Eric King was a convicted felon when he was accused of murder in 1989. In fact, he had just prior been released after serving seven years for rape and kidnapping. Therefore, he was easily regarded as a suspect in the shooting deaths of a clerk and guard at a Short Stop located at 48th Street and Broadway in Phoenix. Yet, he repeatedly pointed out to the court that he believed that he was being “railroaded” due to his race, and if one looks past his previous record his story does seem to meet the criteria of one of the all too familiar “the black guy did it” tales. In fact, the conviction is backed up by the shakiest of evidence, but certainly enough in an Arizona courtroom to convict a minority defendant.
Not surprisingly, Eric’s case rests on the lack of testimony by a codefendant of sorts, Michael Page Jones, who was originally charged with the murders but allowed to walk free, and another dubious account by Detective Armando Saldate as to what Jones had said during a lengthy interrogation. Again, without Saldate’s testimony, there was absolutely no chance of conviction. There was no physical evidence and several witnesses from the scene were unable to identify Eric as the man that they had saw fleeing. There was only a distorted store tape that showed and a verbal description by witnesses of a sweater worn by one of the robbers. But then, days after Jones arrest came the alleged story of his girlfriend, Renee Hill, which suddenly gave the prosecutor a case.
It was quiet a coincidence that Hill supposedly called in after seeing a television broadcast of the film from the robbery to report that on the night of the murder she and a friend “Miss Smith” had saw Eric toss a “thin light colored bag in the dumpster,” with the bag alleged to have contained a gun and dark sweater with a white diamond pattern.” Notably, however, neither Hill or Smith called to report the suspicious behavior that night, and while Hill also allegedly identified Eric from the footage, she will later testify repeatedly that the image does not look like him, despite the account of detectives.
Hill, actually makes it very plain that she does not want to testify at all, without ever being questioned as to why she is so reluctant. Still, her statements do not imply that she is afraid, but do make it clear she is forced to be on the stand, with her remarking, “I don’t want to testify. I am being held against my will, something I do not want to do…. I got my own troubles and worries.”
Again, the evidence from others contradicts the police reports, but without both Hill and Jones’ stories somehow presented there was no evidence to allow the conviction of Eric. Thus, Jones and Hill both testified, though they clearly did so under threat of prosecution. Hill was actually picked up days before trial and held against her will, and the agreement with Jones made it clear that without his testimony he would face capital murder charges. The stories and witnesses were so dubious that the prosecutor was not sure he could get them on the stand under subpoena and then not certain they would repeat the same stories they were alleged to have told Saldate, so the prosecutor carefully prepared the jury for their appearances in his opening statement:
You will hear from a man by the name of Michael Page Jones. Mr Jones was with Eric King that night. In fact, at one time Mr. Jones was charged as an accomplice. The case was later dismissed. Michael Jones was with Mr. King. He told the police officers later in December what really happened. I can’t guarantee you what Mr. Michael Page Jones is going to say when he gets on the stand, ladies and gentleman, but he was there that night and he has information and I suggest to you the jury that if he testifies truthfully as he should he will implicate the defendant, Eric King, without a doubt…
Who else? Renee Hill at one time was the girlfriend of Michael Jones, Renee Hill currently lives in the projects. She is on welfare. , and she is scared to death. She comes to court today not voluntarily, but because Detective House managed to go out and find her over the last 24 to 36 hours and bring her to court. She is scared. Whether she should be or whether she shouldn’t be ladies and gentleman, ladies and gentleman, it doesn’t matter, because her in her own mind she is scared. She does not want to testify. She does not want to come into this court under any circumstances. Ladies and gentleman, she will be brought into this courtroom to testify and you will hear her testify.
Having been told of their reluctance to testify, but assured that Jones if he told the truth would implicate King, and that Hill was scared to death which implied she had been threatened on Eric’s behalf with whatever she said in court could not be trusted if it pointed away from Eric, there was actually little reason for the jury to even hear their testimony. Already, the version they were assured would be the truth was that of detective Saldate who would of course offer a relation of Hill and Jones’ accounts that attained conviction, though the same answers had to literally be forced out of the witnesses.
