California Man Exonerated, 2 Arrested in 1998 Killing

A California man has been released after serving 20 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Sixty-year-old Horace Roberts was released from a Riverside County prison after new DNA evidence revealed he wasn’t the killer of his lover, Terry Cheeks, whose murder he had been convicted of two decades earlier. Authorities are now holding Cheeks’ husband, Googie Harris, and nephew, Joaquin Leal, on suspicion of murder.

On the night of April 13, 1998, Terry Cheeks never showed up for her night-shift job at Quest Diagnostics. No one heard from her until four days later, when her body was found strangled along the highway near Corona Lake. Suspicion quickly turned to her coworker, Horace Roberts, with whom Cheeks was secretly having an affair. Police became suspicious about the inconsistencies in Roberts’ stories, as evidence suggested he had lied about the crime. When tried, prosecutors focused on a watch found near Cheeks’ body: a watch they say was similar to one Roberts had admitted to owning. On the strength of that evidence, along with compelling testimony from Cheeks’ family, Roberts was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life.

While in prison, Roberts reached out to the California Innocence Project in the hopes that new DNA technology could help clear him. Over the next ten years, lawyers for the Innocence Project obtained DNA tests for Cheeks’ fingernail clippings, the rope that was used to murder her and the watch found near her body — the key piece of evidence in Roberts’ conviction.

In 2017, forensic results for the watch showed a DNA match for Leal Harris, Terry Cheeks’ nephew. Further testing of Cheeks’ fingernail clippings revealed a second match to Leal, and bloodstains on her pants contained DNA from an unknown male.

On the strength of this new evidence, Roberts was released, and Harris and Leal were arrested and charged with premeditated murder. The two men are being held on a $1 million bond while they await trial. Prosecutors believe Harris and Leal discovered Cheeks was having an affair and, as retribution, murdered her and framed Roberts.

“It’s the oldest story there is in the murder business,” said Justin Brooks, founder of the California Innocence Project. “Husband kills wife who is cheating on him. The twist, in this case, is that the husband set up the lover to go to prison for the rest of his life.”

Horace Roberts is now a free man, enjoying time with family and friends.

“What happened to Mr. Roberts is tragic,” said Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin. “We as prosecutors always strive to be vigilant and follow the truth. Once I learned of the new DNA findings, I immediately directed that all charges be dismissed. Mr. Roberts has my commitment that we will aggressively apply new technologies to past, present and future prosecutions.”