The Trials of Charles Wilhite

The city of Springfield is divided into seventeen neighborhoods with widely varying demographics. On the west side, some 6,000 of the city’s most impoverished citizens reside within the .691 square miles of the Six Corners neighborhood. The average man living in the neighborhood will earn $20,268 a year — $14,000 below the city average. It’s not unusual for  young men to be killed before their 30th birthday. This is a neighborhood where is it possible to be born and die without speaking English; a neighborhood where the word on the street is often considered fact.

Central and Pine streets connect and intersect near the center of the neighborhood. Pine Street Market stood at the intersection for much of the new millenium. The small, wooden store sold soda, cigarettes, and other conveniences. Residents say they often saw groups of men milling around outside the story, often in the company of the owner, Angel Hernandez.

Springfield police suspect Hernandez dealt drugs out of the store, a charge he denies, and he is currently serving a life sentence for ordering the murder of Berto Rodriguez in 2008. Until recently, Charles Wilhite, the man accused of carrying out the hit at Hernandez’s behest, was a fellow inmate. When eyewitnesses who fingered Wilhite as the trigger man recanted their testimony, his sentence was overturned in January, at the conclusion of a rare retrial, approximately three years and three months after he first went to jail.

Hernandez opened the Pine Street Market in 2000. He was described by people in the neighborhood as having a temper, and was known to hold a grudge. In 2007, Hernandez got into an argument with Alberto “Berto” Rodriguez, a 27-year-old who grew up in Six Corners. Rodriguez went into the market with $23 in cash, hoping to pick up a pack of Newport Shorts, which cost $5. Hernandez didn’t have change for the $20 and didn’t want to sell Rodriguez a pack for three dollars, with the promise of paying the remainder later.
Simering underneath this seemingly minor disagreement was a beef over a woman, Patricia “Patty” Palmer, Hernandez’s girlfriend. People in the neighborhood said Berto and Patty flirted, though she denied this. The consequences of the gossip were the two men coming to blows over a pack of cigarettes, and Rodriguez being banned from the store.

Following this incident, Rodriguez was attacked by a group of young men, on Hernandez’s order, according to neighborhood residents. “I heard that Angel got some guys to beat the guy down and they did. They put the dude in the hospital,” said Roberto Sosa, a Six Corners resident. “I know that the guy that got beat up went to jail and got out of jail for maybe a couple months. I heard that they still had problems.”
Madelyn “Shorty” Dones, Rodriquez’s girlfriend of over a year, said his injuries were extensive. “He had got jumped by like eight or ten guys in front of Angel’s store. They pistol-whipped him twice. He had two gashes. He had two black eyes. He had a broken ankle. He had crutches.”

“Berto found out later that Angel gave two motorcycles away for payment for the beating,” Linette Rivera, Rodriguez’s sister-in-law, said in a 2008 police affidavit. “Ever since the beating, everything has been quiet. Berto doesn’t bother anybody.”

The calm was only temporary. On October 13, 2008, Rivera walked down the block to the Pine Street Market to pick up a pack of smokes. While in the market, Hernandez, who was at the counter, accused her husband of stealing from him. When she arrived home, Rivera told her husband, Thomas Rodriguez, about the argument.

“Berto heard me tell Thomas what Angel had said and went storming out the door without saying a word,” Rivera said. She and her husband followed to watch Berto’s back. When they arrived just outside the market, Berto was challenging Hernandez to a fight.

“The two kept arguing when a little skinny Dominican kid about 15 years old with a black shaved haircut started getting in the middle. Berto told him to stay out of it and called him a little man. When Berto said this, the little kid got pissed off and said he was going to go home for a ratchet [slang for gun],” Rivera said, adding that Angel called the teen back and handed him a semi-automatic handgun. According to Thomas Rodriguez, the teen, known on the street at “OMI,” cocked the gun and said, “I’m going to bust all you niggers.”

At this moment, Dones slammed on the brakes of her burgundy Honda Civic in front of the market and yelled for her boyfriend, Berto, to get in the car. As he closed the back door, “two teenagers were trying to punch Berto through the window, it was open,” Dones said. “I yelled at the two guys to stop because my daughter was in the back seat.”

As they drove home, Berto asked Dones to turn around and drop him off at his mother’s, a block from the market. Soon after, she worried about leaving him while he was still angry and picked him up again. Driving past the market on the way to her apartment, Rodriguez grabbed a bobblehead toy from the seat, pointed it out the window like a gun, and yelled, “bang!”
Standing outside the store, Angel Hernandez dropped to the cement. While lying on the ground, he heard Rodriguez yell “pendejo,” Spanish for idiot, from down the block.

The following day, Rodriguez visited his mother’s home on Florence Street, where his brother and sister-in-law also lived. “I was in my room when I heard some commotion inside the house,” Rivera said, describing when her brother-in-law dropped in around 3 pm. “Alberto doesn’t live with us, but he stops by every now and then. When he does stop by, he’s always looking for money from my mother-in-law.”
“[His mother] told me that Berto had stolen $40 from her and took off,” Rivera said. “She thought Berto was going to buy drugs with the money, so she called the police.”
“[She] was saying that Berto would be better off locked up in jail than being out on the street,” Rivera said. “She hoped the police would pick him up.”
When the police found Berto Rodriguez later that night, he was unresponsive, with a bullet lodged in his chest.

