BEFORE THE GOVERNOR FOR THE STATE OF TEXAS
THE TEXAS BOARD OF PARDONS AND PAROLE
Robert Otis Coulson,
APPLICATION FOR CONDITIONAL PARDON
OR, IN THE ALTERNATIVE,
FOR REPRIEVE FROM EXECUTION
AND COMMUTATION OF SENTENCE
RENEWED REQUEST FOR INTERVIEW PURSUANT TO
37 Texas Administrative Code §143.43(d),(e) and
37 Texas Administrative Code §143.57(e),(f)
RENEWED REQUEST FOR HEARING PURSUANT TO
37 Texas Administrative Code §143.43(b)(3) and
Administrative Procedures Act §2001.001 et seq
RENEWED REQUEST FOR COMPLIANCE WITH
Texas Open Meetings Act
Texas Government Code §551.001 et seq
RENEWED REQUEST FOR COMPLIANCE WITH
Article 4, §11
June 9, 2002 Mary Ann Starks
To the Honorable Governor of the State of Texas and Members of the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole,
As you know, Robert Otis Coulson is scheduled to be executed on Tuesday June 25, 2002 for a horrible crime I am convinced he did he did not commit: the murders on Friday November 13, 1992, of natural sister Robin Coulson Wentworth and her husband Richard Wentworth. Parents Mary Coulson and Otis Coulson and adopted sister Sarah Coulson were also killed in the same crime, but Coulson was not tried for those murders.
This system and the process puts me at a complete disadvantage. To begin with, the system allows prosecutors unlimited “behind the scenes” access to the Board and Board members. I, however, have no right to be privy to what transpires there.
Behind the scenes pressure may be very strong in this case. This was an unusually heinous, high profile crime which dominated the local news coverage, reaching a fever pitch when a Houston Chronicle article indicated that Robert Coulson have fathered his sister Sarah Coulson’s baby. After a gag order was imposed by the trial court, DNA established that that Sarah’s ex-boyfriend, not Coulson, was the father of the baby. After jury selection, the case again consumed the local media. See, e.g. selection of news articles previously submitted as Exhibit 19.
Since the trial, Mr. Coulson’s prosecutors have become Harris County District Attorney and Judge of the 182nd Criminal District, the court where Coulson was convicted and sentenced to death. In addition, Mr. Rosenthal’s personal interest in this case may be presumed from his closing argument in the punishment phase, when he stated,
“I went to that house. I’d kill him right now if the law didn’t stand between him and me.”
(Exhibit 19, Jury fails to decide sentence for Coulson, Jane Harper, HOUSTON CHRONICLE, June 22, 1994; Deliberations continue in Coulson case, Jennifer Liebrum, HOUSTON CHRONICLE, June 22, 1994)
As a volunteer lawyer who was asked to take up this representation only a few weeks ago, the undersigned has had very limited time and resources which are utterly inadequate to the merits of Coulson’s claim. Through counsel, Coulson respectfully requests that he be granted a conditional pardon such that he remain confined and, upon a knowing and voluntary waiver of his rights to assert double jeopardy, that he agree to remain in custody to be re-tried for the murders of Robin Coulson Wentworth and Richard Wentworth, or (b) that he remain in custody to be tried for the murders of Otis Coulson, Mary Coulson and/or Sarah Coulson.
In the alternative, Coulson and counsel respectfully request that a reprieve of 120 days be granted to provide time to investigate his case and permit volunteer counsel additional time to develop additional proof of actual innocence or, in the final alternative, that Coulson be granted clemency and that his sentence be commuted to life in prison.
Despite limited time spent on this case, it is clear from twenty-one years’ experience as a lawyer in assessing testimony, evidence and credibility that if you the Board fails to exercise your discretionary power and grant the relief to Coulson, then the unthinkable will happen: an innocent man will die in our name at the hands of our State.
B. Information Required by 37 Texas Administrative Code §143.42.
1. Name of Applicant:
Robert Otis Coulson
2. Identification of Agent Presenting Application:
Mary Ann Starks
Attorney at Law
c/o Palmer Prison Ministry
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church
6221 South Main Street
Houston, Texas 77030
3. Required Certified Copies of Court Documents:
The required copies of court documents are attached as Exhibit 2 to the original application delivered June 4, 2002.
4. Supplemental Statement of the Offense:
On Friday November 13, 1992, Coulson’s parents Otis and Mary Coulson, their adult daughters Sarah and Robin (who was pregnant) and Robin’s husband Rick Wentworth, a 6 foot 230 pound Harris County Sheriff’s department jailer were all tragically murdered in the elder Coulsons’ home in Houston. The victims were all bound and gagged, asphyxiated with plastic bags over their heads, the bodies were then doused with gasoline and set on fire. There was extensive smoke and fire damage to the house, a layer of soot covered everything. The charred bodies of the victims were found by Firemen in three bedrooms. There were phones in every room where the victims were found.
As noted in the initial application, neighbor Mike German reported that all four cars of the victims had been in the Coulson driveway since 3:30 p.m., meaning that all five victims were present in the residence from that time. At 4:45 p.m., Robin answered the phone in a natural and normal sounding tone. She told a friend of Sarah’s that Sarah was in another room, but they were all on their way out for dinner. No one ever spoke to any of the victims after that. A fire alarm was called in at 6:17 p.m.
While his family was being systematically killed at the Coulson home, Bob Coulson says he was several miles away at Town & Country Mall, waiting to meet the family for dinner at Luby’s around 5:15 p.m. Earlier that week, roommate Jared Althaus took a phone message that the Coulsons would be gathering for dinner at Luby’s on Friday. Around 4:15 p.m., on their way out of town for a weekend at his grandfather’s farm, Jared dropped Coulson off at Town & County Mall, with plans to pick Coulson up at 6:30, after dinner, and drive to the farm.
Sometime between 5:45 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., when his family had not arrived at Luby’s, Coulson called the house to see why they were late. When no one answered the phone, Coulson assumed that Jared had gotten the message wrong and that the family had gone to another restaurant. Jared up picked Bob at the mall after dark, around 6:30 p.m. Jared seemed sweaty and nervous, but did not want to talk about where he had been. By the time they got to the farm, Jared had calmed down. The two played some cards, then went to bed. Coulson did not call his family again after leaving the mall as there was no phone at the farm.
In the course of investigating the fire and murders on Friday night, police learned that Coulson and Jared had gone to a remote farm owned by Althaus’s grandfather. On Saturday morning Jared’s brother Jason Althaus was dispatched to bring Bob and Jared back to Houston. According to initial police reports, Jared and Jason reported that Coulson “freaked out and was crying” and became sick to his stomach when told what had happened to his family. On the way back to Houston, they had to stop on the side of the road because Coulson was sick again. At trial, however, Coulson would be described by some as unemotional or as feigning grief.
According to Coulson, on the way back to Houston from the farm, Jared became nervous because he and Coulson had not been together between 4:15 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., so neither had an alibi for the presumed time of the murders. Jared suggested they alibi each other and say that they had driven straight to the farm from their apartment. He had a gas receipt from a station on Highway 260 (on the way to the farm) that could be used to show they were on their way out of town. Coulson agreed to lie to the police about those facts if it appeared that either were a suspect. Coulson now says that was the biggest mistake of his life.
It is uncontested that back in Houston, Bob and Jared went straight to the police station and were separated there. Both willingly provided fingerprints. Since it appeared to both that they were suspects, they both told the (false) alibi story about going straight from their apartment to the farm. For that reason, both declined to take polygraph exams at that time. According to the police report, Althaus was “extremely nervous throughout the interview, particularly when the subject of a polygraph was mentioned.”
When Coulson arrived at the police station back from the farm, he was wearing a tank top and shorts. He was thoroughly “looked over” by officers to see whether he showed any signs of having been in a struggle, but no cuts, bruises, burns or singed areas of skin or hair were found to link him to the murders. Coulson also freely gave consent to search the car which Jared and Bob had used to drive to the farm on Friday. With Coulson in the station, police and arson investigators thoroughly searched the car for gas fumes or anything else that might link Bob or Jared to the murders or the fire at the Coulson house.
