ProPublica

The Questionable Conviction, and Re-Conviction, of Ricky Joyner

When an Amish farmer found the body of Sandra Hernandez in a hayfield in LaGrange County, Indiana, on an early spring day 27 years ago, police already had a suspect in mind.

Hernandez was “severely decomposed,” a police lieutenant would say; vegetation had grown along and over the body. Wrapped around her head was a black plastic garbage bag.

The body lay a few yards from the boundary with neighboring Elkhart County. The 25-year-old Hernandez was from Elkhart, and she had been reported as missing to local police six weeks earlier.

Soon after her disappearance, Elkhart police had zeroed in on Ricky Joyner, 29, who worked with her at a company that built doors.

Joyner and Hernandez had gone to dinner together on March 2, the last night she was seen alive.

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The next day, Joyner had scratches on his face and hand that were not there before, some witnesses said. He said the injuries were caused by some doors that fell on him at work. He told police that he dropped Hernandez at her apartment after dinner and a movie, and that he never saw her again. The police believed he was lying. A polygraph indicated he was being deceptive, they said, as did another test in which a detective analyzed his written statements.

Joyner also had a criminal record. He was convicted in 1985 of molesting his then-wife’s daughter — an accusation he denied. And in 1991, he was convicted of misdemeanor battery.

Once Hernandez’s body was found, police developed what they described as more damning evidence against Joyner.

An Indiana State Police crime lab technician compared the trash bag around Hernandez’s head with one found in a search of Joyner’s apartment and concluded the bags had been connected. A prosecutor would later call the garbage-bag evidence “extremely strong, almost to the point of being irrefutable.”

A fellow jail inmate soon told police Joyner had made incriminating statements that Hernandez rejected his advances and scratched his face. In the informant’s retelling, Joyner said he “dropped her off in LaGrange.”

Juries would convict Joyner twice — once in 1994 and again in 1998, after he won his first appeal. He was sentenced to the maximum 60 years in prison, where he remains.

But as strong as the case against Joyner seemed, a closer look by the South Bend Tribune and ProPublica raises questions about the police investigation and the evidence those juries heard.

An “Ironclad” Alibi

When Hernandez went missing in March 1992, Joyner was not the only suspect. Another co-worker, Oral Bowen, also had spent time with her in the days leading up to her disappearance.

Bowen, who was married, said he was seeing Hernandez “on the side,” according to a police report, and had spent the night with her two nights before her disappearance. A couple weeks earlier, Hernandez had given him a Valentine’s Day card, in which she wrote that she “wanted him all to herself,” Bowen told a detective. Another employee found the card and passed it around to co-workers.

The day Hernandez was reported missing, Bowen got to work late and, instead of punching the time clock, filled in his time card by hand to indicate he’d arrived two hours earlier, according to court records. He would later deny he’d falsified his time card, saying the company owed him for extra hours he’d worked.

After Hernandez’s body was found, some evidence seemed consistent with an alternative suspect to Joyner.

Sandra Hernandez (South Bend Tribune archives)

One young Amish man testified that, days before Hernandez’s body was found across the LaGrange County line, he saw a van pull to the side of the road in the same area. The driver lifted out what appeared to be a large object in a black trash bag and dropped it in the field. The driver was a white man. Joyner is black, and Bowen is white.

An expert witness, hired by the defense, examined a hair found on the garbage bag around Hernandez’s head and found it was consistent with a hair sample from Bowen, not Joyner.

Still, Elkhart County prosecutors said Bowen had an “ironclad” alibi that proved he had nothing to do with Hernandez’s disappearance. Detectives essentially cleared Bowen and focused exclusively on Joyner.

“Oral Bowen couldn’t possibly have done it,” Elkhart County Prosecutor Michael Cosentino argued in court. “The evidence is clear, the police eliminated Oral Bowen as a suspect.”

On the night of Hernandez’s disappearance, Bowen was home by 8 p.m., watched “Murphy Brown” with his wife and never left again until morning, and his wife could vouch for him, Cosentino said. But no one else could verify his whereabouts after 8 p.m. The police apparently never searched Bowen’s home and vehicle, as they had Joyner’s, according to Joyner’s lawyer and a detective’s report summarizing all the evidence collected in the case.

