Johanna and I have had an extensive exchange regarding my wrongfully conviction. We discussed my youth, family, the incident but also the period I waited for the trial, the witnesses and the autopsy report. Also the trial and the period after my conviction were discussed. Below you will find the result of this exchange. I hope it gives you an insight how it happened that I was convicted and why I take all necessary steps to prove my innocence and get my case reopened. I give special thanks to Brigitte for her expert support.
Can you introduce yourself and your family? My name is Derrick L. Griffin. I was born 6th February 1971 to my mother Juanita Griffin and my biological father Gregory Smith. My mother had separated briefly from my stepfather – Thermon Griffin Sr.- and that is how I came into the picture. My stepfather and my mother conceived my oldest half-sister Tamika, a year previously. Tamika is their only biological child together. Chaka was born in 1977 also outside their relationship and then there was our baby “brother” Thermon Jr. who came in the house after he was abandoned by his drug addicted mother and who was conceived by my stepfather but with another woman. My biological father Gregory Smith conceived two sons prior to me: Keith Gardner was born in 1965 and our brother was born in Germany during my father’s time in the army. After my birth Jabbar Spikes, Nikkie Philips, Chassidy and Trina Smith followed. I did not meet any of these children of my biological father until I became an adult. Out of this entire group of children, only two (Chassidy and Trina) had the same mother and father. So you get the idea, everything started out dysfunctional. At the moment of the incident I did not live with or at my mother’s house. On occasion when Theresa Williams (the mother of two of my children) and I had a serious enough disagreement, I would leave and stay a couple of days at my mother’s house.
Derrick, you said that your family was dysfunctional? How come? My entire family was dysfunctional. Infidelity was as normal as breathing. Abuse followed. My biological father openly denied me as a child, that alone instilled in me a great deal of misunderstood (then) anger. As a child I felt lost. I cannot say that for Chaka because I do not know anything about her relationship with her biological father. Our stepfather consistently verbally abused Tamika and myself. Being told ‘we were not going to be shit’ was normal. His words crumbled Tamika. I got the verbal abuse, and being beaten bloody was my reality for years. Chaka received the verbal abuse as well. Our mother screamed at all of us. Thermon Jr. was the only child that did not get abused by my mother and his biological father (my stepfather). However, as I said before, he was a child of a drug addicted mother who abandoned him as a child. I would be so bold to say we all needed a personal therapist.
How would you describe what kind of person Chaka was, what was her character like (and if possible can you give some examples?) Chaka had a wonderful personality, she did not take any crap from anyone. I can’t count the time she, Tamika and I joked around for hours. Her friends loved her because she was definitely a loyal friend. She would give her very last to help anyone but she would also knock the hell out of a friend over a disagreement. I have seen her knock a few girls on their butts. She did not always win fights, she lost some and would readily come to me for protection. I can’t count all the confrontations I had because of all my siblings.
You are convicted for how long and how long have you been incarcerated? I was convicted 4th Augustus, 1995 and sentenced to 50 years and I have been incarcerated for now 26 years.
What were you convicted for? A first degree murder of my sister Chaka. To be charged and found guilty of first degree murder a person must, according to the penal code 19.02, knowingly and intentionally cause the death of an individual or commit an act clearly dangerous to human life.
Did you do it? No and I can prove that I did not commit the crime.
Did you and Chaka hate one another or was there some hidden animosity? No, we loved one another. There was never any hidden animosity with any of my siblings.
At the incident were there any weapons used? No, not on my part, but my sister Chaka used a butcher’s knife and cut me across the palm of my hand with it.