According to the police report, “there was no evidence in the car that coincided with the evidence at the scene.” Jason Althaus then took police up to search the farm. Again, nothing was found linking either Jared or Bob to the murders. According to the police report, when police asked Jason Althaus if he thought Bob had anything to do with the murders, Jason said no, because Bob “just didn’t seem like the type.”
District Attorney Rosenthal testified in the related civil case that nothing - no blood, hair or fibers- links any of the recovered items to the murders or to Robert Coulson EXCEPT Jared’s story. See Exhibit 27, especially p. 67-68.
On the other hand, only two things linked Bob Coulson to the crime. A false accomplice confession obtained from Coulson’s friend, Jared Althaus, and false and misleading photographs presented by the State at trial which purportedly placed Coulson at the scene of the crime.
Coulson testified in his own behalf and explained or denied almost all of the State’s corroborating evidence. The only incriminating evidence he could neither explain nor deny was the false and mis-leading photo of an old Aetna envelope, supposedly found on his father’s desk the night of the crime and which the state used to argue that Coulson “was expected” at the house.
In reviewing the trial testimony summarized below, please do not lose sight of
the fact that the guilty verdict was built on a house of cards.
The centerpiece is Jared’s false testimony, a confession story “confirmed” by recovery of “instrumentalities of the crime,” none of could ever be shown to be connected to the crime, used in crime itself or used to connect Bob Coulson to the commission of a crime in any respect.
Add the false and misleading photographs making it look as though the Aetna envelope on Otis Coulson’s desk was there the night of the murders to place Coulson in the house, to lend credence to Jared’s story that Bob was went there on the pretext of presenting a business opportunity. Then add speculation and innuendo concerning motive. But sift the wheat from the chaff. What you will then see before you is an innocent man caught in a web of deceit.
In exchange for a deal with the State to plead guilty for a recommended twenty year sentence, Althaus testified that Coulson and Althaus were roommates and began planning the offense approximately three to four months in advance. (Vol. 41 p. 72-75) In fact, Althaus was ultimately sentenced to 10 years and is now out under supervision. (See Exhibits 18 and 30) According to Althaus, at about 4:15 p.m. on the day of the offense, Althaus dropped Coulson off at a pre-arranged location a short distance from the Coulson residence. (Vol. 41 p. 93, 97, 167) Coulson had called ahead the previous day to tell all the victims to be at Otis and Mary’s house at particular times so he could relay news about a new business opportunity. (Vol. 41 p. 110, 113) When Althaus returned to the pick-up point at about 6:00 p.m., Coulson was not there. (Vol. 41 p. 98-99) Althaus circled around a few times until Coulson emerged from some bushes, got into the car, and told Althaus “go, go, go.” (Vol. 41, p. 99) Coulson told Althaus it had gone “all wrong,” not the way they had planned it. (Vol. 41 p. 100)
Althaus said he then drove Coulson through the darkest and quietest streets in the area while Coulson discarded items used in the crime from the car window, including a crowbar and gas can. (Vol. 41 p. 101, 102) Eventually they made their way to Highway 290 and headed to Althaus’s family cabin near Caldwell, in support of their pre-arranged alibi that they were out of town at the time of the murders. (Vol. 41 p.106, 127) Along the way, Althaus said Coulson continued to throw the items from the crime out of passenger window, including the clothes he had worn, a stun gun, a pair of sunglasses, a pistol, and a backpack. (Vol. 41 p. 106, 122) On Highway 290, Coulson began to tell Althaus what had happened. (Vol. 41 p. 106)
According to Althaus, Coulson said he had had almost backed down, but then “decided he had to do it.” (Vol. 41 p. 106-107) First he lured Mary Coulson into the garage bedroom on the pretense that he had a surprise to share with her about a business venture. He tried using the stun gun on her but it did not work. (Vol. 41 p. 108) As Mary struggled with him, Coulson assured her he just needed money, that he was not going to hurt anyone, and was only going to tie her up. (Vol. 41 p.108, 276) He then smothered her with a pillow. (Vol. 41 p.109, 277)
Contradiction by Other State Witness: This contradicts Sergeant Brad Rudolph who testified that he “did not note any pillow” in the room where Mary Coulson’s body was found. (Vol. 42 p. 30) Review of the videotape of the crime scene shows that a pillow, if one had been present, would not have been entirely consumed by fire. Moreover, there is no evidence the police even searched for, much less found, a pillow.
According to Althaus, Coulson next killed Otis, who he said was a “wimp.” (Vol. 41 p. 110), then killed Sarah in the east bedroom. (Vol. 41 p. 112) As he was doing that, Althaus said Robin and Rick arrived, a little earlier than Coulson had told them to. (Vol. 41 p. 113, 114)
Contradiction by Coulson Neighbor: Althaus’s testimony that Robin and Rick arrived after 4:15 contradicts the testimony provided by neighbor Mike Gherman to the police the night of the crime, and at trial, that all four cars were in the driveway from 3:30 p.m. forward.
According to Althaus, Coulson could not persuade the couple to separate, so he pulled the gun on them. (Vol. 41 p. 115, 286) Althaus said Coulson subdued Robin and Rick by telling them that Althaus was in another room holding a gun on Otis and Mary and that if either resisted he would order Althaus to kill them. (Vol. 41 p.116, 289)
Althaus said Coulson feared too much noise if he used a gun, so he got a crowbar from the garage and hit Robin and Rick on the back of the head. (Vol. 41 p. 116) Then, according to Althaus, Coulson placed trash compactor bags over their heads. The plan was to remove the bags once the victims were dead, then set the bodies and the house on fire so it would appear they had died of smoke inhalation. (Vol. 41 p. 117, 119) Althaus said Coulson figured the house would be “worth more money to him gone than . . . being there.” (Vol. 41 p. 119) But, according to Althaus, the plan went wrong when a water heater off the garage bedroom ignited gasoline fumes prematurely. (Vol. 41 p.121, 295) According to Althaus, Coulson then lit the other bodies with matches and fled. (Vol. 41 p. 122, 295)
Contradiction by State’s Witness: Here Althaus contradicts the State’s own arson investigator who testified the hot water heater did not cause the fire and there was no sign of an explosion in that room. (Vol. 37 p. 100) Also, the defense presented evidence that if the hot water heater ignited gas fumes, there would have been a fireball and explosion sufficient to blow out windows and the arsonist would have been burned. (Vol. 45 p. 141, 145, 148-149, 155) As already noted, Coulson showed no signs of having been burned, singed or otherwise near a fire. (Vol. 38, p. 202-204, 39 p. 120) Finally, the State’s arson investigator testified, contrary to Althaus, that the bodies still had plastic bags over their heads when they were discovered. ( Vol. 37 p. 72)
Althaus gave police more than one account of his and Coulson’s activities and whereabouts on the evening of the offense before providing the story he told at trial. (Vol. 41 p. 185, 42 p.129) Four days after the murders, Althaus took police along the route he said he and Coulson had supposedly taken to Caldwell the night of the crime. (Vol. 42 p.44-45) Along the way police recovered a crowbar, a gas can, a sweatshirt, a cap, a backpack, a ski-mask, and the slide mechanism from a gun. (Vol. 42 p. 46, 49, 52, 73-76, 102, 139)
Contradiction by State’s Witness: According to Officer Brad Rudolph, none of the recovered items could be linked forensically to Coulson or to the crime. (Vol. 42 p. 54, 91, 94, 95, 100, 103) Not the crowbar, not the gas can, none of it. See also testimony of Charles Rosenthal in the related civil case, attached hereto as Exhibit 27. The mere fact that items were discovered where Althaus said they would be does not connect Coulson or the items to the crimes or the crime scene. Only Althaus’s testimony linked the items to the murders.
Contradiction by Logic: Attached as Exhibit 28 is a hand drawn map for illustrative purposes only, which shows the location of the recovered “instrumentalities of the crime” allegedly used to commit the Coulson murders. The police spared no expense in trying to locate all of the promised items from Jared’s confession, including helicopters, dive teams, dogs and mounted search teams. The fact that more items could not be recovered (e.g. bloody tennis shoes) and the fact that those which were could not be connected to crime forensically, strongly suggest that the items were never, in fact, used for or connected with the murders.