Bowen did not respond to a letter seeking comment. Attempts to reach him at a working phone number were unsuccessful.

At Joyner’s first trial, the prosecution asked Elkhart Circuit Judge Gene Duffin to exclude evidence pointing to Bowen. Duffin agreed, keeping the jury from hearing about Bowen’s affair with Hernandez and questions about his time card, among other evidence.

In 1997, the Indiana Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, threw out Joyner’s conviction from this trial, finding Duffin’s ruling “clearly” defied logic.

For Duffin, that ruling was part of a string of reversals. In the six preceding years, his decisions had been reversed or vacated at least seven other times by the state’s Supreme Court or its lower appellate court, according to a review of judicial opinions. The bases for those reversals included keeping a jury from hearing about a prosecution witness’s prior crimes involving dishonesty and failing to throw out evidence that had been improperly seized by police.

When reached by phone, Duffin, who has not served as a judge full time since 1998, said he did not recall details about many of his rulings in the Joyner case, including why he excluded the evidence pointing to Bowen. He said he had no comment on the previous reversals.

Hernandez’s body was found by an Amish farmer in a hayfield on April 15, 1992, in LaGrange County, just across the Elkhart County line. (Joyner case files)

Police said they determined Bowen to be truthful after subjecting him to a polygraph and a written test, while Joyner was found to be deceptive.

The polygraph has long been controversial because it lacks scientific backing, and studies have shown the exam has a substantial error rate. Courts have disallowed the exam from being used as evidence.

In the written test used by Elkhart police, practitioners analyze a person’s words and grammar for signs of deception. In the investigation of Hernandez’s disappearance, Bowen and Joyner each submitted written answers to questions about the case. The detective conducting the exam was Steve Rezutko, an officer who would rack up a long disciplinary history and later lead an investigation resulting in two men’s wrongful convictions. Rezutko found Bowen was truthful, but determined Joyner was deceptive because, for example, he did not use the pronoun “I” when recounting his actions on the last day Hernandez was alive.

When asked about the technique later, during a sworn deposition, Rezutko admitted his training was “not great” and he did not understand exactly why Joyner’s grammar meant he was lying.

In a 2016 study, scholars from the Netherlands and U.K. found the test is essentially useless in evaluating truthfulness.

“How Long I Got to Be Down Here?”

Two days after Hernandez was reported missing, Elkhart police detective Steve Ambrose questioned Joyner at the police station, in an interview captured on video. Joyner, in jeans and a Yankees jacket, sat with his back to a wall. Ambrose, in a shirt and tie, his sleeves rolled up, leaned back in his chair.

Ambrose had been with the department less than six years. He had been promoted to detective just five weeks earlier, despite an extensive disciplinary record. He had already been reprimanded three times and suspended twice — once for excessive force, the other time for insubordination.

The latter suspension stemmed from an internal affairs investigation in which Ambrose was accused of moving a video camera to keep it from recording police officers beating a man under arrest. In a deposition years later, he admitted to pointing the camera away.

As he questioned Joyner, Ambrose was a defendant in a civil rights lawsuit accusing Elkhart police of repeatedly beating a black man. A jury would later find Ambrose liable and order him to pay $50,000 in punitive damages. He and other officers involved in the lawsuit appealed and the case was subsequently settled.

Ambrose began the interview by reading Joyner the legal rights accorded a suspect being questioned by police: the right to remain silent; the right to stop answering questions at any time; the right to a lawyer.

Five minutes into the interview, Ambrose asked if Joyner would have any problem with police looking through his apartment and car. Without a warrant, police would need Joyner to sign a form consenting to the search. (Ambrose called the form a “waiver thing.”)

“I’ll talk to my lawyer first, but I don’t think it would be a problem,” Joyner said.

“You want to talk to your lawyer first?” Ambrose asked.

Joyner nodded: Yes.

