I can’t do that ever again in my life. It haunted me for a long time that I decided that that guy was supposed to die.
Jordan Smith: We were also curious about what the judge, Woody Densen, would remember about the case. Densen served as a judge from 1983 to 1995. The press on him that we could find wasn’t exactly flattering.
Liliana Segura: Densen’s most recent claim to fame was having been caught on a surveillance camera keying his neighbor’s Range Rover because he thought it was blocking the sidewalk. He denied it but eventually pleaded guilty to criminal mischief. One local attorney summed up Densen for the Houston Press: “In almost 30 years of doing criminal-defense law, if ever there was such a thing as a four-man judicial bobsled team from hell, he’d be riding point.”
Densen died in 2020. When we reached out to him in 2019, we weren’t optimistic that he would want to talk to us.
Woody Densen: Hello?
Liliana Segura: Hi, is this Judge Densen? Hello?
[Phone hangs up]
Liliana Segura: That was totally him. It was definitely.
Jordan Smith: That was definitely him.
Liliana Segura: All right, let me call back.
Jordan Smith: OK.
Woody Densen: Hello.
Liliana Segura: Hi, sorry, I think we might’ve gotten cut off. I was looking for Woody Densen.
Woody Densen: This is he.
Liliana Segura: Oh, hi. My name is Liliana Segura, I’m a reporter. And I was hoping — I’ve been trying to get in touch with you.
Liliana Segura: We told him we had questions about Charles’s case.
Woody Densen: What’s the name of the case?
Liliana Segura: The defendant was Charles Raby.
Woody Densen: Oh, Lavie. Hold on, just a second. Paul Lavie, that’s the — hello?
Liliana Segura: No. It was, sorry, Charles Raby. Raby with an R.
Woody Densen: Oh, I think Rapier is his name. Are you talking about Rapier?
Liliana Segura: No, it’s R-A-B-Y was the last name, so it’s —
Woody Densen: That doesn’t really ring a bell.
Liliana Segura: This went on for a while. It might seem weird that a judge wouldn’t remember a death penalty case that he presided over. Sending someone to death row is obviously a pretty heavy burden. But Densen is not the only judge we’ve spoken to who didn’t remember a particular capital case. And given how many people were being sentenced to death in this era, it’s not all that surprising.
Densen asked us who Charles’s lawyers were. We told him it was Felix Cantu and Michael Fosher.
Woody Densen: Michael Fischer?
Liliana Segura: Fosher, with an O, or Fosher. I’m not sure how to pronounce it.
Woody Densen: Oh, how do you spell the last name, O what?
Liliana Segura: Fosher is F, as in Frank, O-S-H-E-R.
Woody Densen: Well, I remember Felix. The last name of this other lawyer is named Oscar, O-S-C-A-R, right?
Liliana Segura: No, no. Fosher, with an F.
Woody Densen: Well, that one I do not recall.
Liliana Segura: And then, Densen insisted he wasn’t the judge who presided over Charles’s trial.
Woody Densen: Maybe another lawyer tried, another judge tried it. It’s possible that — I can’t imagine the kind of thing — maybe I went on vacation or something, and it was tried by court.
Liliana Segura: The record shows that you were the judge, so that’s why— otherwise, I wouldn’t know to get to in touch with you.
Woody Densen: Well, no, no, I can appreciate it. My name’s there. But I just don’t remember one with Felix Cantu being on it and this other guy, Oscar, doesn’t ring a bell at all.
Liliana Segura: We thought it best to end the call.
Woody Densen: OK, well, take care.
Liliana Segura: Take care. Bye-bye.
Woody Densen: Bye-bye.
Jordan Smith: Halfway through that conversation, I was like, “Maybe he wasn’t the judge. He seems so certain he wasn’t the judge.”
Liliana Segura: We also tried to reach Michael Fosher, Charles’s second chair lawyer, but he didn’t want to talk to us. Most of all, we wanted to talk to Felix Cantu. We wanted to know why he made the decisions he made at trial. As it turned out, that’s the one thing he didn’t want to talk to us about.
Felix Cantu: I’m going to limit it to what occurred and not what I did or didn’t do.
Jordan Smith: Cantu said he couldn’t meet up while we were in Houston because he was dealing with an emergency.
Felix Cantu: It’s actually the plumbing in my house.
Liliana Segura: Oh, God! Yeah.
Felix Cantu: Yeah. You know plumbing is serious, a problem, so that’s what I’ve got.
Jordan Smith: We made a tentative plan to meet up the next time we were in town. But apparently, he was still having plumbing problems. After that, we left a bunch of messages for him.
Finally, in February 2020, we decided to track him down. We went to his house in a leafy neighborhood on Houston’s west side. We knocked on his door, but no one answered. So we left a note in his mailbox. Nothing.
In early March, we went back. And wrote him another note.
Liliana Segura: It totally looks like maybe they’re just not here.
Jordan Smith: That is too bad.
Jordan Smith: Still nothing. At this point, it was becoming clear that the pandemic was a big deal. And we might not be able to come back to Houston for a while. We decided to give it one more shot.
Liliana Segura: Somebody is definitely there.
Jordan Smith: Yeah.
Liliana Segura: I see them.
