news1_4032(roberts) Lisa Marie Roberts
Lisa Marie Roberts (OR)

Lisa plead guilty to manslaughter on the advice of her attorney. A federal judge though out the conviction in 2014 finding that her attorney was ineffective for failing to challenge bogus evidence placing her at the scene of the crime based on cell phone tower transmissions.

Crime Committed: May 2002
Sentence: 15 years
Freed June 2014.

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Magical Mystery Tower

Where’s the evidence Rod Underhill said he had that compelled Lisa Roberts to confess to strangling her girlfriend?


TESTED: Roberts (center) is surrounded by her legal team from the federal public defender’s office. DNA testing linked Brian Tuckenberry to the victim. Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill says there will not be an investigation of Tuckenberry’s possible role in the murder. - IMAGE: Anna M. Campbell Photography

Tags: Lisa Roberts, Rod Underhill

Lisa Marie Roberts never wanted to admit killing Jerri Lee Williams.

She was innocent, she always maintained, right up to the end when she pleaded guilty to strangling Williams, her girlfriend, and dumping her body in North Portland’s Kelley Point Park on a Saturday morning in 2002.


WRONG TURN: “I felt lost,” Lisa Roberts says of the attorney who urged her to plead guilty to manslaughter in 2004. “I trusted him. He said [then-Multnomah County senior deputy district attorney Rod] Underhill had damning evidence.”

IMAGE: Anna M. Campbell Photography

Roberts says she was convinced she had no choice but to plead. Only days before her trial, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office claimed to have new evidence that signals from a cellphone tower would put Roberts near the spot where the body had been dumped.

If true, the evidence would shatter Roberts’ alibi that she was nowhere near Williams at the time of the killing.

Roberts’ own attorney told her the evidence was so strong she didn’t have a prayer of beating a murder charge. Roberts says she pleaded guilty to manslaughter, a deal that allowed her to avoid life in prison. She accepted a 15-year sentence instead.

“My family told me to listen, to trust my lawyer. He said, ‘You need to take the plea,’” Roberts tells
WW. “That was closing the book on my life. Everything I had was gone.”

Two weeks ago, Roberts, 49, walked out of state prison, freed after U.S. District Judge Malcolm Marsh f
ound in an April 9 ruling that a jury would probably never have convicted Roberts had she stood trial.

Marsh faulted Roberts’ original attorney for failing to challenge the prosecutor’s claims about the cellphone evidence.

And that evidence, after years of litigation, has not been produced by the prosecutor in the case, Rod Underhill.

At the time, Underhill was senior deputy district attorney, but today he is the Multnomah County district attorney, elected in 2012.

Underhill declined requests from
WW to comment on the record for this story. In a May 28 statement to the judge, Underhill said he still believes Roberts is responsible for the murder, but will not press for a trial to prove it. Nor will his office investigate a man currently in prison whose DNA linked him to the victim.

National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the law schools at the University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University, says Roberts is one of only nine Oregon inmates to be exonerated in the past 25 years, and one of only three who had pleaded guilty.

“It’s incredibly rare and happens in only the most extraordinary cases,” says Aliza Kaplan, co-founder of the
Oregon Innocence Project. “Even when there is a decent case, there are so many procedural hurdles even to get to the substance of a claim. It’s a really high standard.”

No one questions that the relationship between Lisa Roberts and Jerri Williams was violent. Roberts, a native of Boston, came to Portland in 1998 after a stint in the Army. She was working as a mechanic at the National Guard Armory in Northeast Portland when she met Williams, a prostitute who worked the Madison Suites Motel on Northeast 82nd Avenue.

Police and prosecutors built what they believed was a strong case of circumstantial evidence against Roberts. Friends later told police Roberts and Williams argued and fought. Roberts was involved with another woman, and police believed Roberts was motivated to kill Williams to get her out of her life. The third woman told police she once heard Roberts threaten to kill Williams and put her “six feet under.”