Tell us in your own words what happened on January 28, 1995? Theresa Williams (the mother of two of my children) and I shared a home together. On occasions, we had heated arguments and I would leave there and return to my mother’s house. After a couple of days I would usually return. I was also a drug dealer. After a night of partying one of my customers Preacher offered to take me to my mother’s house. He also wanted drugs on credit until the following morning. Once dropped off that night I entered my mother’s home. My mother let me in. Thermon Jr. was asleep in my mother’s bedroom, Chaka and her three year old daughter Shay were sound asleep in my old bedroom. Tamika had her own apartment so she was not there that night. I kicked my shoes off and fell asleep on the couch. That next morning around 09:00 I was awaken. Thermon Jr. and Shay were in our mother’s bedroom playing the Nintendo game and screaming at one another about whose turn it was to play the game. Tamika had arrived, and she and Chaka were in our very small kitchen. The girls were fixing Wanda Beck’s hair who was around Tamika’s age. Wanda was accompanied by her four year old daughter. Cords of curling irons, hair dryer and hair blower were all over the floor along with extension cords. My mother was gone. I wiped sleep out of my eyes and the phone started ringing. I looked at the caller’s I.D. and noticed that it was a girl I was also dating, but did not answer the phone. The screaming children got louder and I intervened: ‘stop arguing and get along!’ Chaka stormed out of the kitchen and past me and went inside the bedroom and cut the T.V./game off. She stormed out of the room and said ‘keep it off!’ Instantly Thermon Jr. started crying. That’s when I stated: ‘let them play the game. You all stop arguing and act like you got some sense!’ Thermon Jr. clicked back on the game. Thermon Jr. started playing which caused Shay to scream out ‘It’s my turn, T.J!’ Chaka shouted ‘What the hell did I tell you all to do?! Turn that damn game off! and Derrick you shut the fuck up and go home and run that fat bitches house!’ I stated: ‘What did I say?! Play the damn game and you shut up Chaka!’ Chaka stormed back inside the room and clicked off the game a second time, then scolded the children ‘What the fuck did I say?’ The children started right back crying as Chaka stormed out the bedroom and grabbed the phone. ‘He’s right here!’ She dropped the phone on the couch. ‘It’s Pam, you need to tell her how you’ve been cheating on her’. I grabbed the phone, mumbled a few words and Thermon Jr. cried out ‘Derrick! Can we play the game?!’ Both children continued crying. I stated: ‘Play the damn game, just stop arguing!’ Thermon Jr. clicked the game back on. Chaka screamed ‘You don’t run shit in this house!’ I shouted back ‘You don’t run shit either!’ I hung the phone up and stood up. Chaka instantly grabbed a butcher’s knife out the kitchen drawer and shouted ‘You bring your ass in this kitchen, I’m going to cut your ass up!’ Tamika giggled and churned ‘Don’t start!’ We both ignored Tamika. Upon seeing the knife Wanda Beck grabbed her daughter and got out of the way. Allow me to mention something very relevant here. About a few years before this incident happened Chaka and another old girlfriend Tina Moffett were at Wanda Beck’s residence. At some point a guy my age, Steve Burney, got into an argument with Chaka and Tina and as a result Steve slapped Tina. Chaka and Tina rushed to a payphone and called me for help. I ran from our house and met Chaka and Tina at the gas station and followed them back to Wanda Beck’s house where I met Steve. Steve and I had a physical confrontation where I did beat him badly and he cut me four times with a straight razor. Wanda Beck witnessed that confrontation. Strangely, when she testified at trial, she described what I had done to Steve as opposed to what happened with Chaka and myself. Now going back to the topic I will continue …
Upon seeing the knife in Chaka’s hand, my alarms naturally went off and I said ‘Chaka, put the knife down before someone gets hurt!’ She said ‘Fuck you! You come in here fucking with me, I’m going to cut your ass’. I entered the kitchen and reached for the knife and Chaka cut me across the hand. I rushed her and tripped over the cords that ran all over the floor and we fell with me on top of her, her back was on the floor. I don’t know where the knife went at that point. Tamika started screaming ‘Stop!’ I stopped, stood up, walked out the kitchen, paused by the couch and grabbed my things. Chaka was directly behind me screaming in my ear. ‘I’m calling the police on your mother-fucking-ass!’ As I grabbed my things, she dialed 911 and quickly got the dispatcher. As she followed me out of the house, she gave a description of what I was wearing and stated that I had drugs on me. As I stepped out of the house, Preacher pulled up. I got inside the car and she ran around the back of the vehicle and read off the license plate and gave the make, color and model of the car and driver. Preacher got scared. I stepped out of the car and Preacher drove off. I knew the police were coming and I had to get the drugs off my person. I turned the corner and apparently the call dropped because Chaka returned to the house. Once, I hid the drugs at my uncle’s house, my uncle Ronnie Smith and grandfather Travis Smith pulled up. I told them that Chaka and I had fell out and she had called the police. They decided to go to the house and check on Chaka. Then I told my late cousin Trina Smith, to take me to the city jail because Chaka filed a complaint. (For the record: if someone calls the police, when they arrive, the person that’s being complained about is going to jail for questioning and most likely charges will be filed. So I knew I was going to jail so I turned myself in).