The story of the robbery is even recognizably Saldate’s, beginning with the codefendant being relieved of all culpability beyond that of a scared witness. In fact, Jones’ alleged participation never went farther than his standing in the parking lot waiting on Eric and not so much as glancing at the store until he heard gunshots. Then, according to the account, he fled in fear. However, there were several witnesses who had saw the two men black men at the store together, and saw them running away together. The first of these was Frank Madden who along with his girlfriend had pulled into the parking lot of the Kountry Kitchen Restaurant located just behind the Short Stop to discover they were closed.
Before they drove away, they heard the shots, and Madden pulled around to the store and got out of the truck to call 911 after seeing the guard on the ground. Then, while on the phone, he watched the robber in the dark sweater walk up to the guard and wipe his empty holster with a white rag before the two then fled the scene. However, Madden was not able to make a positive identification of the man he saw. Rather, all he could say was the man had “high cheek bones” like Eric and that Eric “looked very familiar” which was not a very reliable identification considering that Eric walked around the same area daily.
There was also Kevin Harris and David Dil who were driving through the intersection by Short Stop and heard the shots. They too pulled into a nearby parking lot and saw two black men running from the store together and one had a gun in his hand. When they got out, the guard had no pulse and the clerk was found shot in two places and screaming into a phone receiver. The last of the witnesses from the scene was Nolan Thomas and his son Derek who also saw the holster being wiped, but who could not identify the man beyond a dark sweater with a white “logo.” In fact, of six witnesses, no one could identify the man they saw.
Notably, without Hill the testimony of Saldate that Jones had confessed to it being Eric with him at the scene became the only seemingly credible evidence that Eric was involved. Of course, Saldate used his often repeated statement that the suspect had told him “approximately the same story” as that was presented by the prosecution and that was that. The jury had the version they believed to be truth, because a detective who represented himself as a man of upstanding reputation had assured them of it despite Jones and Hill having to be strongly led to say the same.
In the end, there was no physical evidence to connect Eric to the scene, no eyewitness could identify him, and Saldate’s paraphrased reports certainly stand in question. Yet, it was enough to sentence a man to die. The verdict did not go completely uncontested by the defendant, however. Instead, he continued to maintain that he was railroaded, as writing to the judge:
The transcripts “would reveal the bias and prejudice conduct of the state and my own counsel, was a part of the conspiracy to convict not on provided information submitted to the grand jury, but only because of my ethnic background in order to satisfy society.” King’s opinion of his attorney also included his dissatisfaction with the process as he stated, “ I don’t feel that she did her best and I feel I got railroaded.”
As the appellate record shows, “King claimed in his letter that the evidence was not sufficient to convict him.” Plus, at his mitigation hearing he offered in his statement that “ I did not commit the crime. No evidence, no effect… You will give me the death penalty or life. I feel either way you go I want to leave,” and at that point King in frustration left his own hearing.
Eric King was clearly denied the right to a fair trial, and convicted by the use of questionable evidence, but appellate courts upheld the outcome of the charade. I wrote to Eric, and he again told me that he did not commit this crime after having suffered for almost two decades, and I have no reason to not believe him. Eric’s conviction as too many others rests solely on the story of Armando Saldate, with nothing to back it up. Maybe that is enough for the courts, but it is not enough to satisfy me that Eric deserves to die.
It has to be considered that Jones wanted to say nothing, and had to be coerced into court. Thus, I have to wonder if maybe his brother or possibly best friend had actually helped him to commit the robbery would Jones have been honest enough to have tried to save someone else from going to prison for them. It is certain that he had spoken to Hill before she suddenly appeared days later to become the key to conviction. Plus, knowing that he spent hours with Saldate whose tactics were less than principled and his integrity far less than it should have been certainly leaves me to doubt the verdict which is about to cost Eric his life.