Jared’s confession occurred after he had gone to San Marcos, Texas, on Monday after the crime, without surveillance. The trip would have allowed Althaus to throw alleged articles from the crime along the road to grandfather’s farm so that he would have something tangible to offer the police. See the hand drawn map attached as Exhibit 28, showing how Jared could easily have tossed the items out on his way to San Marcos on Monday afternoon, without being observed, since the police were not following him.
This was a route he was extremely familiar with from going back and forth to his grandfather’s farm over the years. Four of the seven recovered items were found in ditches, one was found in a creek. Two more were found in a remote ditch or dump near the farm.
Logically, if one were trying to get rid of things at night, in the dark by randomly throwing them out of the car, how would all of them land in a creek, a ditch or a dump?
Logically, if Jared were driving and a person on the passenger side were throwing the items out in the dark, how would the driver know where to retrieve most of the items?
Logically, if Jared were driving alone in the daylight, and if he were trying to make it look as though the items were thrown out by a passenger, Jared would have to slow or stop and would have a much better idea where the items were.
Logically, if Jared planted the alleged ‘instrumentalities of crime,” that is about the only way to account for a total lack of any physical evidence connecting the items to the crime scene. The reason the items cannot be connected to the crime forensically is because, in fact, they were not used in or connected with to the crime.
Contradiction by Ownership: Althaus testified in the criminal trial that most of the ‘recovered items” belong to him. For example, the 9mm gun belonged to Althaus, came from his brother Jason and Jared had filed down the serial numbers on the gun. Jared’s money bought the alleged stun gun, which was never recovered. Jared purchased the gasoline can. The recovered backpack belonged to Jared, not Coulson. The crowbar could not be traced to anyone. (Vol. 41 p. 296-298). The blue hat and sweatshirt may have been Bob Coulson’s, but as his roommate, Jared certainly had access.
Corroboration of Althaus
The Houston Chronicle reported, “A homicide detective who followed Coulson after the murders testified he saw Coulson do a gleeful jig in the parking lot outside the church where the funerals had just been held.” See Exhibit 19, Coulson guilty in slayings of kin, Jennifer Liebrum, June 17, 1994. James Binford, an undercover homicide sergeant, was assigned on Tuesday, November 17th, to conduct a “rolling surveillance” of Coulson. (Vol. 42 p.146) After the funeral, Binford said he stayed in his vehicle, out of sight, and saw Coulson walk Jerri Moore out to her car some 125 feet away. (Vol. 42 p. 152-154; 38 p.268) As Coulson walked back toward the church, Binford testified, “He smiled, he clicked his fingers, and then he clapped his hands, and at the same time, he did a little — almost a dance-like step before he realized that — it was like he had forgotten where he was.” (Vol. 42 p.154-155) Coulson quickly resumed his solemn demeanor. (Vol. 42 p.155)
Contradiction by Other Witnesses: When asked whether this “jig” ever happened, Coulson responded, “No, sir. That is ridiculous. I don’t know what [Sergeant Binford] is talking about.” (Vol. .46 p. 181) Coulson’s testimony was supported by State’s witness Jerri Moore, who said she turned to look back at Coulson as she drove off, and she “did not see him do anything.” (Vol. 38 p. 270)
High School Friends
Two days after the murders, the Houston Chronicle quoted Coulson friend Mike Scott as saying, “The family never had any problems. This house was a happy house to be in.” Exhibit 19, Police Suspect accomplices in slaying of 5, Lisa Trachey and Stephen Johnson, November 15, 1992. Yet at the 1994 at trial, Scott testified that Coulson said, “Goddam, my parents are spending my inheritance” in response either to a vacation the Coulsons had taken, or to the fact that they were helping Sarah buy a car. (Vol. 40 p. p. 94) Scott “just kind of laughed and said, “‘Yeah. Whatever, Bob,’ and blew it off.” (Vol. 40 p. 95) Nor did Scott take Coulson seriously when he made a remark about his parents running off the road on a cross-country trip. (Vol. 40 p. 95) On another occasion when his parents were taking a trip, Coulson said, “Well my parents would be over the Atlantic right now. It would be a shame if the plane fell out of the sky and crashed.” (Vol. 40 p. 96) Scott’s reaction at the time had been, “Okay, Bob. That’s kind of sick, but that’s your humor.” (Vol. 40 p. 96) Coulson had described his parents as “useless.” (Vol. 40 p. 99)
Mike Scott admitted that as of the time of trial he was now “looking back” upon these statements “through the concept that” Coulson killed his family. (Vol. 40 p. 122)
Scott Smith was another of Coulson’s best friends from all the way back to junior high school. (Vol. 40 p. 179) He too testified that Coulson “complained pretty often about his parents spending his inheritance any time they would take a trip and made comments fairly often to the effect that he would be set if they would just die.” (Vol. 40 p. 203) Smith had not heard Coulson make such a statement in the year before the murders, however, and had always considered them to be a joke, albeit a “sick” one. (Vol. 41 p. 61-63) He agreed that “[i]f I thought [Coulson] was serious, I would have done something about it.” (Vol. 41 p. 62, 64)
Context: Coulson explained that members of the clique he, Mike Scott and Scott Smith were in high school often made jokes about their parents spending their inheritance. (Vol. 47 p. 104) He remembered particularly an occasion in 1988 when he made such a remark after his parents had bought a brand-new Camry. (Vol. 47 p. 106) This was a substantially nicer car than the norm, and when he made the joke, everyone just laughed. (Vol. 47 p. 107-108) It was a joking matter when anybody “actually spent money and bought things.” (Vol. 47 p. 109)
Further Context: Sometime between 1988 and 1991, Coulson’s parents took a trip to Europe. (Vol. 47 p. 111) Before he left, Otis sat down with Coulson and Robin to show them where the wills were and give them emergency phone numbers. In the course of this conversation, Otis himself made a joke -- unusual for him -- about the plane possibly crashing. (Vol. 47 p. 112-114) When he made the comment to Mike Scott (and/or to Scott Smith, Coulson could not remember) about the plane going down, he explained he was referring back to Otis’ unusual joke. (Vol. 47 p. 114) No one thought it was inappropriate at the time. (Vol. 47 p. 116)
Coulson’s Demeanor at the Funeral
Much was made during the trial about Coulson’s demeanor at the various memorial services following the murders, but most witnesses thought Coulson was showing signs of ordinary grieving, or at least what would be ordinary for Coulson. Peter Coulson, Otis’s brother, thought Coulson’s behavior seemed “appropriate for the circumstances” (Vol. 38 p. 148, 149).
Mike Scott said Coulson’s eyes were “a little puffy from apparent crying,” although Coulson is normally a very controlled person and Scott had never seen him cry before. At the viewing Scott saw Coulson pinch his nose as if “welling up his tears but . . . fighting them back” (Vol. 40 p. 87, 116, 119) Scott Smith said that Coulson “usually keeps his emotions to himself,” and at the viewing it looked like he had “an irritant or something in his eyes” (Vol. 40 p. 214, 41 p. 22).
Scott’s father, Ken Smith, said Coulson’s eyes were red. Ken Smith assumed Coulson was distraught, because he appeared to be grieving (Vol. 43 p. 12-13, 40) Neighbor Andy Tucker said Coulson looked like he had been crying at the funeral. (Vol. 44 p. 143) Neighbor Nancy Huckaby said that at the viewing, Coulson appeared distraught and grieving. (Vol. 44 p. 208) See also Exhibit 21 hereto, the statement of former neighbor Bob Herring. State’s witness Jack Emmott said he saw Coulson at church on Sunday November 15th and did not see Coulson crying, but his eyes were red (Vol. 38 p. 13, 14) and that Coulson manually manipulating his lower eyelids several times. (Vol. 38 p. 14-15) On the other hand, there are numerous other witnesses, including Bob Herring (Exhibit 21) and those listed beginning on page 14, below, who felt that Coulson seemed to be grieving appropriately.
Alleged Preoccupation with the Estate and Inheritance
Both Emmott and State’s witness Linda Payne testified that Coulson was preoccupied with and focused on matters concerning the estate and inheritance.
