Although innocent, he pleaded guilty to avoid a death sentence.
To avoid a death sentence for a 1984 rape-murder in Arlington, Virginia—a crime to which he had falsely confessed—David Vasquez pled guilty to second-degree murder and burglary and was sentenced to twenty years in prison. On January 4, 1989, he received a gubernatorial pardon based on innocence after another man was convicted of three virtually identical crimes based on DNA testing.
Sometime after 10:00 p.m. on Monday, January 23, 1984, a serial killer-rapist, who five years later would be identified by DNA as Timothy Wilson Spencer, broke into the Arlington home of Carolyn Jean Hamm, a 32-year-old Washington lawyer, and raped and killed her. When Hamm did not show up at work on Tuesday and Wednesday, her secretary called Darla Henry, Hamm’s closest friend. Henry went to Hamm’s home and, finding the front door ajar, hailed a young man, Larry Ranser, who was backing his car out of a driveway down the street. They entered the house together and Ranser found Hamm’s body, nude and face down, on the basement floor. Her hands had been bound behind her with a venetian blind cord. She had been hanged.
On January 29, police received a telephone call from Muriel Ranser, the sister of the man who found the body. She claimed to have seen Vasquez, whom she had known for several years, in the neighborhood at around 8:00 p.m. on January 23. She described Vasquez as “creepy” and claimed to have once seen him ogling Hamm sunbathing in her yard. A day after that call, police received a call from a man named Michael Ansari, who claimed to have seen Vasquez in the neighborhood on January 25 after the discovery of Hamm’s body. Ansari said Vasquez’s behavior had been “strange” because “the whole neighborhood was interested in what happened—except Dave.”
Vasquez, a 38-year-old former Arlington high school janitor with an IQ below 70, had moved several years earlier to Manassas, Virginia, some 30 miles from Arlington. He lived with his mother and worked at a fast-food restaurant where Arlington County Detectives Robert H. Carrig and Charles Shelton picked him up for questioning on February 4.
Over the next several hours, Carrig and Shelton interrogated Vasquez on tape. Initially, he insisted that he had not been in Arlington the night of the crime. Asked where he had been, he replied, “Stayed home, like usual.” He stuck by his denials until Carrig and Shelton told him that his fingerprints had been found in Hamm’s home. Although that was a fabrication, Vasquez responded, “Maybe I might have gone there for a visit.” Asked how he would have gotten to Arlington, he replied, “I want to know. Because my mom was working and she can’t drive, and I don’t drive.”
With the logistical question unresolved, Vasquez proceeded to say that he had had sex with Hamm. Asked what he had used to tie her hands, he first said, “The ropes.” “No, not the ropes,” said Shelton. “Ah, my belt,” said Vasquez. “Come on, David, think about what you used now.” “A coat-hanger?” “No, it wasn’t a coat-hanger—remember cutting the venetian blind cord?” “Ah, it was a thin rope.” “Yeah.” Shelton then asked Vasquez how he had killed Hamm. “I grabbed the knife and just stabbed her, that’s all,” said Vasquez. “Oh, David, no David.” “I only say it did happen and I did it.” “You hung her.” “Okay, so I hung her.”
On February 6, after realizing that they had failed to give a Miranda warning, Carrig and Shelton again interrogated Vasquez, this time advising him orally of his rights. Vasquez now insisted that he had not been in Arlington at any time in recent months. Some 50 minutes into the session, Carrig left the room, taking the tape recorder with him. Shelton lingered, however, making small talk with Vasquez. Suddenly, according to Shelton, Vasquez dropped his head and said, “I have horrible dreams.”
Shelton retrieved the tape recorder and asked Vazquez to describe the dream. “Girl was in my dream, it’s a horrible dream, too horrible,” said Vasquez. “I got myself in hell by breaking glass. The dryer was hooked up, cut my hand in glass. I need help, then I went up stairs, she kept coming out. She startled me. I startled her. We both kinda screamed a little bit. She told me what was I doing. I said I came over to see you. She wanted to make love. She said yes and no and then said okay and we went upstairs to her bedroom. Kissed a little and then took each other’s clothes off . . . she told me would I tie her hands. She said there’s a knife in the kitchen, cut string off the blinds, just tie me. Then I asked her . . . if it’s too tight. She said no . . . Walk downstairs . . . took her pictures, she’s nice. She said tie me some more. . . . I brought . . . some big rope and . . . she told me the other way. I says what way is that? She says, by hanging. I says no, don’t have to hang, no, no, no, no. She said yes and called me a chicken. So I did it. . . . I don’t want my dream anymore. That dream, too much.”
At this point, Vasquez was charged with murder, rape, and burglary. The next day, he was again questioned by the detectives. The reason for the third interrogation, according to Shelton, was that “some confusion still existed with respect to certain aspects of the case.” This time Vasquez signed a Miranda waver and gave another tape-recorded description of the dream that was substantively the same as the earlier one.
