Making a Sex Criminal
(“Within a Hair,” Forensic Files)
Richard Alexander’s story on Forensic Files is something of a precursor to Making a Murderer, the Netflix docuseries about Steven Avery.
Avery, an undereducated auto-salvage dealer, spent 18 years in prison because a rape victim mistakenly identified him as her attacker.
DNA evidence exonerated him and he won a $400,000 judgment from Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, but he ended back in prison, for a murder, before he got a chance to enjoy his windfall.
Compact story-telling. Whereas Steven Avery’s saga snagged a 10-hour bingefest on Netflix, Richard Alexander’s got one 30-minute Forensic Files episode.
But Within a Hair gets the job done. It’s absorbing and ends on a happier note, with Alexander’s exoneration for rapes he didn’t commit.
Cagey assailant. For this week, I looked around to see whether Richard Alexander won a financial award and whether he rebuilt his life successfully — or ended up behind razor wire again, like Steven Avery.
But first here’s a recap of the Forensic Files episode along with additional information from internet research:
A series of rapes and robberies were taking place in the River Park section of South Bend, Indiana, in 1996.
The attacker took pains to leave the crime scenes free of evidence. He wore gloves and wiped off surfaces. In at least one instance, he covered a victim’s eyes so she couldn’t identify him later.
Bicyclist implicated. In another case, he came across a young engaged couple who were arguing by the side of the road. He struck the man and raped the woman.
A police dog traced the rapist’s scent from the scene of that crime to some bicycle track marks in the grass. Investigators theorized the attacker got away on a bike.
Not long after, police spotted a young black man riding a mountain bike in the area and took him into custody.
It was Richard Alexander, age 29, and his bad luck was only just beginning.
Lone juror holds out. He denied having anything to do with the River Park rapes and thefts, but three victims picked him or his photograph out of lineups.
A semen sample from one of the rapes in which he was implicated didn’t match Alexander’s DNA. Police dropped charges stemming from that assault, but persisted with other ones.
At his first trial, a racially mixed jury couldn’t reach a decision because one member, a social worker named Barbara Griffin, held out for Alexander’s innocence.
In 1998, after a second trial, an all-white jury convicted him on two of three assaults, and he got 70 years in prison.
Anguish and sadness. Sex criminals tend to get the roughest treament from other inmates in the prison population, and Alexander’s experience was no different.
In an on-camera interview, Alexander’s psychic pain comes through the TV screen. He witnessed inmates raped in the shower.
Inconvenient truth. Still, as heartbreaking as it is to see someone like him wrongly imprisoned, it’s worth mentioning that, like Avery, Alexander had some rough stuff on his record from the years preceding the rapes.
Alexander’s rap sheet, which Forensic Files showed on camera briefly, included burglary, robbery, receiving stolen property, car theft, and something called “crime deviate cond.”
Steven Avery’s past misdeeds included cruelty to animals.
It’s not outrageous for law enforcement to believe that either of those men could have committed a rape.
Hair does damage. But other parts of the Richard Alexander investigation seemed like a witch hunt. Police deemed it suspicious that his apartment contained “a knife, some hoods, and bandannas.”
Also, the prosecution used a pubic hair found at one of the rape scenes as evidence against Alexander simply because under a microscope, it looked similar to his hair. At the time, there was no mitochondrial DNA testing.
And with Alexander locked away, the rapes continued, this time in the nearby city of Mishawaka, Indiana. One woman identified Alexander as her attacker despite that he was in jail when the assault happened.
Finally, in 2001, Alexander caught a break when police nabbed Michael Murphy fleeing from a residential robbery scene. They found a trove of stolen items in his apartment, including things taken during rapes that were pinned on Alexander.
Yet another attacker. Murphy ended up confessing to rape and 250 thefts. By this time, scientists had developed mitochondrial DNA testing and concluded the pubic hair came from Murphy, not Alexander.
The semen matched DNA from a third man, Mark Williams.
Sergeant Cynthia Eastman noted during her Forensic Files interview that all three of the men looked alike in stature and musculature and were around the same age.
Free at last. They also had completely different facial features, but the crimes happened in the dark and the victims were traumatized.
Murphy got 30 years in jail. Williams, who was already incarcerated for other crimes, received 40 years for one count of rape.
Richard Alexander was liberated on December 12, 2001 after five and a half years behind bars.
He was 35 years old.
“Richard has proclaimed his innocence from day one to anyone who would listen to him. He is extremely happy to be vindicated. He is excited about rebuilding his life,” said deputy public defender Brian Eisenman, as reported in an AP story.
It’s not over. Eastman, who said she always had a feeling Alexander was innocent, described a jubilant hug shared between her and Alexander, and Forensic Files shows joyful scenes of his reunion with family members.
In his final on-cameral interview, Alexander said he had received no apology for the wrongful conviction and that “it still hurts because really nothing’s been done since I’ve been out.” The episode ended there.
Sadly, Alexander’s life has improved very little since then, according to information available on the internet.
He found a sympathetic lawyer, Roseann P. Ivanovich, who filed a multimillion lawsuit against the city of South Bend and its police department in 2002.
New woe develops. The suit named Cynthia Eastman as one of the wrongdoers. “Even though she had doubts, she testified against him twice. I have a big problem with that,” Ivanovich said, as reported in a 2002 AP story.
A US district court dismissed Alexander’s lawsuit. A court of appeals upheld the dismissal in 2006.
Things got worse for Alexander.
In 2007, he pleaded guilty to a count of battery for assaulting a former girlfriend with a lead pipe. He got six years.
Today, the Indiana Department of Corrections lists Richard L. Alexander as having been eligible for parole in 2008 and gives his status as “Returned to court authority on release.”
I believe that means he’s out of prison by now, but no information turned up about his doings for the last few years.
Let’s hope that no news is good news.
Cause célèbre flattened. As for the rest of the players, it’s unclear whether Michael Murphy — who in addition to the rapes and robberies, had an attempted sexual assault of a 9-year-old girl on his record — is still in jail. The Indiana offender database lists his earliest possible release date as December 15, 2015.
The database gives a 2016 earliest-possible release date for Mark Williams, but doesn’t state whether or not he won parole.
Steven Avery is definitely still in prison and will probably stay there. On November 29, 2017, a Wisconsin judge denied him a new trial.
That’s all for this post. Until next week, cheers. — RR