Jack Emmott, the lawyer for the Coulsons’ estate, testified that early Sunday morning, November 15, 1992, while still in bed, Coulson telephoned him because Emmott was handing the probate. Coulson wanted to know the extent of the estate. (Vol. 38 p. 6, 8, 9) According to Emmott, Coulson seemed certain none of Robin or Sarah’s friends might have been responsible for the murders and Coulson seemed unconcerned for his own safety. (Vol. 38 p. 10, 11) Coulson said he and Althaus had driven to the cabin in Caldwell Friday afternoon, stopping to get gas on the way out of town, which they could prove with a receipt. (Vol. 38 p.12)
Later on Sunday morning, Emmott saw Coulson at church and afterward made plans to meet Coulson and his under Peter Coulson for dinner. (Vol. 38 p. 16) At dinner Emmott told Coulson the combined estates were worth approximately $600,000 and that Coulson was either the sole beneficiary or he would divide the estate equally with Sarah’s illegitimate baby which had been put up for adoption. (Vol. 38 p. 17) Emmott said Coulson was “concerned” and “surprised” to learn the baby might be a beneficiary. (Vol. 38 p. 18, 19) Emmott also told Coulson that Mary Coulson’s niece, Linda Payne, was the executrix of that estate. (Vol. 38 p. 20) Emmott claimed that after the conversation with Coulson, out of fear Emmott had an alarm system installed at his residence the next day. (Vol. 38 p. 22)
Coulson categorically denied having called Emmott Sunday morning (Vol. 46 p. 117, 46 p. 253, 259), that he first heard Emmott was handling the estates from Peter Coulson at lunch after the church service, and that Coulson was invited to have dinner with Peter and Emmott that evening. (Vol. 46 p. 122) Coulson said he felt “numb” at both lunch and dinner and did not remember much of the conversations. (Vol. 46 p. 123) He did remember Emmott mentioning that Sarah’s child was a potential beneficiary because the adoption had not gone through. This is the first Coulson had heard about this. (Vol. 46 p. 125) Coulson said Emmott showed no sign of being afraid of Coulson. In fact, Coulson helped Emmott, who is wheelchair-bound, to the restroom. (Vol. 46 p. 126) Nor did Emmott ever mention to Peter Coulson that he was afraid of Coulson, or that he had installed a security system in his home. (Vol. 38 p. 146)
Emmott’s motive for testifying against Coulson did not go unquestioned. Emmott had received, as of the time of trial, a total of roughly $45,000.00 in legal fees for work probating the Coulsons’ wills. (Vol. 44 p. 108) An expert in probate law testified that, looking at the work reasonably to be done on the Coulson estates, attorneys fees should not yet have exceeded $20,000.00, maximum. (Vol. 45 p. 81) Moreover, embroiling Coulson, one of the principal beneficiaries in the wills, in a criminal prosecution for murdering his family, would have the effect of extending the probate process, which would mean more money in legal fees for Emmott. (Vol. 45 p. 66, 82)
Mary Coulson niece, Linda Payne, testified that Coulson called her at her home in South Carolina around 11:15 p.m., Eastern Time, Sunday, November 15, 1992. (Vol. 39 p. 232) They talked about settlement of the wills, and Coulson wanted to take care of the probate of the wills “as quickly as possible so [Payne] could get back home.” (Vol. 39 p. 235) Coulson was surprised that Payne was the executrix of Mary Coulson’s estate and he needed her permission to go into the house. (Vol. 39 p. 237) Payne said that Coulson was not interested in discussing what had happened to his family (Vol. 39 p. 237) but did volunteer details about his whereabouts at the cabin in Caldwell at the time. (Vol. 39 p. 238, 239) Payne said Coulson insisted on picking Payne and her husband up at the airport the next day and wanted to know where they would be staying when they came to Houston for the memorial service and probate of the estates. (Vol. 39 p. 242-243) Payne said she was “unnerved” at Coulson’s insistence, and did not want to tell him. (Vol. 393 p. 243)
Coulson denied this telephone conversation ever took place. (Vol. 46 p.136, 47 p. 189, 259) There was no record of the call from Coulson’s home phone. (Defense Exhibit 25)
A call to South Carolina on Sunday November 15, 1992 did show up on State Exhibit 110 (Jared’s personal calling card) at 9:54 p.m. The South Carolina call is listed after a call to Jared’s girlfriend in San Marcos that same date. Also, Coulson testified that at lunch with Peter Coulson on Sunday he had offered to pick up Payne and her husband. (Vol. 46 p. 139-140) The defense introduced telephone records to show Peter Coulson called Payne on Sunday afternoon. (Vol. 46 p. 146-147) Coulson met Payne’s plane the next morning. (Vol. 46 p. 244) According to Payne, Coulson made a point of showing her that “the bottoms of his eyes were extremely red and purple.” (Vol. 39 p. 245) On the drive to the Payne’s hotel, Coulson complained of the stupidity and harassment of the police. (Vol. 39 p. 247) He complained that his mother “underestimated” him, that she had not told him of Sarah’s illegitimate baby until Sarah was five months pregnant and he called Robin a “bitch.” (Vol. 39 p. 247-248) Payne said Coulson insisted that the adoption of Sarah’s baby was final and the baby had no claim to the estate and that he “had figured out ways that he would fight that baby[.]” (Vol. 39 p. 248-249) Payne said Coulson told her the wills could be settled in ten days, that she could sign all the necessary papers while she was in town for the memorial services, and then she would not have to come back to Houston. (Vol. 39 p. 249-250)
Coulson testified, by contrast, that when he greeted the Paynes at the airport, they simply exchanged condolences, touched base on events since they had last seen each other and had a “fairly quiet ride” to the hotel. (Vol. 46 p. 153-154) Coulson said Payne’s testimony was the first time he had heard of her accusations regarding the conversation on the way to the hotel, and that it was a lie. (Vol. 46 p. 155, 47 p. 261)
Payne further said that the “wake” or “viewing” on Monday evening, Payne saw Coulson standing in a receiving line, greeting mourners, when Payne approached him to tell him she and her husband were leaving. (Vol. 29 p. 251-252) She asked Coulson if there was “anything [they] could do for [Coulson] before [they] leave.” (Vol. 39 p. 253) She testified Coulson leaned over and whispered, “Yeah. You could take my place in line for a while and talk to these old people for me.” (Vol. 39 p. 253) Coulson denied making any such a derogatory remark. (Vol. 46 p. 163) He explained that many of the people in the receiving line were friends of Otis Coulson from his thirty-five years of employment at ARCO, but Coulson had never met most of them. (Vol. 46 p. 163-164) All Coulson said to Payne was that he “didn’t know who a lot of the old people were that were there.” (Vol. 46 p.163)
On Tuesday afternoon, Linda Payne, her husband Tim, Peter Coulson, and two other relatives, went to the Coulson residence to retrieve whatever needed safekeeping. (Vol. 39 p. 158-160) Linda was in Otis and Mary’s bedroom, going through Mary’s dresser drawer, when she heard Coulson’s voice behind her. When she turned around, Coulson was pointing out to three “neighborhood boys” the burn spots in the room where you could tell the bodies had been. (Vol. 39 p. 261-263, 44 p. 141) Later, Coulson reportedly declined to take the family photos, slides, and videos for safekeeping, reportedly telling Payne, “You just keep them, I’m going to trash them,” (Vol. 39 p. 267) however Coulson did take a camera and a camcorder, commenting that the latter “ought to be worth at least $600.00.” (Vol. 39 p.268)
Payne said Coulson took her and her husband back to their hotel, but refused to allow Payne to take a silver service that had been taken from the house into the hotel to inventory, telling her he had a place to keep them safe. (Vol. 39 p. 269)
In his testimony, Coulson denied giving a “guided tour” to his friends, although he admitted that they came in the house. (Vol. 46 p.199, 200, 203-204) Coulson denied he would “just trash” family photos and slides. Instead, he told everybody to take whatever they wanted because he was sure his father had kept the negatives, and that copies could be made later. (Vol. 46 p. 217) Coulson “[a]bsolutely” did not make the remark about the probable value of the camcorder.” (Vol. 46 p.219)
Contradiction from Bob and Peter Coulson: In fact, Coulson declined to accept the camera and camcorder, but put them in his car along with the silver set for safekeeping until the next day, when the agreement was to transfer them to Peter Coulson to take back to his home in San Marcos. (Vol. 46 p. 218-219, 220, 222, 233-234, 47. p 282) Peter Coulson’s testimony corroborated Coulson this point. (Vol. 38 p. 152-153)
Contradiction by Valerie Price & Phone Records. Valerie Price was a married friend of Robin’s. They had known each other since kindergarten. Valerie Price was also close to Mrs. Coulson and Bob growing up in the same neighborhood. (Vol. 44 p. 64-68) After she learned of the murders and of Bob’s arrest in the news, she went to visit him in jail. Thereafter she spoke with him frequently by telephone and would help Coulson make “three-way calls” from jail. (Vol. 44 p. 70-73) Valerie began to make notes of the calls she made for Bob, and of what was said , just to keep a record in case she needed to know later.
