Wrongly Convicted Earl Rhoney Set Free (1998)

Charges Dropped in Irvine Murder Case; Courts: Judge had refused to allow bloodhound evidence at retrial. Man who spent 3 1/2 years in jail reasserts innocence.

Los Angeles Times - Los Angeles, Calif.  [Orange County Edition]
Date: Jun 23, 1998
Start Page: 1
Section: PART-A; Metro Desk

Amid a crush of television cameras, an overwhelmed Earl Rhoney walked out of Orange County Jail a free man Monday after spending 3 1/2 years there for a murder he insists he didn't commit.
Hours earlier, prosecutors had dropped murder and burglary charges against the former Irvine man after a judge ruled that key evidence obtained through the use of a so-called scent machine could not be used at Rhoney's second trial.
"I'm not guilty," Rhoney, 22, said as he left the jail and struggled to make his way to a friend's car. "I knew things were going to go my way. It was just a matter of time."
Investigators had used the scent machine to extract skin cells from the victim's clothing and then transferred the substance to a gauze pad. Rhoney was arrested after a police bloodhound sniffed the pad and then picked out Rhoney near a shopping mall.
Prosecutors say that evidence is crucial to obtaining a conviction for the murder of 46-year-old Patricia Lea Pratt, who was killed during a 1994 burglary at her home in Irvine's Turtle Rock community.
Dropping the charges gave Rhoney his freedom, but it allows the prosecution to keep the case open should new information surface, Deputy Dist. Atty. Debbie Lloyd said.
Rhoney said he dreads forever being labeled as a murder suspect.
"It's impossible for me to be innocent, to be thought of the way I should be, and that really bugs me," he said in an interview shortly after leaving jail. "It will never go away. I can't get rid of it."
Rhoney said he had dreamed of leaving jail many times, but when the moment finally came, it was bittersweet.
"It was hard," he said. "If I had done the crime, I probably would have felt like, 'Man, this is terrible {being released}.' But knowing I didn't do it was even worse. All I could think of was, 'What did I do to deserve this?' "
Family Disappointed
Rhoney said he was uncertain about his future beyond his most immediate plans to eat pizza, buy a pair of sunglasses and go to see the "X-Files" movie. He said he plans to leave Orange County immediately.
Pratt's husband, Paul, and mother, Beatrice Kell, said they understood the prosecution's actions but asserted that a guilty man has just been set free.
"I never believed in anyone being a bad seed before, but I do now," Kell said. "I think he'll go out and burglarize again and he'll murder again."
Paul Pratt, who marked what would have been his sixth wedding anniversary Sunday by spending the day with his mother-in-law, said the victim has been largely forgotten in the process.
"Lea got lost in the trial," Pratt said. "She was a wonderful, living human being who was loved by a lot of people. The fact that {Rhoney} is being released . . . won't change our memories of her."
In December 1996, Rhoney, who had several burglary convictions, became the first person in California to be convicted of a murder largely on evidence from a scent machine. He faced life in prison without parole.
But on the day of his sentencing, Superior Court Judge Anthony J. Rackauckas threw out the verdict, saying the scent machine evidence was unreliable, and ordered a new trial.
Judge John J. Ryan, who was to preside over the second trial set to begin Monday, ruled earlier this month that the scent machine evidence was tainted and would not be allowed into the second trial. The ruling gutted the prosecution's case.
Lloyd said prosecutors really had no choice then but to drop the case.
"It is very hard and depressing," Lloyd said outside court. "I feel the man was convicted and he should be sitting in prison for the rest of his life for this murder, and he's going to be walking the streets."
When Lloyd made her announcement at the brief Superior Court hearing Monday, Rhoney turned to his attorney and smiled. Deputy Public Defender Sharon Petrosino, who staunchly believes in his innocence, gently touched his arm and grinned.
Outside court, Petrosino was jubilant.
"I need to go and scream somewhere," she said. "I'm ecstatic. It's been four years of a lot of work. I feel like a big weight was lifted."
Evidence Questioned
Rhoney first became a suspect in Pratt's murder when he was arrested two weeks after the slaying in connection with another burglary in the same community. Then 17, he was sent to Juvenile Hall in Orange for that crime.
The key evidence in the murder case came from a machine that investigators said extracted skin cells from the victim's clothing, which had been stored in an evidence freezer. The extracted matter, known as scurf, was later transferred to a sterile gauze pad.
When Rhoney was released from Juvenile Hall nine months after Pratt's slaying, a bloodhound named Duchess and her handler, Larry Harris, were on the street outside. Duchess sniffed the gauze pad, then picked out Rhoney as he walked to a nearby shopping mall. Officers waiting at the scene arrested him as a suspect in Pratt's murder.
The use of bloodhound evidence long has been accepted in courts across the nation, but certain criteria must be met.
During Rhoney's trial, Rackauckas initially allowed the bloodhound evidence, saying that testing of the machine, a Scent Tracker Unit 100, had persuaded him that the criteria could be "stretched."
But in later overturning the jury's guilty verdict, Rackauckas said the scent machine evidence was dependent on the credibility of dog handler Harris, whom the judge described as "biased." (Rackauckas last month won election as the county's next district attorney.)
Judge Ryan, however, thought Harris was a credible witness. Instead, it was the victim's clothing--the source of the skin cells extracted from the machine--that he believed may have been contaminated.
Prosecutors also would have had other problems in a new trial, including a bar on evidence about Rhoney's two San Bernardino burglary convictions.
"There is no statute of limitations on murder, so if anything were to come up, then we could go ahead and refile," Lloyd said.
The victim's family had attended each day of the trial but was not in court for Monday's brief hearing.
"I'm disappointed, and, of course, I'm angry and all those things," Paul Pratt said. "It's really, really unfortunate for the community that Earl Rhoney is released. But the system that allows him to be released can be responsible for his actions."
Pratt doesn't question the prosecution's move, and he hopes that new evidence will be unearthed.
But Rhoney said he won't let the remote possibility of a retrial keep him from living his life to the fullest.
"I can't sit and wait for them to come knocking on my door and say, 'Here we go again,' " he said. "I just want to live, to just enjoy living."
He also is angry at police and prosecutors.
"They ruined me," he said. "The prime years of my life, four Christmases, my 21st birthday, all of it . . . down the drain. I don't have a car, a place to live, a job, money in the bank. I have no idea what I'm going to do tomorrow."
PHOTO: Earl Rhoney, whose conviction had been overturned, reacts to news that he will not be retried.; PHOTOGRAPHER: ROBERT LACHMAN / Los Angeles Times