Upon arrival I was booked and charged with some type of simple assault, it usually carries a hundred dollar fine. However, I was placed in a holding cell where I waited hours. Eventually I was relocated to another tank. It was then, once the doors shut, the two officers started reading me my Miranda rights and officially charged me with murder and that I discovered that Chaka had died. Once they were done, I found myself face down on the floor in tears of agony. I cried for what seemed like an eternity. I lost my sister and I was being charged with her murder. These were two very hard hitting blows that crumbled me mentally, physically and even spiritually. I was totally crushed. How could I face my loved ones, how could I explain this to Chaka’s daughter? What about our mother, Tamika, Thermon Jr.? What could I tell my kids? The pain blurred together as my screams consumed the entire jailhouse. I have never screamed like that in my entire life. That pain is still there, 26 years later.
According to Tamika, Chaka returned to our house and took a seat right next to her on the couch. She looked at her and fainted face first on the floor. Instead of calling the hospital for help Tamika, in her grief stricken state, ran out the house to our next door neighbor Ruth Powell who accompanied my hysterical sister back to the house and called for help. At that point two calls were made for help and no authorities had shown up. That’s when my late grandfather Travis Smith and Ronnie Smith, my uncle, arrived on the scene. Upon seeing Chaka on the floor unconscious, my grandfather got down and cuddled her head and started talking to her. She responded to his calls by looking directly at him. According to the Medical Records, the EMT’s arrived and started aggressive CPR. Once stabilized, she was rushed to Memorial Hospital where more CPR was administered. During this moment an attending nurse Brian Lewis was there. He would contact me in 2009 concerning my innocence. Chaka would eventually pass away. This is why the police had me in a holding cell, once she passed away, they officially charged me with murder.
That was when you were charged with murder? Yes.
Was your lawyer court appointed or retained? Retained.
So you bonded out of jail? After being charged, I was transferred to the much bigger county jail. A bond of $ 20.000 was set, which I would only have to pay $ 2.000 and be released until the day of my trial. I hired Tatum and Tatum Law Firm and that is how I got out of jail until my court date. I waited from around February to August for trial. I was charged before the autopsy was performed. My witness was Tamika. Wanda Beck was a witness for the State. It’s strange how two people witness the same event but see two different events. After the autopsy was complete, Dr. Bruce determined that Chaka died of Blunt Force Trauma associated with Severe Edema. During trial (1995) he would also state Severe Malignant Edema as the cause of death. However in 1995 none of my lawyers ever mentioned anything about the Memorial Hospital’s death findings at all. The D.A. and his team never mentioned it either. But in 2009 the attending nurse at the Memorial Hospital when Chaka was brought in, Brian Lewis contacted me and told me that the true cause of death was Cardio Vascular Arrest. Once we retained the records I discovered it to be a fact. To note: in my 2012 Evidentiary Hearing the same Dr. Bruce changed his death findings to the heart event was caused by Blunt Force Trauma and conveniently dropped Severe Edema and Malignant Edema as the cause.
Waiting for the trial, witnesses and the autopsy report
There were several rumors floating around concerning some very disturbing things, would you care explaining some of the things said? Yeah, there were several rumors floating. The first was that I beat my sister to death with a baseball bat. That same lie was also in the local newspaper. I never beat her and there was never any instrument, bat or weapon involved on my part during the argument. The second rumor was I came home high on ‘PCP’, ‘water’ or ‘Amp’ as some call it. (It’s a cigarette or weed cigarette dipped in the liquid and smoked. It’s believed that smoking it will cause a person to temporarily lose their mind). Fortunately I never smoked ‘PCP’. In fact, I had just woken up from bed when the incident happened. I did not have time to smoke anything whatsoever. My drug of choice in those days was pot and pot alone. I was not high on anything at all.
What was it like being out of jail, waiting for the trial and facing all those rumors? Tough. The rumor I had to live down was the baseball bat lie. People read that in the paper and figured it was true, so I had a few death threats. No one came to me with those threats, they told those things to family members. I wanted to attend Chaka’s funeral but my mother disagreed, so I did not attend. I waited until she was buried. I went to the grave site and talked to her in tears. I told her I loved her and right before leaving I grabbed an old stick and scribbled these words on the grave: I will always love you. That did not make anything better. The loss of Chaka haunts me. In my daily travels I could not get her off my mind. I tried to drown out my pain with tons and tons of pot smoke – that did not work at all. I would go days without sleeping, I would just lay there thinking about Chaka. My mother commented about my mental state at trial, she stated: ‘Derrick isn’t right, he’s hurt and he needs some help not prison. I can see it’.