Mrs. Price attempted several three-way calls between Coulson and Linda Payne, but could never get through. (Vol. 44 p. 76) Then one day in May 1994, shortly before trial, Tim Payne (Linda’s husband), returned Valerie’s call. Tim Payne said that Jack Emmott had instructed Linda and Tim Payne not to talk to Bob, and that Linda Payne should not talk to Valerie Price or to “anyone in the defense.” (Vol. 44, p. 79) Valerie Price and Tim Payne discussed Linda Payne’s attitude toward Bob Coulson’s guilt or innocence. Valerie made notes, per her custom. (Vol. 44 p. 79)
Tim Payne told Valerie that right after the murders, when Bob went to meet the Paynes at the airport, there was nothing suspicious or outrageous about Coulson’s conduct or the way Coulson acted. Payne said Coulson ”seemed pretty upset to me.” Coulson had been quiet and didn’t seem to want to talk to anyone. Neither Linda nor Tim were suspicious of Bob Coulson.
Payne further said that he and his wife really did not get a chance to talk to Coulson until they all sat down together and went through some things they had taken from the house, well after the alleged incident in the reception line at the viewing. Tim told Valerie said Bob seemed real upset to him, and that he and Linda were both shocked when Coulson was arrested.
Mr. Payne asked Valerie what reasons Bob might have had to commit the murders, because Payne said he did not think money was enough. Valerie responded, “Bob would not have had any reason to do this and I know in my heart that he didn’t do it.” Payne asked, “Then why is he still in jail? Why was he arrested?” and Valerie responded, because of Jared’s statement. Mr. Payne closed the conversation by saying that he and Linda were so far away that they could not help. They would just wait for the outcome of the trial before they drew any conclusions. (Vol. 44. p. 80-83) This May conversation occurred just weeks before Linda Payne’s unflattering testimony at the criminal trial.
Like Jack Emmott, Linda Payne’s motives for testifying against Coulson are not beyond reproach. By law, as independent executrix of Mary Coulson’s estate, Payne is not entitled to any greater a share of the estate than five percent of the estate’s value in fees and reasonable costs as authorized by law -- at least not without permission of the court. (Vol. 45 p. 75) But as with Emmott, Payne stood to benefit by collecting more in the way of fees if Coulson were convicted of killing his parents. (Vol. 45 p. 76)
Also by law, Payne is not entitled to expend estate assets in any way other than to settle the estate itself, (Vol. 45 p. 75) but as a practical matter, as an independent executrix, she is not supervised (Vol. 45 p. 71) and is “free right now to spend the money on whatever she wishes.” (Vol. 45 p. 75) Moreover, under Mary Coulson’s will, if Otis and their adopted children pre-deceased her without issue, Linda Payne and her siblings were to inherit Mary’s residual estate. (Vol. 39 p. 307, SX-61)
Coulson’s former girlfriend Jerri Moore testified that on Thursday, November 12th, the day before the offense, she and Coulson made a date for lunch the next day, because Moore was going to be in the neighborhood of Coulson’s apartment on Friday morning in connection with her job. (Vol. 38 p. 248-249) On Friday, Moore called Coulson’s apartment from her car, but when she got no answer, she proceeded back to work. (Vol. 38 p. 251) Coulson called Moore back around 1:00 o’clock, but by then Moore had made other lunch plans. (Vol. 38 p. 252, 39 p. 80) The following Tuesday night, Moore saw on television that Coulson had been arrested. (Vol. 38 p. 270) Three or four days later she went to see him at the Harris County Jail, having first notified Sergeant Rudolph of the Houston Police Department of her intention to do so. (Vol. 38 p. 274-275)
Moore admitted she went into her conversation with Coulson at the jail on the assumption he was guilty of the murders because “that’s what I had heard.” (Vol. 38 p. 279, Vol. 39 p. 94-95) Because Moore knew Coulson was closer to Sarah than to any other member of his family, she asked Coulson “if he killed Sarah first.” (Vol. 38 p. 280) In apparent exasperation, Coulson “just said, ‘Oh God, no,’ and put his hands over his head and shook his head.” (Vol. 38 p. 280, 39 p. 102) Moore acknowledged that Coulson did not “deny killing any of the other family or killing her in any other sequence.” (Vol. 38 p. 280) However the prosecutor did not ask Moore if she had asked Coulson whether he killed any other member of his family, or killed Sarah in some other sequence.
Coulson then reportedly said, “All Jared did was drop me off and pick me up.” (Vol. 38 p. 281) Moore was uncertain what Coulson next said. It may have been, “Maybe if we had gone to lunch that day, maybe I wouldn’t have done it.” (Vol. 38 p. 282) But it may have been, “Maybe if we had gone to lunch that day, maybe it wouldn’t have happened.” (Vol. 38 p. 281) Again, keep in mind that Moore went to the jail that day on the assumption that Coulson had committed the crime. (Vol. 39 p. 94-95)
Context: Coulson explained that when he told Moore Althaus had just dropped him off and picked him up, it was in the general context of a discussion of the events of the evening of the murders: he simply meant Althaus dropped him off and picked him up at the mall. (Vol. 47 p. 52) Moore testified on cross-examination that she did not remember the context in which the statement was made. (Vol. 39 p. 104-105) Coulson also explained that earlier in the week of the murders, when Moore found out Coulson was going out of town with Althaus for the weekend, she became angry because Coulson had never gone on out-of-town trips with her. (Vol. 46 p. 37, 38 p. 241-242, 39 p. 73) When Moore told Coulson, “[I]t would be nice if we could do something this weekend[,]” Coulson offered to cancel his trip with Althaus and go with her somewhere, and asked her what she had in mind. (Vol. 46 p. 38) On Thursday of that week Coulson took a flower to Moore’s office, again offering to go with her somewhere for the weekend, (Vol. 46 p. 39) but Moore was too busy to talk, so they made the plan to have lunch on Friday, the day of the murders. (Vol. 46 p. 39) After his arrest at the jail, Moore told him, “I wish you would have been with me that weekend. Then you would have had an alibi.” (Vol. 47 p. 53) It was only after she made this remark that Coulson told her, “If you hadn’t broken lunch with me, it wouldn’t have happened.” (Vol. 47 p. 53)
Context: By this he simply meant that, had Moore not broken their lunch date on Friday, he would have spent the weekend with her instead of Althaus. (Vol. 47 p. 53, Vol. 48 p. 24) Moore did not seek any clarification, immediately thereafter visiting time expired, and Coulson was “pulled” (Vol. 47 p. 53, Vol. 39 p. 105-106) On later occasions Coulson consistently told Moore he was not involved in the killings. (Vol. 48 p. 104)
The day after his arrest Coulson called Scott Smith’s father, Ken, at his workplace at about 3:00 in the afternoon. (Vol. 43 p. 17) They spoke for five to ten minutes and Coulson seemed upset. (Vol. 43 p. 18) The conversation was rambling, but one thing about it stuck out in Smith’s mind. (Vol. 43 p. 18) Coulson said when they took him downtown after he was arrested, he knew they were going to book him. (Vol. 43 p. 18) Coulson continued: “I could have run. But what the hell, I did it, and I’m not going to run.” (Vol. 43 p. 18) Two days later Smith visited Coulson in the Harris County Jail. (Vol. 43 p. 19) When Smith asked Coulson what happened, Coulson replied, “Jared. It came up, and it wouldn’t go away. It just happened.” (Vol. 43 p. 21) When Smith asked Coulson why, Coulson replied, “Everything was falling apart. Money wouldn’t get better. Everything was coming to pieces. It kept coming up, and we did it.” (Vol. 43 p. 21)
Context: Coulson tells a subtly different version of the telephone conversation. He described Ken Smith as one of the best friends he had, notwithstanding the difference in their ages. (Vol. 47 p. 31, 40 p. 192) Coulson therefore became upset when, almost immediately, Smith took an accusatory tone with him on the phone. (Vol. 47 p. 33) After some general conversation about Coulson’s arrest, Smith basically asked Coulson if he “had done it.” (Vol. 47 p. 34) Coulson replied, “What the hell. If I did it, I’m not going to run.” (Vol. 47 p. 34)
Coulson was disappointed because he expected support from his friend under such adverse circumstances. (Vol. 47 p. 35) Smith did not react at the time as if he believed Coulson had just admitted anything significant to him. (Vol. 47 p. 35-36) When Smith came to the jail, he took a slightly less accusatory tone. (Vol. 47 p. 44) Coulson denied he made any statement about everything falling apart. (Vol. 47 p. 46) Smith asked him right away what happened, and Coulson threw up his arms and said, “Jared. I don’t know.” (Vol. 46 p. 46) They then discussed what the police had told Coulson after his arrest about what Althaus told them. (Vol. 47 p. 46)
When he had said, “It came up and it wouldn’t go away. It just happened,” or words to that effect, Coulson had been referring not to murdering his family, but to his and Althaus’s conversation and decision to agree to a false alibi on the way back to Houston from Caldwell. (Vol. 47 p. 45, 48 p. 21-22) On subsequent occasions when Smith visited Coulson in the jail, Coulson always denied any involvement in the murders. (Vol. 48 p. 47, 104)
Jason Althaus, brother of the accomplice Jared Althaus, initially told police that he did not think Coulson had anything to do with the murders because Bob “just didn’t seem like the type.”
