On February 12, 2017, Rodney Roberts attended Denver Innocence Project's bi-weekly meeting to talk about why he plead guilty to a crime he did not commit, and his experience spending 17 years in prison and civil commitment as an innocent man
Rodney Roberts is one of the four exonerees featured on the GuiltyPleaProblem.org website, a new campaign that exposes America's Guilty Plea Problem and why innocent people sometimes plead guilty to crimes they did not commit.
By: Laney Breidenthal
Laney Breidenthal is a member of the Denver Innocence Project and is studying Criminology at the University of Denver
Rodney Roberts’ infectious smile and larger-than-life laugh are difficult to miss. It would not be easy to tell he pled guilty to kidnapping and rape charges. It would be hard to believe he served 17 years in prison and a treatment facility if he did not share his story.
On May 25, 1996 in Newark, New Jersey, Roberts was arrested for robbery at the age of 25. Earlier in the month, a 17-year-old girl had been dragged into a parking lot and raped. Police stated that when Roberts was arrested for the robbery, they showed his picture to the rape victim, who identified Roberts as her attacker. He was charged with kidnapping and rape. Because he could not afford an attorney, he was appointed a public defender to represent him.
Roberts said that he believed, prior to being arrested for these offenses, he never would have pled guilty to crimes he did not commit. He would have fought the false accusations until the end to clear his name. After fighting an intense internal battle, he decided he would follow poor advice from the public defender and plead guilty to the charges even though he had nothing to do with the crimes.
“What is the best thing for me?” Roberts asked himself. “I was trying to pick between Satan and Lucifer. Which is the lesser of two evils? Which one could I survive from? Which one would bring me closer to home? I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in here.”
Roberts was sentenced to seven years in prison and was told he would only serve two years. While in prison, he wondered how he could salvage his life and how to deal with the depression, anxiety, and anger he was experiencing. He had to figure out how to survive and get out of prison. Unlike many prisoners around him, Roberts was literate and could figure things out on his own; he did not have to ask others to read a letter that was sent to him or to study up on the laws related to his case. While incarcerated, Roberts researched and studied law in order to help his case.
“My personal mission was to get out and stay out,” Roberts said.
Because Roberts was unwilling to admit to kidnapping and raping the girl, he was denied parole in 2000. However, in 2001, Roberts filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea. The motion was dismissed, but he did not quit. As his seven-year prison sentence was nearing its end in 2004, the Attorney General’s Office was able to keep Roberts from his freedom by declaring him a sexually violent predator. He was taken to a treatment facility where, in 2006, he filed another pro se motion to withdraw his plea. His second motion was also denied.
A new lawyer representing Roberts found the victim of the kidnapping and rape, went to her house and questioned her about the crimes committed against her. She did not know who Roberts was. She had never been to the police station to give a statement about Roberts or do a photo lineup and identify him as her attacker. She had never seen him before. The police reports were fabricated, and when Roberts requested DNA testing to be conducted in 2005, evidence had been lost or too degraded to exclude Roberts. Even though the girl was coming forward to say it was not Roberts who raped her, she was discredited by the prosecutors and judge because she “changed her story.”
Roberts’s new attorney filed a motion to recover the lost evidence, which “magically appeared after apparently being mislabeled,” Roberts said. After the state tested the evidence, Roberts was found to be excluded. “That was one of the greatest moments of my life,” Roberts said.
Despite being excluded from the evidence, Roberts was not allowed to leave the treatment facility; he had to file a motion for an accelerated commitment hearing. In November, 2013, a judge ruled that his conviction and guilty plea would be dropped. He was released from custody in March, 2014.
After being released, Roberts sued the police department and the Prosecutor’s Office. The case is open. Rodney has not received any compensation from any state or federal entity since release. He is struggling financially and continues to educate the public about America's Guilty Plea Problem and wrongful conviction issues.
Roberts studied for the LSAT for years and received an admirable score. He said his goal is to qualify for the bar and “help people who are in a position like myself and need to have someone to care.”
After all the years he spent incarcerated, Roberts said he never got used to the sound of a cell door closing behind him.
To make a donation to Rodney Roberts, please visit GoFundMe