Over the next half-hour, Joyner made three more statements indicating he wanted to consult a lawyer. But Joyner never got an attorney, and the questioning did not stop. Joyner soon relented and signed the waiver forms.

Two evidence technicians went through Joyner’s apartment and car that evening. They collected the contents of Joyner’s garbage can, along with the black plastic bag lining the bin.

The garbage bag’s significance did not become clear until after Hernandez’s body was found. The Elkhart evidence technicians suggested comparing the bag found at Joyner’s home to the one found around Hernandez’s head, after seeing an article about such comparisons in an FBI publication.

Two FBI agents had written that impurities in plastic or flaws in manufacturing equipment can create blemishes, such as stretch marks or scratches, which carry over from one bag to the next.

Indiana State Police lab technician John Vanderkolk was new to garbage-bag comparisons when he began working the Hernandez case. He toured a garbage-bag plant to learn about the manufacturing process before comparing the two bags using a light box and the naked eye, sometimes aided by a magnifying glass.

In a report, Vanderkolk concluded the bag from Joyner’s apartment had been “connected to and a part of the bag” from Hernandez’s head.

But this evidence, the most critical in the case, almost did not make it to trial.

In LaGrange County, where Joyner had first been charged, his attorney believed police had searched his apartment and car without valid consent. That would have meant the evidence was seized illegally and could not be used in court. The lawyer asked a judge to throw out the evidence.

At a court hearing in April 1994, as Joyner’s trial neared, Elkhart police revealed for the first time the video of Ambrose questioning Joyner two years earlier. Two officers said Ambrose had given them two tapes just that morning. Ambrose had kept the missing tapes at his desk instead of handing them over as evidence.

LaGrange Superior Court Judge George Brown watched the interrogation and, less than a week later, threw out the evidence from the searches, finding Joyner had been denied the right to an attorney before he signed the consent forms.

Tim Cain, the prosecutor in LaGrange County who had built his case primarily on the garbage-bag evidence, agreed the searches had been illegal. The day after Brown’s ruling, Cain dropped the murder charge, and Joyner was freed.

“The request for an attorney was clear,” Cain told the South Bend Tribune at the time, “it was unequivocal.”

In Elkhart, meanwhile, officials defended Ambrose.

Ricky Joyner, and his sister, Kim, celebrate after his initial conviction was thrown out on appeal in 1997. (South Bend Tribune archives)

“In my opinion, Detective Ambrose did not willfully withhold evidence from anyone whatsoever,” said Cosentino, the Elkhart County prosecutor. Cosentino did not believe the police violated Joyner’s rights. Joyner was not under arrest during the questioning and was free to leave, so he had no right to a lawyer, Elkhart prosecutors argued. Cosentino took the case to an Elkhart County grand jury, which indicted Joyner.

Joyner’s lawyer argued the indictment in Elkhart County was improper because prosecutors could not prove Hernandez died there. But the Indiana Supreme Court would later find the fact Joyner and Hernandez were together in Elkhart County, combined with a jailhouse informant’s account of Joyner having taken Hernandez from Elkhart to LaGrange, were sufficient to prove part of the crime happened in Elkhart.

When Duffin, the Elkhart circuit judge, reached a decision on the disputed evidence, he could hardly have differed more from the officials in LaGrange County.

Whereas Cain saw Joyner’s requests for an attorney as “clear,” Duffin thought the requests were “ambiguous or equivocal at best.” In LaGrange County, the judge said he had “no choice” but to throw out the evidence. But in Elkhart County, Duffin decided the evidence, including the crucial garbage bag, would be fair game.

On appeal, after Joyner’s second trial, the state Supreme Court upheld Duffin’s decision, finding that Joyner was not in custody during his questioning, and that police had not persuaded him to sign the search waivers through intimidation or fraud.

The Tribune and ProPublica reviewed two and a half hours of Joyner’s videotaped interview from that day. If Joyner was free to leave, he didn’t know that, the video shows. “How long I got to be down here?” Joyner asked one detective, when Ambrose was out of the room. “Until you tell me where she’s at,” the detective said.