At trial, however, Jason testified that in August of 1992 Coulson was angry because his parents had refused to loan him the money to buy a windshield repair franchise. (Vol. 42 p. 212-213) According to Jason, Coulson reportedly said, “My parents have screwed me for the last time. I’m going to kill them.” (Vol. 42. 213) Jason had neglected to tell police about this statement in November 1992, and only told prosecutors for the first time a few weeks before trial. (Vol. 43 p. 214) By that time Jason had a very obvious motive to fabricate: to divert suspicion away from his brother Jared.
Contradiction by Other Witnesses: Coulson denied he was angry at his parents at that time (August 1992). Other witnesses backed him up, insisting that Otis Coulson had agreed, not refused, to co-sign a note for an owner-financed purchase of the windshield repair franchise. (Vol. 42-7, 9-10, 30 p. 200, 224-225, 39 p. 37)
The State’s theory at trial: Coulson killed his family because he was in financial difficulty. He needed his inheritance to bail himself out of it. In pursuit of this strategy, the State proved Coulson owed slightly more than eleven thousand dollars in debt at the time of the murders. (Vol. 42 p. 288) Some of this was student loans. (Vol. 46 p. 284) Of all of this debt, however, only $3,210.00 was past-due, having been “charged off” by the creditor. (Vol. 42 p. 289) Coulson began to fall behind in his payments at about the same time he sustained a knee injury that caused him to take medical leave from his job at Ozarka and collect disability. (Vol. 42 p. 290-291) Coulson had torn a knee ligament playing volleyball the summer of 1991. (Vol. 37 p. 129, 225, 40 p. 185, 46 p. 257-258)
At the time of his injury, he had no past-due amounts on his credit card payments. (Vol. 46 p. 271) Because of the injury, he had a reduced income in the form of disability payments, and incurred additional medical expenses. (Vol. 46 p. 278, 50 p. 91)
At the time of the murders, three or four thousand dollars would have been enough to clear his past-due debt. In fact, he had made arrangements with a collection agency to repay even some of the “charged off” debt in increments. (Vol. 46 p. 282-285) At the time of the murders, Coulson had several thousand dollars in the bank. (Vol. 41 p. 32)
While Coulson had borrowed $10,000.00 from Jerri Moore, he had paid her back at least half of that amount, and even continued to make payments to her for a time after he was arrested. (Vol. 38 p. 226-227, 39. 31-32, 46 p. 282, 284, 47 p. 16) Coulson also owed his parents about $3000.00, and had paid back a small portion of this, but his parents were in no hurry to be repaid and there were no hard feelings over that debt. (Vol. 46 p. 286-289)
Although he had definitely accumulated some debt, as of the time of the offense, Coulson had become much more frugal. Despite his reduction in income, Coulson was not hurting for money. (Vol. 41 p. 19-20)
The Motel 6
Recall that Althaus gave several versions of his story to the police. His third story was given to the police at 8:45 a.m. on Tuesday, November 17th after an all night session of confession, interrogation and polygraph examination. (Vol. 41 p. 220-221, Defense Exhibit 11)
Almost twelve hours later, at 8:30 p.m., responding to a phone call from Althaus, Coulson came to room 328 of the Motel 6 on the Katy Freeway at Highway 6. For the next fifty minutes the police surreptitiously tape-recorded a conversation between Althaus and Coulson. (Vol. 42 p.120, 43 p. 52, 61) The tape was played for the jury and a transcript was admitted to aid the jury in following the conversation. (Vol. 43 p. 57-58, 60, State Exhibit 100, 101)
Context: At no point did Coulson ever admit to the murder of his family in the recording. (State Exhibit 101, Vol. 48 p. 143) It is certainly true that he does make a number of statements that, in the context of the balance of the State’s evidence, sound suspicious. (R. SX-101) However, taken in the context of Coulson’s testimony the false alibi (Vol. 46 p. 78, 89) the recorded conversation between Althaus and Coulson takes on an altogether different meaning.
Coulson explained that he implored Althaus to stick to their alibi. Not to cover up the murder of his family, but to prevent the police from discovering that he and Althaus, unable to prove their whereabouts at the time of the murders, had lied to the police about where they had been. (Vol. 46 p. 236, 238) Coulson did not know whether lying to the police might itself constitute an offense and was afraid that “if they found out we had lied, they would immediately suspect that we had committed the murders.” (Vol. 46 p. 236, 239) Practically every statement Coulson makes on the tape from which consciousness of guilt could be inferred makes sense in view of Coulson’s explanation.
In its opinion and analysis, the 5th Circuit was careful to note that while the tape contained several incriminating statements, “during the conversation in the hotel room, Coulson never admitted to killing his family.” (Coulson v. Johnson, p. 5, No. 01-20083, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Cir., August 7, 2001, King, Smith & Parker)
At the close of the defense’s evidence, the State called two Houston police sergeants, Brad Rudolph and J. W. Belk. (Vol. 48 p. 118, 158) Each testified to events occurring in the back of a police van after Coulson was arrested, right after the Motel 6 conversation. After police told Coulson that Althaus had confessed and showed him snapshots of the evidence Althaus had helped them recover on the road to Caldwell, the officers stated that Coulson slumped his shoulders and bowed his head, shaking it from side to side. (Vol. 48 p. 122-23, 168) As if rehearsed, both Rudolph and Belk testified that Coulson “took on a defeated look[,]” and “appeared to be defeated[,]” respectively. (R. 48 p. 123, 168)
Rudolph testified that Coulson did not deny murdering his family. (Vol. 48 p. 126, 130)
According to Belk, Coulson positively admitted to killing them. (Vol. 48 p. 165)
Rudolph maintained that Coulson explained that he:
“did not hate his family as he suspected most people would think, that he was having financial difficulties and felt that this was the only way out. That society is such that you are considered a failure unless you succeed financially. He had overcharged his credit cards, he was in debt at college, and he owed everybody. And that he — this was the only way he could make it in life financially.”