Several months later, with a trial date approaching, Vasquez’s lawyers, Richard McCue and Matthew Bangs, moved to suppress all three statements on the ground that they had not been voluntary. Arlington County Superior Court Judge William Winston agreed regarding the first two statements, but held the third admissible because Vasquez had waived his Miranda rights in writing. The seemingly nonsensical dream statement thus became one of two pillars of the prosecution case, the second being the eyewitnesses who placed Vasquez in Arlington before and after the crime.
The credibility of both witnesses was dubious—Ranser’s because she came forward only after her brother had twice been questioned as a suspect, Ansari’s because, if Vasquez truly had been in the neighborhood after Hamm’s body was found, why had no one else seen him? The prosecution had greater problems, however. Vasquez could not have been the source of semen recovered from Hamm—he had the wrong blood type—and shoe impressions found outside the window through which the killer had entered Hamm’s home did not match any of Vasquez’s shoes. Undaunted, Commonwealth Attorney Henry Hudson vowed to move forward with the prosecution, saying that Vasquez simply must have had a co-conspirator.
When Hudson agreed to plea negotiations, Vasquez’s lawyers advised him not to reject the notion out of hand. As weak as the case was, the heinous nature of the crime could blind a jury to doubt about his guilt. If convicted, of course, a death sentence was virtually certain. Given those realities, negotiations ensued and continued until February 3, 1985, the day before the trial was to open. On his lawyers’ advice, Vasquez then reluctantly agreed to enter an Alford plea—technically a guilty plea, but one under which he could continue to claim innocence.
Vasquez was a little less than three years into his 20-year sentence when a murder eerily similar to the Hamm crime occurred in the same Arlington neighborhood. On December 1, 1987, a 44-year-old U.S. Department of Agriculture employee, Susan Ann Tucker, was raped and, although not hanged, strangled with a noose of white thin nylon cord like that with which Hamm’s hands had been bound.
Arlington County Detective Joe Horgas was assigned to the Tucker case, along with Detective Carrig. The detectives surmised that the similarity between the crimes was not coincidental, but they were operating on the theory that Vasquez had not acted alone when he killed Hamm. Horgas arranged to interview Vasquez, in the company of defense attorney McCue, in prison. Horgas’s message was straight forward—Vasquez could go free within a couple of years if he would identify his furtive co-conspirator. Vasquez did not take the bait, but rather reasserted his innocence. Horgas left the prison entertaining the possibility that Vasquez was innocent—and that a serial killer was on the loose.
Horgas did not have to look far for other crimes that fit the pattern. In the months preceding the Tucker murder, three similar crimes had occurred in Virginia. Each victim had been, raped, bound, and strangled with a ligature tied like those used to kill Hamm and Tucker. The victims were Debbie Dudley Davis, 35, a magazine account manager, found on September 19 in her South Richmond apartment; Susan Elizabeth Hellams, 32, a resident physician at Medical College of Virginia Hospitals, found on October 2 in her Richmond home; and Diane Cho, 15, a high school freshman, found on November 2 in a bedroom in her parents’ apartment in Chesterfield County. Horgas also learned that, between late June 1983 and late January 1984, 10 women in Arlington and Alexandria had survived rapes committed by a masked black man of slight build who carried a nylon cord and was armed with a knife.
In September 1987, it was widely reported that a new forensic technology known as DNA fingerprinting had led to the arrest of a man named Colin Pitchfork for the rape and murder of two young girls in England. Wondering if DNA might help solve the Virginia crimes—semen had been recovered in all five of murders and some of the rapes—Horgas contacted a New York laboratory known as Lifecodes, which had been doing DNA paternity testing. He was told that if the semen contained enough DNA to test, it indeed could link a particular suspect of the crimes. The trouble was that it would be necessary to have the suspect’s DNA.
One possible explanation of why no crimes had occurred between late January 1984 and September 1987 was obvious to Horgas—that the perpetrator might have been in prison. As Horgas began a methodical search of crime records in the hope of identifying young men who met the criteria, he happened to recall one from some years earlier—Timothy Spencer. Checking records, Horgas found that Spencer had been arrested on January 29, 1984, for an Alexandra burglary and released to an Alexandra halfway house on September 4, 1987. Further checking revealed that Spencer had been signed out of the halfway house at the times of all of the 1987 murders. After Spencer voluntarily provided blood samples, the DNA established that the semen recovered in all of those cases was his.
On July 16, 1988, Spencer was convicted of the Tucker murder—the first U.S. conviction based on DNA. He was convicted of the Davis murder in October 1988, of the Hellams murder in January 1989, and of the Cho murder in June 1989. He was sentenced to death in each case. The semen recovered in the Hamm case, however, did not contain enough DNA to test. As a result, despite the overwhelming circumstantial evidence that Spencer had killed her, the innocent man in prison for Hamm’s murder had no judicial remedy under Virginia law. Vasquez could only apply for a pardon, which Governor Gerald L. Baliles granted on January 4, 1989. Vasquez was freed the same day.
In 1990, the Virginia General Assembly approved special compensatory legislation awarding Vasquez $117,000—$65.14 for each of the 1,796 days he languished behind bars for a crime the commonwealth conceded he did not commit. On April 17, 1994, Spencer died in the Virginia electric chair.
— Jonah Horwitz and Rob Warden