Four times, Joyner told this detective: “I’m ready to go home.”

“Can I go?” Joyner said. “I’m asking you, can I leave?”

The detective didn’t tell Joyner yes. Instead, he said, “OK, let me just check one thing out.” He left the room, shutting the door behind him. For the next six minutes, Joyner sat there, alone. He put his face in his palm. He let out a deep sigh. Then the door opened — and in came Ambrose, and the questioning started all over again.

Joyner, in a recent interview, said he was “dumbfounded” when Elkhart County prosecutors forged ahead with the same evidence that had been tossed in LaGrange.

“If evidence is bad in one place,” he said, “how can you make it good in another?”

“A Lot of Unproven Assertions”

Two major studies since 2009 — one by the National Academy of Sciences, the other by a council of scientific advisers to President Barack Obama — have raised doubts about much of the forensic evidence presented in American courtrooms.

Many claims by witnesses about fingerprints, bullets, bite marks and other types of evidence had little or no scientific backing, one study found. The other report focused on “feature-comparison” disciplines, in which examiners look for similarities between two items. The report warned forensic examiners had often overstated their evidence, going “far beyond” the conclusions that science could support.

“Examiners have sometimes testified … that their conclusions are ‘100 percent certain’ or have ‘zero,’ ‘essentially zero,’ or ‘negligible,’ error rate,” the scientific advisers’ 2016 report said, even though “such statements are not scientifically defensible” because all forms of testing involve some errors.

Joyner’s trials featured expert witnesses who made such bold claims.

Matt Rota, special to ProPublica

Kenneth Siegesmund, a biologist who testified on Joyner’s behalf, said there was a “98, 99% probability” that Bowen was the source of a hair found on the garbage bag around Hernandez’s head. Under cross-examination, Siegesmund admitted the textbook he used for his forensics course discouraged statements of probability in hair comparison. (His claims would lead to ridicule from prosecutors, who labeled him “Dr. Quack.”)

Yet Vanderkolk, the state police criminalist who testified for the prosecution, was even bolder in his claims about the garbage bags.

Vanderkolk testified at the first trial he was “totally convinced” there was “no margin for error” in his comparison of the bags. He said they were “definitely” connected to each other, and he was “positive” about his findings. At the second trial, he said he was “totally convinced” that his methods were “scientifically reliable,” and when asked if he had any doubts whether the bags had been attached, he replied, “none.”

Another examiner, from a state crime lab in Wisconsin, reinforced Vanderkolk. The bags looked as if they had been torn from one another, and there were similarities that “continue smoothly across” the bags, the examiner said.

“This is unique,” he said of the bags’ similarities at the second trial. “They had to be together at one time.”

Joyner’s attorney pointed out that the two bags were an inch different in length. If they had indeed been connected, the manufacturer had a serious problem with quality control, he said. He also argued that one roll of plastic on a production line can be 10 miles long: “Every die line, every cut mark would be the same.”

These claims by the prosecution’s expert witnesses defied reality, according to two statisticians who study forensics and reviewed Vanderkolk’s testimony recently.

His conclusions were based on the assumption that no pair of plastic garbage bags could share the same characteristics unless they had been physically attached to each other. But it’s impossible to rule out the chance two unrelated bags could share those similarities, said Alicia Carriquiry, a professor at Iowa State University.

When Joyner was tried in Elkhart County, state experts testified that two garbage bags lined up so neatly that they must have once been connected. (Joyner case files)

Carriquiry said only by examining “thousands and thousands” of bags, including those made on different machines, could anyone begin to determine the probability two bags with similar characteristics came from the same factory, let alone whether they were physically connected.

“The fact that two things match in no way means they have the same origin,” she said, adding that Vanderkolk’s testimony was laced with “a lot of unproven assertions.”

Vanderkolk, now manager of the Indiana State Police regional lab in Fort Wayne, declined an interview request.