On the afternoon of May 25, 2002, a woman walking with her daughter and her dog found Williams’ naked body in the brush at Kelley Point Park. Police and prosecutors alleged Roberts had strangled Williams, 35, at their Southeast Portland home, stuffed the corpse into a sleeping bag and drove it to the park, where she rolled it into brush about 15 feet from the parking lot.

After being charged with murder, Roberts tried to hang herself in jail. She was sent to Oregon State Hospital for six months before doctors determined she was fit to stand trial.

In 2004, she was assigned a court-appointed attorney, William Brennan. Roberts wanted to fight the charges, but court records show Brennan talked her out of it based on claims the prosecutor, Underhill, made only days before trial. (Brennan died in 2012 at age 70.)

Court records show Underhill told Brennan cell-tower data could pinpoint Roberts’ cellphone when she made a call at 10:28 the morning of the murder. The tower was three miles from Kelley Point Park.

According to court records, Underhill had conversations with a Verizon technician, who said he could determine Roberts’ location based on the strength of her phone’s signal.

“Given all the evidence that was before me, there seemed to be a good possibility that [Roberts] could and would be convicted of murder,” Brennan later wrote. “There was a lot of circumstantial evidence that, if believed by a jury, could have led to that result.”

Once in prison, Roberts decided to fight back against her own guilty plea.

In 2009, federal public defender Alison “Tex” Clark took up her case. Along with investigator Maia Godet, Clark tried to piece together what had really happened on the day of Williams’ murder. “We would sit together and go through the records, trying to replicate the prosecutor’s case,” Clark tells
WW. “We couldn’t make it match with the facts.”

Prosecutors theorized that Roberts had dumped Williams’ body at Kelley Point Park before 10:30 on the morning of the murder. The evidence that put Roberts near the park, according to prosecutors, was the cell-tower data. As recently as 2011, the state still maintained that “cellphone tower evidence placed petitioner at the location where the victim’s body was dumped after the murder.”

Roberts’ legal team brought in experts who said it would have been virtually impossible to pinpoint a cellphone’s location based on a signal logged by a single cell tower.

The experts said readings from more than one tower were necessary to begin to locate a caller, and that the height of towers and the phone traffic on the network could all affect the data.

According to court records, Underhill’s assertions that the proximity to the tower could be pinpointed was based on his 2004 conversations with the Verizon technician. The Verizon employee said he couldn’t be specific about how he knew this, because it involved proprietary coding.

A federal judge later ordered Underhill to turn over all records and notes from the case. According to Steven Wax, who leads the office of the federal public defender, none of the records Underhill produced backed up his assertion that cellphone records could place Roberts at Kelley Point Park.

“I look at it as the magical evidence,” says William Teesdale, an investigator for the federal public defender’s office. “The magical evidence that no one can produce.”



Tuckenberry photo courtesy Clackamas Co. Sheriff’s Office, Underhill photo courtesy Kenton Waltz

The cell-tower data wasn’t the only evidence that ultimately persuaded Judge Marsh that Roberts’ conviction was problematic.

In 2002, when police first investigated Williams’ murder, they found DNA from Roberts on Williams’ body. But they also found DNA from a number of men as well—not surprising, given that Williams was a prostitute.

At the time, police couldn’t identify the DNA. But in 2010, with DNA technology advancing and the case under appeal, Roberts’ new legal team asked for the DNA to be retested, on the theory that one of the men whose DNA showed up on Williams’ body could have been her killer.

Marsh ordered the new testing over the objections of the Oregon Department of Justice, which had taken on the job of defending the way the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office had handled the case.

A database search matched DNA from Williams’ body to Brian Lee “Mississippi” Tuckenberry, 36, a state inmate serving time at the
Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras for raping and attempting to strangle an ex-girlfriend.

Roberts’ legal team discovered in the original case files that Portland police had looked at Tuckenberry as a possible suspect in 2003 and 2004.