Did you beat Chaka? No, absolutely not. I simply loved her way too much. We had our highs and lows but there’s no way I did what the D.A. accused me of doing.
What exactly are they saying you did to cause murder? Beat her so severely that it caused ‘Blunt Force Trauma and Severe Brain Swelling’. Wanda Beck – the State’s only eye witness – claimed that she witnessed a severe beating. For instance: she states: ‘he beat her like a man would beat another man. He hit her with hard body blows…, he pushed her head into a door facing and he sat on top of her and beat her’. At the time I was a 225 pound man, Chaka was around 160 or 180. She was also light skinned, so if she endured a beating like Wanda Beck claims she saw, the evidence would be all over the body. I have the autopsy report (and the report is included – see page 2 Evidence of Injury is as follows). The only injuries to Chaka’s body were a few scratches on the left side of her face and a contusion on her forehead.
The contusion on her forehead, how did she get that injury? The contusion must have happened when she collapsed face first on the floor after I was gone. I am assuming that they coached Wanda Beck into stating: ‘He pushed her after she got up off the floor into a door frame or facing’. Neither is true as Tamika stated: ‘That’s not true because there’s no door or door facing right there leading to that bedroom’. Further, I got up first and headed directly out of the house with her right behind me. There was never a push into anything. Further, Dr. Bruce was questioned about any such injury. According to his findings there were no straight line injuries as a result of a doorframe.
Why would Wanda Beck say all those things about what happened? I have no explanation for that but I have my assumptions. As of recently Wanda was employed with one of my younger sisters and this sister heard Wanda confess that she is mentally ill.
Does the autopsy report back up anything Wanda Beck claims? According to Wanda Beck I hit Chaka with a lot of hard punches to the face and to her body as well as shoving her into a door facing. In Dr. Bruce’s autopsy report the only physical injury was a few scratches and abrasions to the face. This backs up my older sister’s testimony. Tamika, my sister said over and over that there was no beating. No serious bodily injury and that the incident was over quick. However, Dr. Bruce made that finding of Blunt Force Trauma and Severe Edema in 1995.
Tell me about the trial. How can you get a murder conviction out of what you claimed that happened? My lawyers were working with the State from the start. To make matters worse, me or my family did not take the time to find out the real cause of death. My lawyers knew Chaka died of a heart condition as well as the D.A. but no one informed us. I can prove this with the day I discovered the Memorial Hospital Records as well as with attending nurse Brian Lewis. When he came forward in 2009, it was the first instance of proving Chaka actually died of a heart condition. Further, in the Evidentiary Hearing held in 2012, the State’s expert Dr. Bruce changed his opinion and agreed that Chaka died of a heart event. All of these facts are well documented. From the start the case was a sham. While out on bond, I regularly called the office of Mr. Tatum (my attorney) trying to get an appointment. I had been out on bond for about 6 months and right before the trial was the first and only time Mr. Tatum sat down with everyone to discuss the case. My sister Tamika, my mother Juanita Griffin, my grandfather Travis Smith, my uncle Ronnie Smith and I entered Mr. Tatum’s office to discuss the case. However, during that hour session, those waning moments lasted as long as this conversation:
(me): ‘Are you going to use the 911 call, it shows that she was alive when I left?’
(Tatum): ‘Nah, just a bunch of hollering’.
(me): ‘What about the cut, you know I got cut across my hand, right. Are you going to use the pictures of my cut hand?’
(Tatum): ‘Yeah, and no we’re not using those photos they are too blurry’.
(me): ‘What about the knife?’
(Tatum) ‘What knife?’
(me): ‘That knife’. I pointed at my mother: ‘she has it’. No one got the knife from the scene of the crime 6 months ago’.
My mother takes out the butcher’s knife and gives it to Tatum. He drops it in his desk and we have never seen that knife again. Even until this conversation I still had no clue why my sister had died, I had gotten more and more desperate about the fact that no one had given me any other reason than the statement in the newspaper that I caused my sister’s death. Not knowing how close I was to the truth, I asked Mr. Tatum if he knew anything about our family medical history with high blood pressure and heart failure.