The national reports urged the use of research to establish the validity and reliability of forensics. For subjective feature-comparison disciplines, the reports recommended “black box” studies in which a large number of participants examine an array of “known” and “questioned” samples and give their conclusions about matches. Researchers who know the truth about the samples then review the outcome to see if the examiners can consistently reach the same conclusion and to determine an error rate.

Hal Stern, a statistics professor at the University of California, Irvine, who has studied forensics, said he knew of no such studies on garbage-bag comparison. In fact, neither he nor Carriquiry had even heard of the discipline until contacted recently by a reporter.

Even if validated by research, no forensic test is infallible, Stern said. For example, studies have found that fingerprint comparisons, which have been studied far more extensively than plastic bags, have a false positive rate of at least 1 in 1,000.

“From a science standpoint,” he said, “it’s ludicrous to say anything has no error rate.”

“Instructed to Get Information”

Joyner was one of two black inmates at the LaGrange County Jail after his arrest in July 1993.

The other, Daniel Wayne Oliver, also had Elkhart connections. He had been arrested on suspicion of robbery in Elkhart County, where he’d earned money working as an informant for police in drug cases.

Prosecutors said Oliver’s work as an informant was why he ended up in LaGrange County that summer. They said he could not be held at the Elkhart County Jail while his robbery charge was pending because he had testified against too many fellow inmates or their friends.

Joyner was first tried in Elkhart Circuit Court in 1994. (South Bend Tribune archives)

A couple weeks after Oliver was moved to LaGrange County for “safekeeping,” Joyner was arrested and placed in Oliver’s cell. They spent about two months as cellmates. By September, when Oliver was moved back to Elkhart County, he told police he had damning information to share about Joyner.

Oliver said Joyner asked his opinion of the evidence against him, including a garbage bag, and said he was angry after Hernandez rejected his advances. In Oliver’s retelling at trial, Joyner never explicitly said he killed Hernandez but talked about disposing of the body. A doctor who performed Hernandez’s autopsy was unable to reach a conclusion about her exact cause of death. A year later, a forensic pathologist reviewed the autopsy report and concluded she died of “homicidal asphyxia.”

“He was just riding around trying to decide what to do with the body,” Oliver testified. “So that’s when he told me he took her to LaGrange.”

At Joyner’s first trial, Cosentino, the Elkhart County prosecutor, asked Oliver, “Has the state of Indiana given or told you in any manner that you would be compensated in any way for your testimony in this case this morning?”

“No,” Oliver said.

But Oliver was, in fact, counting on a favor from the prosecutor. He had been sentenced to three years in prison after being convicted of theft. After his sentencing, Oliver had sent Cosentino a letter offering to help convict Joyner. In return, he hoped Cosentino could “work out something for me like to do my sentence at work release.”

The offer was not unusual. Informants typically relay damning information about fellow inmates in exchange for lighter sentences or dropped charges. But Oliver’s letter suggested he’d planned the operation with police in Elkhart County. “I was instructed,” he wrote, “to get information from Joyner and that’s what I did very well.”

Matt Rota, special to ProPublica

Seven weeks after Joyner’s conviction, Oliver appeared in Elkhart Superior Court, asking to be released from prison early. Cosentino represented the state at Oliver’s hearing. It was a rare appearance by the county’s head prosecutor in a court that handled lower-level cases, The Elkhart Truth reported.

“State does recommend, your honor, that the defendant be released … as a result of the defendant’s cooperation with the state and testimony which he gave,” Cosentino said. “Certainly we all know the state did not promise him anything at any time in exchange for his testimony.”

The judge granted the request and freed Oliver.

Oliver is now serving a prison sentence in a 2016 robbery conviction. Reached by mail, he declined to comment for this story.

Joyner’s attorney, Tom Leatherman, had tried to challenge Oliver’s credibility. But in court filings, Leatherman said he never saw a copy of Oliver’s letter to Cosentino until November 1997 — after Joyner’s first trial, and two months before his retrial.

Joyner said he hopes to become a missionary after being released. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune)

To Leatherman, the letter’s appearance, three years after his client was first tried, suggested prosecutors withheld evidence that could have been used to attack Oliver’s testimony. He said the letter itself also showed Joyner’s rights had been violated because the informant was an “agent” of the state while they shared a cell. Leatherman asked Duffin to dismiss the case or bar Oliver from testifying in the retrial.