They learned Tuckenberry had worked as a pimp at the Madison Suites on 82nd Avenue, and he often stopped by the nearby McDonald’s for a morning serving of apple pie. Williams’ son also identified Tuckenberry in a photo as a man who had been trying unsuccessfully to recruit his mother.

Investigators for Roberts’ legal team tracked down two women whom Tuckenberry, according to police reports, had allegedly sexually assaulted and choked. One recalled him telling her during the attack, “I will choke you and kill you like I did the other bitch.”

Tuckenberry has denied killing Williams, both to investigators and to

“You got that all wrong. My DNA wasn’t found nowhere,” he tells
WW. “Go find someone else who did it. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Judge Marsh in his April 9 ruling called the evidence against Tuckenberry “compelling” and said that the federal public defender’s team “has presented persuasive evidence that the prosecution’s theory of how the murder was committed is wrong.”

“It is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would find petitioner guilty of intentional murder or manslaughter, beyond a reasonable doubt in light of the totality of the evidence,” Marsh added.

Marsh ordered Underhill to either put Roberts on trial or release her from prison. Underhill announced May 28 he would
not continue pursuing the case against Roberts. She got out of prison that same day.

But Underhill, the Portland police and the Oregon Department of Justice say they still believe Roberts was the killer and that there is no reason to investigate Tuckenberry.

Underhill spokesman Don Rees says Tuckenberry would be a good alternative suspect if the DA’s office weren’t sure Roberts was guilty.

“It is a common defense to point the finger at someone else,” he said.

Today, Roberts is adjusting to life outside of prison, drinking Sprite, eating Chinese food and learning about iPhones and SmartCars. She says she holds no hard feelings toward Brennan, the lawyer who steered her toward prison, or Underhill.

She is thankful that he chose not to prosecute her a second time.

“We’re all human. We all have a pulse. We all make mistakes,” she says. “But admit to your mistakes. I would have more respect for him if he did.”

SE Portland woman with ineffective lawyer may not be guilty of 2002 murder, federal judge says

By Helen Jung |
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on April 10, 2014 at 8:30 AM, updated April 10, 2014 at 1:07 PM

Helen Jung | By Helen Jung |
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on April 10, 2014 at 8:30 AM, updated April 10, 2014 at 1:07 PM

A woman who pleaded guilty in 2004 to strangling her girlfriend and dumping her body at
Kelley Point Park may not have been the killer and should be released or retried by the state, a federal judge ordered.

In an 81-page opinion issued Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Malcolm Marsh said new DNA analysis and other evidence raises doubts about whether Lisa Marie Roberts strangled Jerri Lee Williams, a Northeast Portland woman with a history of prostitution and drug use, in May 2002. Williams' naked body was found down a slope from the parking lot at Kelley Point Park, which is at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers.

That finding alone would not be sufficient to release her, and Marsh stopped short of deeming her "probably innocent" of the crime. But the possibility of her innocence allows him to consider an otherwise-expired claim that her trial lawyers had provided ineffective counsel, the judge wrote. After reviewing the case, he wrote, he agreed that she had been denied her constitutional right to effective counsel.

Multnomah County prosecutors' case against Roberts was built in large part on circumstantial evidence, he wrote.

Roberts had been living with another woman, Terry Collins, in the 7800 block of Southeast 65
th Avenue when the two met Williams, Marsh wrote. Roberts and Williams developed a romantic relationship, which sparked a "volatile love triangle," among the three.

Marsh noted a past history of domestic abuse, in which Roberts had choked Collins to the point of unconsciousness and had once repeatedly punched Williams, Marsh wrote. Another witness also reported seeing Roberts slam Williams against a wall. In addition, Collins and others said Roberts had made statements on several occasions threatening to "take care" of Williams and put her "six feet under" and made other comments regarding wanting to hurt one of Collins' girlfriends.