(me): ‘What about our family medical history of heart disease and high blood pressure?’
(Tatum): ‘I didn’t have time for that’. He looks at Tamika: ‘You are going to testify on your brother’s behalf, right?’
Tamika nods yes.
(Tatum): ‘If there’s a punishment phase, your mother and grandfather will testify. Let’s get out of here’.
During this conversation I did not ask about the autopsy because at no point before trial did anyone from the convicting court or my attorney notify me or my family that an autopsy was ordered. I did not discover that an autopsy was performed until at trial when the State’s expert testified. Most notably, we had no idea that the hospital made a death finding. So to put it plainly: ignorance of all the facts!
That’s all the investigating that you know your lawyer did? I would find out during trial that he and the D.A. agreed on one photo to show the jury. It just so happened to be the worst picture that was taken of my sister’s corps. During any autopsy, color photos of the body are always taken especially in situations like this. I was accused of beating someone to death, so all the photos should have been presented at the 1995 Hearing and at the 2012 Evidentiary Hearing. That was not the case. There was one photo that was taken when the pathologist was looking for injuries underneath the skin. That and only that photo was presented in court in 1995. The pathologist basically removed the top layer of the side of my sister’s face and took photos of it. There were no injuries but it looked like to the jury that I beat the skin off her face. No one explained that photo. It was up to the jury to figure out how that happened.
Furthermore the only motion Mr. Tatum filed was a ‘motion in limine’. No motion to discovery, no motion for an expert opinion, just a motion in limine. (This is a motion in which a party asks the court to exclude, limit, or include evidence before it is offered at trial. The court decides the motion outside the presence of a jury. Typically, a party seeks to exclude prejudicial or irrelevant evidence from a jury trial. However, a party also may use a motion in limine to obtain an advance ruling on whether the court will admit specified evidence at trial. Rulings on motions in limine are not final and the court may change its ruling during trial). Before the actual trial during the picking of the jury, Mr. Tatum told me to leave the proceedings. I left and he and the D.A. picked the jury. As a result Gwendolyn Russaw Holman was picked. She was a victim of domestic abuse for years at the hand of her husband Wayne Earl Holman. That alone should have disqualified her as a juror.
After the conviction, I requested the Voir dire proceedings. (‘Voir dire’ is the process by which potential jurors are chosen from a pre-selected jury pool. During this phase of jury selection, the attorneys for each party, as well as the judge, ask questions of each potential juror to determine whether he or she has any bias regarding the case, or other reason he or she should not be chosen. Questions are intended to weed out people who have strong opinions about the subject matter, who already have personal knowledge about the case, or who may have a bias for or against either party to the trial.) On the record of the Voir dire proceeding it stated on the first pages, that I left at the beginning of that hearing. I simply went home after my lawyer at that time, advised me to leave. Some years later I stumbled across a case -Bledsoe vs State- that states a trial is void if a defendant is not at the Voir dire proceeding. He or she must remain there during the entire process and this includes the swearing of the jury. I could have gotten the conviction overturned on this ground in 2000-2001. I retrieved the records to prove this fact and as I stated the records state ‘Derrick is gone’. Then I turned the page and someone altered the records and stated: ‘Oh I found him, here he goes’. Essentially ruining the ground of error. But this would not be the only instance someone mysteriously changed my records. At the end of the Evidentiary Hearing in 2012 the D.A. requested that the Hospital Records that I enclosed as evidence, which included a record of the death page which stated: ‘Cardio Vascular Arrest’ were replaced with a false page. So the Appealing Courts never got to see that very important piece of evidence. I am sure it played a critical part in me losing the appeal in 2012. It shows at what length the D.A. and his team will go to cover a wrongful conviction. Further at the 1995 sentencing hearing an officer testified that he came to Theresa Williams and my house. He would state in Open Court that he arrested me and I paid some sort of fine. He would also state this on forged documents. This also, I can prove, was an absolute lie.