In response, the prosecutors said Oliver took the initiative on his own to talk to Joyner. They also said they made their entire file, including the letter, available to Leatherman before the first trial.

The judge denied Leatherman’s motion, and Oliver’s testimony helped convict Joyner a second time.

“The Lord Knows”

Joyner, incarcerated for more than 20 years, still maintains his innocence. Now at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, he is scheduled to finish his sentence and be released in 2020.

He lost his appeal of his second conviction in 2000. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that Elkhart police had not violated Joyner’s rights. Although Ambrose, the detective, had not specifically advised Joyner he could leave the police station while being questioned, a “reasonable person” in Joyner’s circumstances would have known so, the court said.

In 2001, Joyner filed another appeal, known as a petition for post-conviction relief. But the state public defender’s office declined to represent Joyner. He said he gave up on that appeal because Duffin never gave him a hearing.

“It was pretty plain to me that Elkhart ain’t gonna do nothing for me,” he said. “So I just figured I’d just do my time and get out.”

Leatherman said he had no regrets about his handling of Joyner’s case. He and his team “really worked that case hard,” he said, though the outcome has nagged him for years.

“This was a frustrating case,” Leatherman said. “Two trials, and I couldn’t convince a jury there was reasonable doubt.”

Joyner was denied a reduced sentence at least twice, most recently by Duffin in 2017.

Joyner said he and his sister have exchanged letters with the Innocence Project, based in New York, about possibly looking into his case. But no lawyer ever pursued the matter.

It took time for Joyner to let go of some of the most bitter memories from his case. For years, he kept a newspaper clipping about the reduced sentence Oliver got in exchange for his testimony.

Joyner, pictured in April 2019 at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, is close to finishing a lengthy sentence. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune)

“I like to ponder things, think about why people do the things they do. So I just kept it for awhile,” he said of the clipping. “Then I was like, I don’t need this no more, so I got rid of it.”

Now, Joyner said, he is “at peace.” He said he became a Christian while jailed in LaGrange County, after he met some Amish ministers. Through visits and phone calls, he developed a relationship with a woman he met through friends. The two are now engaged. After he completes parole, he and his fiancee want to go to Africa and be missionaries in Uganda and Mozambique.

He said he has made the best of being locked up by getting an education. He earned a master’s degree in counseling and is working on a doctorate after entering prison without even a high school diploma. He said his family and fiancee have helped line up a job, car and housing for him after his release.

“Out of a bad situation has come a lot of good for me,” he said. “I ain’t got nothing to complain about.”

Joyner said the fact he may never be able to prove he’s innocent does not bother him.

“The Lord knows,” he said, “and I’m OK with that.”

How We Reported This Story

Ricky Joyner’s case is the latest in which the South Bend Tribune and ProPublica have identified questionable patterns in law enforcement and the justice system in Elkhart County, where several convictions have been overturned in recent years because of mistakes and misconduct by police and prosecutors alike.

To report this story, The Tribune and ProPublica examined thousands of pages of trial transcripts, appellate records, police reports, depositions and news clippings, among other materials. The news organizations reviewed more than four hours of video showing Joyner’s interviews with Elkhart police. The Tribune interviewed Joyner at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.

Indiana State Police regional crime lab manager John Vanderkolk and former LaGrange County Prosecutor Tim Cain declined interview requests. So did former Elkhart County Deputy Prosecutor Terry Shewmaker, who helped try the case.

Former Elkhart police Detective Steve Ambrose and former LaGrange County Judge George Brown did not respond to interview requests. Bill Endler, another former Elkhart police detective who participated in Joyner’s interrogation, said he did not remember the case and had no comment.

Former Elkhart County Prosecutor Michael Cosentino died in 2010. Former Elkhart police Detective Steve Rezutko died in an apparent suicide this year, amid an unrelated wrongful-conviction lawsuit against the city of Elkhart and several police officers.

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