Jordan Smith: You do?
Liliana Segura: I see someone through the glass.
Jordan Smith: Oh, here he comes.
Liliana Segura: Hi.
Jordan Smith: Hi.
Liliana Segura: How are you?
Chris: Hi, I’m Chris.
Liliana Segura: Chris?
Jordan Smith: We were looking for Felix.
Chris: Oh, he’s out. He’ll be back about 20 minutes. He went to the store.
Jordan Smith: We decided to wait around. There was only one way onto his street so we’d see him when he returned. We parked the car down the block and watched. No Cantu.
But then, suddenly, a man emerged from the house and checked the mailbox. He looked up and down the road. It was Cantu. He’d been inside the house the whole time — dodging us.
Liliana Seugra: Oh, my god.
Jordan Smith: This is just maddening.
Liliana Segura: Completely maddening.
Jordan Smith: Knock again?
Liliana Segura: Yeah.
Liliana Segura: This is the strangest game of cat and mouse I’ve ever —
Jordan Smith: Felix!
Liliana Segura: Are you Felix?
Felix Cantu: Yes.
Liliana Segura: Hi.
Jordan Smith: Hi! It’s Jordan and Liliana.
Liliana Segura: How are you?
Jordan Smith: How are you?
Felix Cantu: Why are you?
Jordan Smith: What?
Felix Cantu: Why are you here?
Jordan Smith: Well, because we’ve been trying to get in touch with you, and you said you would meet with us, and then you never got back with us, and we’ve been trying to get in touch with you.
Felix Cantu: So you just decided just to come by?
Liliana Segura: Yeah.
Felix Cantu: Uninvited?
Jordan Smith: Sorta.
Felix Cantu: No, no, not sort of.
Jordan Smith: Well, I mean, you said you’d meet with us, and then you kind of blew us off.
Felix Cantu: But that doesn’t mean that you’re invited today, at this hour. Well, come on in.
Liliana Segura: Oh, well, thank you. Thank you. I’m sorry, it’s not our preference to show up uninvited.
Jordan Smith: It’s not our preference to dive bomb.
Felix Cantu: I don’t believe that one. So y’all don’t read much into non-calls, huh?
Jordan Smith: Well, no, I mean, we prefer it if someone’s going to tell us to go away, that they just literally tell us to go away.
Felix Cantu: I wouldn’t be that rude. Go sit down.
Liliana Segura: He led us to his home office. The phone on his desk rang a couple times as we talked. To be honest, after all of our anticipation and our stakeout, the conversation we had with Cantu was just a letdown. It’s not just that he didn’t want to discuss the trial — he genuinely didn’t remember most of it.
Felix Cantu: I mean, you’re going to ask me to remember a lot of things about a case, and I’m not going to. I’m not going to remember. Not that I don’t want to tell you, it’s just I just will not remember.
Liliana Segura: One thing that did come through: From the start, the odds were stacked against him.
Jordan Smith: Were you nervous about doing a capital case? I mean, you said you’d done, what, one before?
Felix Cantu: Yeah. No, not really. Not really. The only thing that I was bothered by is if the state wants to go to trial, that’s usually pretty, well, a done deal for them. How many do they lose? Maybe one out of a thousand. Maybe.
Liliana Segura: As we talked with Cantu, a couple things became pretty clear. One: He really liked Charles and felt sorry for him. More importantly, though, we also got the feeling that Cantu thought Charles was guilty and that Charles’s confession had something to do with that.
Felix Cantu: What he says now is not what he said then. That’s all I can say. Which one is true? I can’t tell you that. This is what I do say: I hope that he gets off the death penalty, the death row, and I wish him the best, and I hope I live long enough to see him walking the streets of Houston, Texas. We’ll go have a Coke together. That’d be nice.
Liliana Segura: Needless to say, Linda McClain, Edna Franklin’s daughter, doesn’t have the same warm feeling about Charles that Cantu does.
But it seems they may have one thing in common. Regardless of what Charles says now, neither of them can get past his confession.
Linda McClain: I mean, who’s going to confess to murdering a 72-year-old woman with arthritis? Who’s going to confess to that? Because they have a girl in the other room with a baby. Are you really gonna do that? Oh, and then guess what: It’s going to be capital murder. Ooh, do you know what that means? That means you’re gonna be eligible for the death penalty. Do you still want to confess to this? Uh, I wouldn’t have at all. I would have ran screaming from the room.
Jordan Smith: Next time on Murderville, Texas: “Confessions.”
Jeff Kukucka: I find it very hard to believe that he remembers the old Volkswagen in the driveway but doesn’t remember what he did with the knife. It just — it doesn’t add up. There is little doubt in my mind that something happened in there that we don’t know about.
Mike Giglio: “Did I do it? Could I do it?” He wasn’t even 100 percent sure.
Charles Raby: Everywhere I’d go, they said, “That’s him. The granny killer.” That’s what the one cop called me, a granny killer. And that’s when I started getting like more frustrated and angry, starting just hating everything and everyone at that point.
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 on this episode by Vincent Thomas, Jake McCready, Beau Davidson, Luis Bermudez, Tommy Donoghue, and Bill Celler.
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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Thanks, so much, for listening.