Tell us about the actual jury trial, what happened there? Wanda Beck testified first. During her testimony Tamika was made to leave. So Tamika never heard what Wanda claimed she had seen. Tamika came out and basically cleared me of the beating accusation. When Dr. Bruce took the stand, he was supposed to be a mutual expert pathologist. To my opinion he was simply a handmaiden for the D.A. He claimed that she died of Blunt Force Trauma, Severe Edema and Malignant Edema. He also stated that he could not see any injuries with his naked eye as well he claimed that she was too BLACK to see any injuries. How so? Chaka was lighter skin, any scratch, injury, bruise or anything would have shown on her skin. In fact in his autopsy report, he stated he had seen two small scratches on the left side of her face. How could he translate or equate small scratch to Blunt Force Trauma?
The next day I arrived in Court, higher on pot than ever before. All I wanted to do was drown out the pain. The hearing went rather quickly. What stands out the most is officer Boudreaux who claimed he had arrested me before and charged me with some type of domestic violence charge. (True, Theresa and I were arguing, she was angry because I wanted to go to the store around the corner alone. She grabbed my keys and a shouting match followed. Our neighbors heard us and called the police. Upon officer Boudreaux’s arriving, he requested to come inside. Theresa was in the restroom. He claimed she was on the floor. However, Theresa was seated on the toilet. They had a very brief discussion, he gave her a card and left the house. I let him out of the house and he left. No arrest was made but he testified that he arrested me and I went to jail, then paid a fine. That never happened).
I would testify. In ignorance, I spoke. My God, looking back at that moment, I was an emotional wreck. Terribly unstable, and mourning the incredible predicament of the entire situation. If the autopsy would have been better, the congenital heart disease would have been presented in court for the jury. If my lawyer Mr. Tatum would had done his job, he would have presented the hospital records in which it was confirmed that Chaka died of heart disease. But this all did not happen. At no time did the hospital records come up. No one at that hearing mentioned the cause of death according to the Memorial Hospital. However, I got on stand and poured out my raw unstable ignorant feelings. My testimony opened up something that I was not aware of during the sentencing phase. After closing arguments, I was found guilty of first degree murder in about seven hours. As a result of this all I was sentenced to 50 years. In two days my life was over. (When you pay for a bond to get out of jail, you remain free until sentencing. The next day I came back to a sentencing hearing and after that hearing I was sentenced by the jury to 50 years in prison).
After the conviction
What ran through your mind after that? Lost, truly lost, but I had to fight back. Like always, I had to use my fighting spirit to fight back but I was not mentally prepared for such a tremendous task. I had to go from the streets (that I was used to) to the law library (to read about the law and find out what could be done), while also dealing with prison life. This was 1995 and prison was a very different and a more violent place. To compound matters, I had never been to prison, so I had no idea how to survive there.
So you had to fight for your life and your well-being? Absolutely, while quietly trying to remain mentally stable. After all, with the case that I had, you have to understand the depth of my mental battles. You can never imagine how it feels to be blamed for a murder like this, to a blood relative of all people. The staff and other prisoners always stare at you sideways. The only other crime worse than what I was accused of, is sexual assault of a child.
How did you get started fighting your legal battle? I started filing legal briefs incorrectly. What you must understand is my life was on the line. I had no choice. This craziness went on and on until I started catching breaks in 2001. I wrote virtually every innocence project and legal organization I came across. This was the era of DNA and I simply did not have that type of case at all. So me writing hundreds of letters and filling out all those applications were an absolute waste. However my first break was John Pizer at the Legal Aid Clinic in Phoenix, Arizona. After so many failed attempts at contacting the innocence projects, the late Mr. John Pizer turned out to be an absolute Godsend. That man was on his deathbed still helping me fight this wrongful conviction. I will never ever forget him. He bumped his head over and over again contacting unwilling family members who openly and rudely rebuffed our attempt. Mr. Pizer called my mother, uncle Ronnie and sister Tamika. Ronnie and my mother cooperated. They signed affidavits, Ronnie paid for the Hospital Records. Tamika, in my opinion, were and still remains terrified of the ‘people downtown’. That and white people in authority. True, she testified in my behalf and she contradicted Wanda Beck’s testimony as well as cleared me of murder. After years had passed, she was also fed up with it and just wanted to be left alone. She screamed at Mr. Pizer, hung up the phone in his face and if she spoke with him, she always handled him very roughly. But just like me, Mr. Pizer had that fighting spirit. God saw our efforts and started dropping blessings our way. The first being an attending nurse who was there in the emergency room when Chaka arrived, Brian Lewis, had contacted my late aunt Cassandra Crisp and told her the pathologist for the State was wrong about the cause of death. He explained that it was heart related and she was not beat up or had no Blunt Force Trauma. He would later give us an affidavit and suggested we retrieve the Medical Records. From there we discovered the cause of death findings: Cardio Vascular Arrest!
