In December 2010, Charles Wilhite, along with Angel Hernandez, was convicted of the murder of Alberto Rodriguez outside a market in Springfield, Mass. Wilhite was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
According to prosecutors, Hernandez, the market’s owner, hired Wilhite to kill Rodriguez after a long-running feud. Their evidence was based primarily on eyewitness accounts placing Wilhite outside Hernandez’s store the day the shooting took place in 2008.
The first two witnesses gave different accounts of Wilhite’s alleged participation in the crime.
One, who was inside the Pine Street Market when the shooting took place, first claimed not to have seen anything. Later, however, she told the police she witnessed Hernandez run out of his store with a gun. She also remembered seeing two men wearing hoods by a fence near the market. When police showed her a photo lineup – albeit a lineup consisting only of lips and noses to mimic a suspect wearing a hood – the witness picked out the features belonging to Wilhite. She claimed she never got a good look at the man who actually shot the gun.
A second witness, however, identified Wilhite as the shooter a few months later.
After Wilhite and Hernadez were indicted for Hernandez’ murder, a third witness, Nathan Perez, came forward. Perez, who was in the store at the time of the shooting (but by then in jail awaiting his own trial) testified that he witnessed the crime firsthand. Hernandez, he claimed, had a gun, which he handed to Wilhite before exiting the market. Wilhite then fired three shots and ran.
After Wilhite and Hernandez were convicted and sentenced, Perez and another witness changed their testimony, opening up troubling questions about police misconduct and procedure.
While Perez was in prison, he claims detectives approached him on several occasions, asking him to identify the people he saw in the market on the day of the shooting. When Perez pointed out people other than Wilhite, he was told that he would be tried as an accessory to the crime. But if he ID’ed Wilhite, his pending charges would be dropped – the police, Perez alleges, were even helpful enough to write “shooter” on the photo of Wilhite he was supposed to identify.
Perez formally recanted his testimony in August 2011, eight months after Wilhite was convicted. The next May, a judge granted a new trial, though he didn’t buy Perez’s claims of police corruption. Without the testimony of two key eyewitnesses, and no physical evidence supporting Wilhite’s guilt, a jury deliberated for six hours before finding him not guilty.