(Vol. 48 p. 126) Sergeant Belk gave a remarkably similar accounting. (Vol. 48 p. 165-6)
Asked “why,” Coulson replied that “that’s just one of those questions that’s just too emotional to answer.” (Vol. 48 p. 177, 128)
Suspicious Circumstances: From my own experience with Bob Coulson, this description of his reaction simply does not ring true. I have seen him under some extraordinarily trying circumstances, but “defeated” is not a reaction I have ever encountered. Just as suspicious is the “remarkably similar accounts” of the officers. Finally, this statement in the back of the van was not recorded in any fashion. (Vol. 48 p. 143-144) Officer Belk explained that they had not recorded the conversation because they did not want to discourage Coulson from talking to them. However they had just finished 45 minutes of surreptitious taping and surely had access to at least one (probably several) recording devices. Moreover, at that time the law would have permitted taping Mr. Coulson without his permission or knowledge. (Vol. 48 p. 166-167, 178).
For his part, Coulson flatly denied confessing to the police in the back of the van. (Vol. 46 p. 254) For my part, for what it’s worth, I cannot imagine Bob Coulson confessing in the back of the police van to a crime he did not commit.
An alternate juror told the Houston Chronicle that she would have voted to acquit Coulson because of a lack of physical evidence linking him to the murder scene. Exhibit 19, Coulson guilty in slayings of kin, Jennifer Liebrum, HOUSTON CHRONICLE, June 17, 1994. Unfortunately, the jury deliberated for three hours and forty-one minutes before returning a verdict of guilty of capital murder based upon the foregoing evidence.
5. Statement of the Appellate History:
See original Application delivered June 4, 2002.
6. The Legal Issues Raised During Judicial Proceedings:
See original Application delivered June 4, 2002.
7. Renewed Request for 120 Day Reprieve:
Through counsel, Coulson seeks a reprieve of at least 120 days in order (a) to allow undersigned volunteer lawyer to have recourse to further investigation and expert testimony in support of Coulson’s claims of actual innocence and (b) to permit the Executive and the Board the opportunity to investigate those claims.
8. All Grounds Upon Which a Conditional Pardon or, in the Alternative Reprieve and Commutation, Are Requested:
Coulson’s actual innocence has been thoroughly obscured by the failure of the police to conduct a full and fair investigation, by police and prosecutorial misconduct at the trial of the case and by ineffective counsel.
a Innocence Overwhelmed by Police and Prosecution Misconduct:
(i). State Obtained and Sponsored a False Confession
Ater the trial, the Judge commented that Jared Althaus’s testimony was critical to the jury verdict. For that reason, Althaus was sentenced to 10 years in prison, not 20 as had been reported, of which he served five (5) years and since been released on parole. Prosecutor Rosenthal wrote to Althaus’s attorney, “..if Althaus has lied or shaded the truth in his previous statements to the police, I need him to come forward with the truth. I would far prefer Mr. Althaus to have made a prior inconsistent statement than to have his testimony be tainted with the slightest falsehood.” See Exhibit 18.
Yet from the beginning, the State had every reason to know that Althaus’s confession was false. At the time his confession was given, Althaus failed a polygraph. See Exhibit 14. Much of the perceived value of Althaus’s testimony was that he offered to assist police in recovering items used to commit the murders. He did, indeed, assist the police in retrieving a number of articles (e.g. crow bar, backpack, gas can), but not one of those articles could be forensically tied to Robert Coulson, to the crime or to any of the victims.
For example, the crowbar was supposedly used to bludgeon Richard Wentworth, but there was no blood, hair, fingerprints or anything else to tie the crowbar to Coulson, to any of the victims, the crime scene or the Coulson house. Efforts to confirm Jared’s information regarding when and where the items were purchased failed.
Not only did Jared fail a polygraph exam on his confession, by the time of his confession Jared had provided several versions of the story. At trial the criminal trial, he testified he had given four versions of the story. (Vol. 41, p. 185) Moreover, his story did not match known facts of the crime. For example, Jared said Bob suffocated his mother, Mary Coulson, with a pillow. As noted, no pillow was found in that room and no fibers around her nose or mouth substantiated that version of what happened.
Another example: how could Coulson could have single-handedly subdued and killed his entire family, including Rick Wentworth, without any struggle? Jared stated that Coulson arranged for them to arrive at the house in staged intervals. Yet this contradicts the statements and testimony of Mike Gherman, a Coulson neighbor, that all four of the family’s cars had been parked in the driveway from 3:30 or so in the afternoon and remained there when the fire trucks arrived.
Within weeks of the crime and arrests, it should have been crystal clear to police that Jared’s testimony was not accurate and that the articles collected with Jared’s help were not “instrumentalities of the crime.” Rather than reassess their initial rush to judgment that Coulson was the murderer and conduct further research, the police – and the prosecution – simply put on blinders and pressed forward. The theory developed was that Jared was a submissive personality to Coulson’s dominating and controlling personality. Jared was a “puppet.” A psychologist was retained to support that theory. While the defense did not have access to that report for purposes of impeachment at trial, its contents may be inferred from an article published after Althaus was sentenced, summarizing the psychological findings. See Exhibit 18.
Trial testimony was “shaded.” Despite clear evidence in the initial police records that Jared Althaus and Coulson were about 6 feet tall and weighed in the 175-190 range (both suspects were weighed by police), at trial Jared was allowed to make it appear that at the time of the crimes he was smaller and more subject to domination. Jared was allowed testify – contrary to police records - that he had weighed only 130-140 at the time of the crime. ( Vol. 41 p. 280)
Why was Jared’s confession inconsistent with the facts of the crime?
Why did none of the recovered articles link up to the crime forensically?
If Jared was the “puppet” of Coulson, who dominated and protected him, and Jared did not do his own thinking, then how much more was Jared subject to the domination and control of police officers with guns and badges?
In the last decade, research and scholarly work has identified and scrutinized the phenomena of “false confessions.” See Exhibits 12-13, attached. In Texas, properly qualified expert testimony is admissible for purposes of attempting to suppress false confessions. One of the hallmarks of a false confession is that, as here, the confession facts do not hold up against known facts from the investigation and witnesses. As noted, the Althaus confession was obtained overnight in the wee hours of the morning, with the polygraph exam concluding around 8:25 a.m. At one point during the confession session, Althaus was found apparently asleep on the floor.
The confession occurred after Jared had gone to San Marcos, Texas, the Monday after the crime, without surveillance. The trip would have allowed Althaus to throw alleged articles from the crime along the road to grandfather’s farm, so that he would have something tangible to offer the police. See the hand drawn map attached as Exhibit 28, showing how Jared could easily have tossed out the items on his way to San Marcos on Monday afternoon, without being observed, since the police were not following him.
Indeed, if Jared planted the alleged ‘instrumentalities of crime,” that is about the only way to account for a total lack of any physical evidence connecting the items to the crime scene. The items cannot be connected to the crime forensically because they are not connected to the crime in fact.
That night the police tracked Althaus to a campus motel where he had gone with his girlfriend. Police then conducted an unrecorded interview of Althaus in the police car of which no written report was made. Something clearly happened to frighten Althaus.
Before the Houston police had left San Marcos for Houston, Althaus paged homicide detectives to say he was coming back. Althaus reached the Houston police station before the officers did and offered his confession. Althaus’s actions that night look suspiciously like those of a very frightened individual.
More suspiciously, there are no notes or recordings of what the police said to him in San Marcos that caused such a rapid response, but one can logically conclude that coercion was a factor.
(ii). State Sponsored False Evidence: the Planted Envelope
As noted earlier, the State introduced two photos of an old Aetna envelope with notations about a prior loan to Bob Coulson sitting on top of Otis Coulson’s desk. State Exhibits 15 & 16 were used to prove Jared’s claim that Coulson called his father to arrange a business meeting and “was expected” at the house to discuss a “business opportunity.” The State urged that the photos “proved” that Otis Coulson put the envelope on top of the desk to discuss with his son on the night of the murders and must have pulled the envelope out from the other papers for that purpose.
The location of the envelope in the photo was the only uncontested piece of evidence that Robert Coulson was “expected” at the house that night. It was the only uncontested evidence to support Jared’s testimony that Coulson “lured” his family to the house to murder them in order to inherit the $600,000 estate.