So you are saying the pathologist claimed one cause of death and the hospital another? And that fact was never presented in Court, it was not even mentioned. The Court did not see photos of the complete body and the attending physician was never summoned. The entire trial was, in my opinion, a complete sham.
Why didn’t your trial attorneys share this? Well, my lawyer did not do his job at all. As a matter of fact, I cannot shake the feeling that he was colluding with the D.A. I discovered this at the Evidentiary Hearing in 2012-2013.
Then what did you guys do? A guy walked up to me and gave me information of expert witness Dr. John Plunkett. I hesitated but I begrudgingly wrote him a detailed letter. I also wrote to Mr. John Pizer explaining my discovery. Amazingly it turned out Mr. Pizer had worked with Mr. Plunkett in the past and he quickly sent a letter and Chaka’s Medical Records. He also sent the Trial Testimony and autopsy report. But the State refused our request for brain tissue samples and photos of the body.
What happened next? Dr. Plunkett gave the first sworn affidavit clearing me of the murder charge. I was innocent with proof and Mr. Pizer filed my first Actual Innocent Brief around 2010-2011. Then the Criminal Court of Appeals ordered an Evidentiary Hearing. Now I had to go back to Lufkin, years later. The hearing was first ordered in 2013. Upon arriving in Lufkin, I did not recognize that city.
What happened at the Evidentiary Hearing and why didn’t they release you – in your opinion? The biggest issue is the cause and manner of death. I was convicted in 1995 of these alleged facts by the State: beating, Blunt Force Trauma, Severe Edema and Malignant Edema.
I will explain some details about these conditions:
Beating is self-explanatory.
Blunt Force Trauma. In my opinion, before the expert for the State, Dr. Bruce ever reviewed the body, his mind of the facts were already determined. However, Blunt Force Trauma causes fractures in the skull – real head trauma.
Severe Edema – brain swelling.
Malignant Edema – brain death.
My expert witness, Dr. Plunkett testified first. He made it very clear that nothing I did or did not do, caused my sister’s death. She died of a Congenital Heart Disease – the condition was hereditary. He further explained that there was no beating because the only injury to the body was a few scratches and one small contusion on her forehead.
Concerning Severe Edema: first it was not severe at all. What causes this condition is resuscitation attempts (see autopsy report under Diagnosis by Anatomic System General Features: consistent with resuscitation). When Chaka lost consciousness, it was like her organs died thus they did not work properly. So during aggressive CPR the air that was being forced into her body was going directly to the brain, thus causing it to swell. The brain does not exhale so the air is trapped in the brain. It’s like blowing up a balloon, then tying a knot. Although Dr. Bruce claims that he knows no other way but a beating could cause brain swelling, he clearly states so on the first page of his autopsy report. Concerning Blunt Force Trauma: you will have to have herniation (of the brainstem), fractures or something associated with trauma. There was no evidence of such a thing occurring. Dr. Plunkett concluded that Chaka died of heart disease and nothing else. I sat there relieved.
Anyone else testified? Yes, for the State my former lawyer John Henry Tatum Sr. and John Henry Tatum II, a new expert Dr. Wayne and finally the expert that told the lie in the first place: Dr. Bruce. But what’s mind boggling is Mr. Pizer included a multi-facet Motion of Discovery seeking all the color photos and brain tissue testing of the brain tissue. My Court Appointed Appeal Attorney ignored the motion all together. By ignoring the motion it further ruined my opportunities of adding more actual innocence information.
