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DNA Test Frees Convicted Rapist, Implicates Brother

Law: Clyde Charles spent 19 years in prison before winning the test that freed him. But family's joy proved short-lived; trial for sibling is set for December.

November 26, 2000|ALAN CLENDENNING | ASSOCIATED PRESS

She screamed. He grabbed her, dragging her by the hair to a clover field. When she refused to remove her clothes, he punched her in the face and pulled her jeans down. As he raped her, he choked her, bit her face and chest and beat her with a pipe.

As she prayed, she said later, he warned that if she didn't "stop bringing the Lord into it, he would smash my head in."

Limited Evidence

Sheriff's Deputy Harold Domangue came upon the woman's disabled car about 3:50 a.m. Minutes later, he saw the woman in the road, on her hands and knees. She told him her attacker was black, but she was too hysterical to describe his clothing.

Domangue remembered a hitchhiker he'd seen. As he drove the woman to Terrebonne General Hospital, he radioed for deputies to look for him. At 4:05 a.m., Clyde Charles was picked up nine-tenths of a mile from the rape scene.

At the hospital, a detective used a wheelchair to bring the rape victim to within 10 feet of him. Everyone around him was white. Most wore police uniforms.

The woman took a long look, then identified Clyde Charles as the rapist.

Later, the state police crime laboratory found two light brown hairs on the shirt Clyde Charles had worn that night. They were similar to the victim's. Semen was collected from the victim, but no DNA technology existed at the time to make a match.

"Back then you didn't have DNA evidence, so you had to take the word of the victim and work with the evidence you had," said Detective Jerry Larpenter, who would later become sheriff.

Trial opened July 22, 1982. Defense lawyer Thomas Divens filed a motion naming Marlo Charles an alternate suspect and asking to treat him as a hostile witness. But Divens, now dead, barely developed his theory in court.

"Did you rape [her]?" Divens asked.

"No," Marlo Charles replied. That was all.

On the witness stand, the victim recounted the rape, then dropped a bombshell.

As her attacker asked her what she was doing on the road, he identified himself, she testified.

"I believe he told me his name," she said. "Clyde."

The woman had never included the detail in statements to police.

The jury deliberated 5 1/2 hours before returning a guilty verdict.

The rape kit was placed in a refrigerated locker in the evidence room in the sheriff's office. It would sit there for 17 years.

Daughter's Stigma

The Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola is an 18,000-acre prison farm, bordered by pine forests and the Mississippi River. When Clyde Charles arrived in 1984, after spending two years in the parish jail, it held 5,000 of the state's worst offenders.

The prison was under the oversight of a federal judge after earning a reputation in the 1970s as the "bloodiest prison in the country."

Clyde Charles was put to work picking cotton and tending vegetables as his case was appealed. At each stage, his conviction was upheld.

Eventually, Charles became a trusty. He worked in the prison kitchen and later took jobs as a mechanic, gardener and woodworker. He learned to read and write. But his health suffered; he developed diabetes. Family members feared he would die in prison.

"It took quite a toll on his family," said Emma Bonvillain. "It destroyed them, and it destroyed all of us."

It was especially tough for his daughter, Nakia Bonvillain, who started visiting him in prison when she was 4.

Now 24, she says, "You can't understand the kind of stigma it is, having your daddy being a rapist."

Brother's History

Marlo Charles never visited Angola, his brother says, but sometimes sent money for cigarettes or sneakers.

For about a year, Marlo was in another Louisiana prison as a repeat drunken-driving offender. Upon release, he moved to Hampton, Va., where two sisters lived. Marlo found work as a laborer for a masonry company and became friends with the owner's son, John Chisman Jr.

"He was famous for his seafood," Chisman said. "He would say, 'I'm going to cook my Louisiana gumbo.' If there were 15 guys he would say, 'I'm cooking for all you guys.' "

Since 1990, Marlo Charles has been arrested at least 20 times. Most arrests were for drunkenness, but in 1992 he was convicted of breaking a girlfriend's arm. He pleaded guilty to felony maiming and was given a three-year suspended sentence.

In 1997 he was charged with rape and abduction after Hampton police, hearing screams from an apartment window, found him holding a knife to a woman's throat.

He told his current girlfriend, Ernestine Tucker, that the woman made up the rape story. He said the woman had stolen money from him to buy crack cocaine, Tucker said. The charge was dropped after authorities could not find the victim.

Around then, Marlo Charles began to settle down. After moving in with Tucker, he worked steadily and stayed home during his time off. He cleared weeds from an empty lot and planted collard greens, cucumbers and okra.

His twins from an earlier relationship were in foster care, but he was trying to get custody by attending parenting classes.

Every night, he and Tucker read the Bible together.

A Birthday Present

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