In closing argument, the State told the jury (incorrectly) to remember that the envelope was found “on the table in the den apart from anything else because [Otis] is expecting his son to come over and talk to him about a business deal.” (Vol. Vo. 49, p. 186)
After closing, the jury asked to see the “envelope that was on the desk” on two occasions. Once during guilt and innocence deliberations and again during penalty phase deliberations.
On appeal, the State again urged that the importance of the envelope as a material piece of evidence was because of where it was found,“…because is was discovered on top of Otis Coulson’s desk the night of the murders.
As such, it corroborates Jared Althaus’ testimony that Appellant called his father to arrange a meeting for the night of the murders to discuss his business deal[.]” State’s Appellate Brief, at pp. 33-34.
The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed, stating that the importance of the Aetna envelope was not in what was written on it, but the fact it was,
…found on Otis Coulson’s desk on the night of the murders. This fact tended to show that Otis Coulson was expecting to discuss Appellant’s business plans around the time of the murders. Coulson v. State, (Tex.Cr.App., No. 71,948, at pp. 15-17, October 16, 1996) (emphasis added)
After the direct appeal, Coulson’s habeas attorney proved that the envelope was NOT on the desk on the night of the crime as shown in State Exhibits 15 & 16. (See Exhibit 26, color versions of the photos originally provided in black and white as Exhibit 15). Using the crime scene video and police photos not introduced at trial, Coulson’s lawyers proved to the satisfaction of the federal district court and the 5th Circuit that the envelope was not on the desk the night of the murders.
The 5th Circuit agreed that the evidence showed that the police placed the envelope on top of Otis’s desk the day after the crime and the photo was false evidence, finding (contrary to the finding of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, above) that,
We agree that the state evidentiary hearing…sufficiently establishes that the evidence regarding the location of the envelope was “false.” We also agree that this knowledge may be imputed from the police to the prosecution. (Coulson v.Johnson, p. 20-21, No. 01-20083, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Cir., August 7, 2001, King, Smith & Parker)
Contrary to the state courts, however, the federal courts found that the location of the envelope was not “material” and would not have affected the jury’s determination.
(iii) Failure to Conduct Adequate Crime Scene/Forensic Investigation Once no Evidence was Linked to Coulson
As noted above, once the police focused in on Coulson as the prime suspect, all forensic investigation was geared toward connecting Coulson, physically, to the murders. When that could not be done, the police simply stopped looking. If, instead, the police had conducted further forensic and crime scene investigation, they might well have obtained, developed and preserved physical evidence link someone else to this awful crime. That was not ever done here.
(iv) Failure to Follow other Leads, or to Even Disclose such Exculpatory Evidence to the Defense Prior to trial
* Reported Death Threat to a Coulson Neighbor
Unbeknownst to the defense until a arson investigator testified at trial, on the night of the
murders, one of the Coulson neighbors, Charlotte Diemer, was extremely alarmed that the attack at the Coulson home had been meant for her and her family. Some days before the crime, Ms. Diemer had received – and reported to police – a telephone death threat. Ms. Diemer pointed out to the firemen the physical similarity of the two homes. Addresses were similar (9802 Westview vs. 9752 Westview). Both were on the same side of the street. Both had “for sale” signs out and realtor “lockboxes” on the front doors. See Exhibit 16, attached. Police and arson reports show absolutely no follow up, nor was Ms. Diemer’s statement ever disclosed to the defense until more than a year later, at trial. Efforts to locate Ms. Diemer are ongoing. See Affidavit of Investigator Scott Belshaw, attached as Exhibit 30.
The Two Roof Sweepers
At the precise time of the murders, two itinerate workers were on the house immediately to the east of the Coulson residence owned by Mr. and Mrs. Bob Herring. A neighbor across the street reported seeing them staring into the window of the bedroom where Sarah Coulson was found. Mrs. Herring provided information for a composite sketch which was published in the paper. See Exhibit 16, see also Bob Herring letter, Exhibit 21. The two men were allegedly questioned and released, but there is no record of what they said or what information they had concerning this matter, other than one of them passing a polygraph.
The two men who were released were day laborers or itinerates. No police reports concerning the contents of the interviews were available. The defense never had any opportunity to explore what these men might have known, or where that knowledge might have led. All that is known is that they were questioned and released and, according to the police report, that one of their empty beer cans was found on the outside ledge of the window of the bedroom where Sarah Coulson died.
* Discouraging Witness Stephen Pickerell From Coming Forward
An interview after the death sentence stated, “Coulson maintains he was at Town and Country Mall when his family was murdered. Because a gag order prevented his alibi from being made public until trial, Coulson said he hoped someone will come forward who may have seen him there.” Exhibit 19, Jurors sentence Coulson to death. Coulson insists he didn’t slay family, Jennifer Liebrum, HOUSTON CHRONICLE, June 23, 1994. In fact, shortly after arriving at Death Row, Coulson received a letter from a man named Stephen Pickerell. See Exhibit 17. Mr. Pickerell stated that he had seen Coulson in the parking lot of the Luby’s cafeteria at Town & Country Mall at approximately 4:40 to 4:45 the afternoon of Friday November 13, 1992, the afternoon of the murders. This confirmed Coulson’s testimony before and during trial, that he had been waiting for his family to join him at Luby’s. Because of the “gag” order. Pickerell was unaware of Coulson’s need for corroborating witnesses as to Coulson’s alibi. Pickerell did contact Officer Brad Rudolf, one of the HPD investigators, but was reportedly told that Pickerell’s information was not important, that this was a very high profile case and that Pickerell would not want to become involved in the case. This critical information was never provided to Coulson’s attorneys before trial.
After the trial, when Pickerell learned what had happened to Coulson, he contacted Coulson’s trial defense attorneys, but they never called back. Pickerell then wrote to Coulson in prison, but has since disappeared. See Exhibit 17. Efforts to locate Mr. Pickerell again are ongoing. See Exhibit 17 as well as the Affidavit of Investigation of Scott Belshaw, attached as Exhibit 30.
b. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel:
SOME OF THE DEFICIENCIES OF COULSON’S APPOINTED TRIAL COUNSEL WERE NOTED IN THE ORIGINAL APPLICATION. THE CONSENSUS BETWEEN HIS INVESTIGATOR, A WITNESS AND TWO POTENTIAL WITNESSES (SEE EXHIBITS 4, 5, 6, 20, 21 AND 22) IS THAT TRIAL DEFENSE COUNSEL FAILED TO CONDUCT ANY MEANINGFUL INVESTIGATION UNTIL SHORTLY BEFORE TRIAL AND FAILED TO RETURN WITNESS PHONE CALLS. AMONG OTHER THINGS, COUNSEL NEVER VISITED THE CRIME SCENE. COULSON NEIGHBOR BOB HERRING WAS “SPEECHLESS” WHEN HE LEARNED COULSON’S LAWYERS ALLOWED THE HOUSE TO BE DEMOLISHED WITHIN A FEW MONTHS, LONG BEFORE TRIAL, WITHOUT THE LAWYERS THEMSELVES INSPECTING IT OR HIRING EXPERTS TO DO SO TO LOCATE OR PRESERVE PHYSICAL EVIDENCE. SEE EXHIBIT 21. AFTER TRIAL, COUNSEL WAIVED ORAL ARGUMENT ON DIRECT A
Table of Exhibits to Supplement
26. Color versions of Police Photos: the False or Planted Evidence submitted in black and white as Exhibits #15 A-E:
· 26 A, State #15 Taken the day after the murders.
· 26 B, State #16 Taken the day after the murders.
· 26 C, Not Admitted at Trial. Taken the night of the murders, no Aetna envelope on the desk.
· 26 D, Not Admitted at Trial. Taken the night of the murders, no Aetna envelope on the desk.
· 26 E, probable location of Aetna envelopes on the night of the murders: note envelope-shaped white space in the bottom of the topmost of the stacked drawers.
27. Testimony of Charles Rosenthal (Civil Trial 2-12-97)
28. Map Showing Where Items Were Recovered Which Jared Althaus Said Were Used in Commission of the Murders
29. Order from 5th Circuit Disciplinary Hearing
30. Affidavit of Investigator Scott Belshaw
31. Affidavit of Barbara Neff