Can you tell us briefly what each of these people stated at that hearing? Sure, starting with John Henry Tatum the II was quick. He stated that he could not remember anything. Coincidently, in 1995 he was the very person vaguely referring to her dying of some sort of heart condition. At this point everything concerning colluding with the D.A. became clear to me. John Henry Tatum Sr. walked in the courtroom pacing the floor between the judge’s seat and ours. Mr. Tatum Sr. finally took a seat at the witness stand for questioning. He quickly started muttering how he felt about the entire situation. He felt like I beat her to death, he quickly stated that he had no idea that she had a heart attack. But I know that Mr. Tatum Sr. saw the Memorial Hospital records, so he must have known about the cause of death according to the medical staff. He also stated that he had no reason at all to seek out a second expert concerning the cause of death. He had every confidence in Dr. Bruce. He further stated that Dr. Plunkett took a bribe from me. He also stated even though Dr. Plunkett cleared me of the murder, he would not have used him at trial. Mr. Tatum Sr. and the D.A. cracked jokes about Dr. Plunkett’s credentials. I have to say that, in my opinion, Mr. Tatum Sr. and the D.A. being Southerners, were disgruntled with the fact that Dr. Plunkett was from up north. Mr. Tatum Sr. interjected lies in between his testimony. I sat there silent and had to endure his words. He finally showed me how he felt all along about me and the case. That day, I realized that I had been taken undue advantage of. Tatum Sr. had ensured that I would be thrown away. He withheld the 911 calls, the other photos of the body, the photos of my cut hand (the day I was arrested and questioned, two photos were taken of my cut hand), the butcher’s knife, the Medical Records and an expert who could testify on my behalf.
Then the new expert pathologist Dr. Wayne. He was only given the autopsy report from Dr. Bruce to work with. The photos, the Medical Records and Trial Testimony was held back from the very person who came to support the State’s expert pathologist. He quickly stated that he agreed that the true cause of death was Blunt Force Trauma and Severe Edema and it was definitely NOT a heart event. He also stated in most cases he is given the hospital records along with the Trial Records and photos of the body. Obviously, Dr. Wayne was a part of the good old boys system. To his credit, he stated that CPR with resuscitation attempts could cause the brain to swell.
The last person to testify was Dr. Bruce. Dr. Bruce stated he agreed that the true cause of death was heart related but he also claimed that Blunt Force Trauma was the cause of the heart attack. He also stated that he doubted very seriously that CPR could ever cause brain swelling. Okay, ironically in his absurd findings he has basically disagreed with his 1995 finding, as well when he changed his opinion he contradicted his finding on the death certificate, autopsy reports and his new help Dr. Wayne, in the process dropping Severe Edema and Malignant Edema out the equation. At the end of the trial my Court Appointed Appeal Attorney Mr. John Tunnell, told the judge that he wanted to file an Additional Brief on my behalf, but he never did. Also remarkable, the D.A. asked the judge to replace my evidence from the Memorial Hospital; the records stating the cause of death as Cardio Vascular Arrest. Those records were replaced. The page with the cause of death was replaced with an out of the ordinary page. So like before evidence was hidden. Because of all that, the conviction was affirmed and I was sent back to prison.
Not one to give up – a second expert Dr. Peter Stephens made another finding with more actual innocence finding. Mr. Pizer filed another Actual Innocence Brief that was dismissed. On his deathbed, he filed a Federal Brief that I quickly withdrew. I withdrew that Legal Brief for two reasons: an Appeal specialist, Richard Weltzer (Austin, Texas), told me I should do that and besides that, the brief was like a ‘rough draft’ not to be filed. Mr. Pizer was dying and delusional, and in a desperate attempt to get me out, filed something. It was a mistake. However, moving forwards with an Actual Innocence Claim, I must be clear and convincing in my approach. This is why I contacted the 3rd expert. We have all the Medical Records that are needed. Once he completes his findings we will refile and move forward with the legal fight. Then it happened that besides Mr. John Pizer also Dr. Plunkett and Dr. Peter Stephens died.
And how is the situation now? It took me another 7 years to put together more people to continue the fight in Federal Court. The first was a third expert pathologist Dr. Bonnell who works pro-bono and who is investigating all the Medical Records right now. The NLPA who is specialized in research is completing the juridical files. After this we can make the next step.
And who are your supporters during those years? Without my loving daughter Shapheka Davis, wonderful friend and pastor Mr. Doelas Landes, my supporter, friend and confidant Johanna Kindt, my son Trey Griffin and the God that’s in me and outside of me, none of this would be possible. Brigitte and her husband Dick who, along with Johanna, live in The Netherlands are giving me support. I am also grateful to the many people who support my supporters such as Raoul de Lange, Peter Kindt and Rebecca Landes and those who I don’t know. Thank you all! Mr. Donny Walker interviewed my family members at his morning show at WGLRO radio for which I am grateful, and also thank you Suzanne Strazza. Last but not least I thank professor Richard Ross for interviewing me concerning child incarceration.
Thank you for the trust you placed in me.
Derrick L. Griffin, 15-08-2021