Man Acquitted After 19 Years Of Murder Of Married Lover; Husband & Nephew Charged

Horace Roberts served 19 years for killing Terry Cheek; DNA freed him and led to new suspects.

January 31, 2019
Horace Roberts [California Innocence Project]

Horace Roberts [California Innocence Project]

By: Mike McPadden

TEMECULA, CA — On April 17, 1998, the strangled body of Terry Cheek turned up on the banks of Corona Lake. The married mother of two had gone missing four days earlier, and the most prominent piece of evidence collected at the scene was a watch next to her remains.

The timepiece belonged to Horace Roberts, a coworker with whom Cheek had been been having an extramarital affair. It would also prove to be the key piece of evidence that sent an innocent man to prison for 19 years.

Roberts did not help his case early on, as he outright lied to investigators about the adulterous romance. Authorities charged Roberts with Cheek’s murder, citing his own untrue statements, along with circumstantial evidence such as his truck being in the vicinity of the discovery site, and his possessing a purse believed to have been the dead woman’s.

Afterward, Roberts said he lied about the affair out of shame and embarrassment. Prosecutors argued, instead, that Roberts lied to cover up the crime. Three trials followed until, in July 1999, a jury convicted Roberts and he was sentenced to 15 years to life.

From the get-go, Horace Roberts maintained he did not kill Cheek and he fought from his jail cell to prove it.

In 2004, the California Innocence Project took up Roberts’ case and spent the next decade filing petitions to gather new evidence and examine it with current technology. DNA testing was eventually undertaken on the rope used to strangle Cheek, as well as on material taken from underneath the victims’ fingernails — items that had not been presented in any one of Roberts’ three trials.

Upon examining the DNA test results, The California Innocence Project proposed that Roberts had been framed, and that the real killers were likely Cheek’s husband, Googie Rene Harris; and his nephew, Joaquin Latee Leal.

From there, the District Attorney’s Conviction Review Committee agreed to reexamine Roberts’ file and, on October 2, 2018, the D.A. overturned the verdict. The following morning, Horace Roberts walked out of prison a free man.

Googie Rene Harris, Joaquin Latee Leal [Riverside County District Attorney’s Office]

Googie Rene Harris, Joaquin Latee Leal [Riverside County District Attorney’s Office]

Googie Rene Harris, Joaquin Latee Leal [Riverside County District Attorney’s Office]

Nine days later, police arrested Googie Harris, now 62, and Joaquin Leal, now 51, for the murder of Terry Cheek. Leal’s DNA matched the fingernail scrapings. It was already in the state’s databank, as Leal served six months in 1998 for sexually abusing a child under 14 and was a permanently registered sex offender.

Justin Brooks, the founder of the California Innocence Project, said, “It’s the oldest story there is in the murder business. 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.”

D.A. Michael Hestrin further stated: “What happened to Mr. Roberts is tragic. 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. And I commit to him the resources of our Victim Services Division to help him in rebuilding his life.”

Horace Roberts thanked all involved in fighting for justice not just for himself, but also for Terry Cheek. He has since relocated with his family to the East Coast. Roberts is presently eligible for state compensation up to $140 per day for every wrongful day he spent in custody — a period that covers his entire life between age 41 and age 60. That grand total adds up to about $970,000.

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