On Saturday, March 25, 2002, Williams called a friend to say she was going to come see her at the Madison Suites Motel on Northeast 82
nd Avenue after going to the McDonald's restaurant nearby, Marsh wrote. Roberts said she dropped off Williams sometime between 9 am and 9:30 a.m. at the McDonalds before heading toward Gresham to pick up Collins' daughter, who was going to spend the weekend with her, she said.
Williams' friend never saw her arrive at Madison Suites. Her body was found just before 3 p.m. with a pillowcase near her body.

When questioned, Roberts gave conflicting statements about Williams' plans and if she last saw her heading into McDonalds or going to the motel. She also gave detectives conflicting information for her route to pick up Collins' daughter, saying that she missed exits and had to double back before getting to the right location.

Investigators pulled Roberts' cell phone records, finding that she and Collins' daughter had exchanged three phone calls between 9:38 a.m and 10:27:59 a.m. The third call connected to a cell phone tower in Vancouver, about three miles from Kelley Point Park, the opinion states. Roberts maintained that the closest she would have come would be along Interstate 205 at Marine Drive.  That location is about 10 miles from Kelley Point Park.
Medical examiners had collected DNA evidence from Williams' body, including material from under her fingernails and breast as well as sperm collected from vaginal swabs. The sperm did not draw a match when state investigators ran it through a database in 2002.

Police theorized that Roberts had killed Williams at home, placed her body in a sleeping bag with a pillowcase over her head, driven her in a pickup and dumped her body at the park sometime before 10:27 a.m when her call to Collins' daughter bounced off the Vancouver cell tower.

Roberts, then 37, was prepared to go to trial, Marsh wrote, based on statements from her lawyers at the time. But just before trial was to begin, prosecutor Rod Underhill, now Multnomah County District Attorney, shared information with the defense about cell phone evidence he planned to introduce.

Roberts' lawyer, William Brennan, told her the data would pinpoint her location near Kelley Point Park and which direction the call was coming from and advised her to plead guilty, according to the opinion. Brennan has since died.

But technical experts hired for Roberts' federal case countered that cell phone tower data cannot pinpoint a person's location or the direction from which the call is being made. In addition, the experts noted that the prosecution did not consider the wide area that the tower was designed to cover nor other variables such as the call load, network of the tower and the cell phone provider's software all of which could affect which tower handles a person's cell call.

Marsh found that Brennan failed to adequately investigate or hire an expert to evaluate the cell phone tower evidence, and instead relied on the prosecutor's expert.

"Despite the critical importance of the cell tower evidence, Brennan failed to take reasonable steps to collect the relevant data and independently evaluate the reliability of the Verizon technician's preliminary analysis before advising his client to plead guilty to manslaughter," Marsh wrote.

He notes that Roberts would likely have insisted on going to trial, except for her lawyer's failure to evaluate the cell phone data and hire an expert. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison and three years of post-prison supervision and has been serving her time at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.

Roberts' team offered other evidence as well, including the results of new DNA analysis in 2013 that showed links between the genetic material recovered from Williams' body with two men who knew her.

The defense argued that one of them, who is currently in prison on sex abuse charges, used to live at the Madison Suites Motel had frequently harassed Williams into getting her to prostitute for him, according to Williams' son. Other witnesses offered information about his connection to Williams, and court documents cited by the opinion accuse him of hitting, choking and threatening women. 

The state has 90 days to decide whether it wants to retry Roberts.

"We are working to determine all of our options and then we will review each option and make a decision about which is the most appropriate one to pursue," Underhill said in an email.
Federal Public Defender Steve Wax, who argued the habeas corpus appeal in U.S. District Court with Assistant Public Defender Alison Clark, hailed the decision, which came on the same day he was celebrating the launch of the Oregon Innocence Project.

Wax announced recently that he will be
stepping down as Oregon's top federal public defender at the end of September to join the nonprofit, which seeks to exonerate wrongfully-convicted defendants, as its legal director.
He noted that 20 to 25 percent of those who are later exonerated nationwide have pleaded guilty or confessed to a crime, one of the reasons the Oregon Innocence Project will help fill a need.

"Here," he said, of the decision, "is proof of why we need this."
-- Helen Jung

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