Down the street, at the Pine Street Market, Hernandez was still livid. Roberto Sosa, a young man who lived in the neighborhood, stopped by the store after dark to buy a few Dutch Masters cigars. “I could tell Angel had a problem,” Sosa said. “He raised up his shirt and I saw a black handgun in his waist. Angel then took the gun out and showed it to me. He said, ‘As soon as he drives by or comes he’s going to get it.’”
After leaving his mother’s home, Rodriguez drove her Ford Escort down Florence Street to the intersection at Pine Street, where a crowd was gathered outside the market. Someone yelled “that’s the guy right there,” according to witnesses, and Hernandez handed the gun off outside. Several shots were fired as the car rolled by.  At the intersection of Ashley Street, the sedan turned the wrong way, and stopped when it crashed into a parked car.

Within minutes of the shooting, Springfield Police officers responded to the scene. They found bullet holes in the car, a broken window, and Rodriguez slumped over the steering wheel, blood seeping from his upper back through his clothing. He was still breathing. Det. Anthony Pioggia called an ambulance and administered first aid. Rodriguez was rushed to Baystate Medical Center, and at 9:43 pm was pronounced dead.

Pioggia and Det. Steven Tatro of the Springfield Detective Bureau took charge of the investigation that night. No gun was found at the scene. While there were five bullet holes in the car, no match could be made to a weapon. Tyrel Campbell and Nathan Perez, two young men who lived in the area, admitted to picking up shell casings from the scene and disposing of them. When asked under oath why he removed evidence from the scene, Perez said, “‘Cause at that time I was just stupid, I guess.”

Lacking any solid physical evidence, the police investigation focused on statements from witnesses. Descriptions of the shooter varied in race, age, height and weight, though most witnesses agreed that the shooter wore a gray hoodie.

Despite problems at the time of his death, Rodriguez was remembered fondly by family. “Even though he is six feet underground, I feel like he’s in a vacation so, so far away,” Rodriguez’s niece, Marilyn Garcia, said. “But what better place can he be than with God? I love you and miss you, Berto. You will always be remembered with your beautiful smile.”

Three weeks after the shooting, Giselle Albelo, who lived across from the market and often shopped there, told Detectives Pioggia and Tatro about a thin, light-skinned African American in the store whom she’d seen around the neighborhood before. She picked Charles Wilhite’s face out of an eight person photo array. “That night he was wearing a gray hoodie that he had up over his head,” she told police. “Even though he had the hoodie up I still saw his face.”

The day after Albelo signed her statement, Patryce Archie was asked by Det. Pioggia to view a photo array. When shown photos of black men, she told detectives the photo of Wilhite “may have been the guy that was out in front of the store.” She wasn’t positive because she only saw the lips of the man in a gray sweatshirt.
Detectives spoke to Nathan Perez, who picked up the shell casings, while he was being held in the Ludlow Jail on a probation violation. Perez told the detectives he was standing in the doorway of the market when Hernandez grabbed a gun from beneath the counter and brought it to a man standing outside. He said he then saw the man walk up to Rodriguez’s car and fire the gun. On a photo of Wilhite, Perez wrote “shooter.”
Perez was offered immunity for picking up the shell casings in exchange for his testimony.

With the statements of twelve witnesses from the neighborhood, Hernandez and Wilhite were arrested on the charges of first-degree murder.

While in custody, Wilhite was questioned about the shooting. Det. Pioggia asked if he knew Hernandez, to which Wilhite initially responded, “Who’s that?” Wilhite, who lived on Ashley Street with his girlfriend, Victoria Hazel, and their two-year-old daughter, Iesha, later admitted he knew Hernandez as the owner of the market in his neighborhood.

On the videotape of that initial interview, Det. Pioggia says he didn’t think Wilhite had any “beef” with Rodriguez, but was paid to kill him. Wilhite said the idea was “crazy,” adding he was friendly with the victim’s family. Additionally, he said if he had needed money he would have asked family members for help.

When Wilhite was allowed to make his phone call, the 25-year-old called his grandmother. “They’re saying that [Hernandez] paid me and gave me a gun to do it, that’s what they’re telling me right now,” he said on the phone. “The guy paid me and gave me a gun to kill somebody.”

Two years after the shooting, Hernandez and Wilhite stood trial together in Hampden Superior Court. After seven days of testimony, the jury deliberated for just three hours. On December 6, 2010, both Hernandez and Wilhite were found guilty of first-degree murder, a verdict which in Massachusetts carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

During the sentencing hearing Hernandez’s lawyer, Linda Thompson, questioned the conduct of the trial. “There was no evidence whatsoever of any pre-existing relationship, a moment of pre-existing relationship between Mr. Wilhite and Mr. Hernandez,” she said. Thompson argued the only connection between the two defendants was drawn from Perez’s testimony, testimony bought with an immunity deal.
Thompson added, “We look forward to the appeal in this case.”

Immediately following the hearing, family and friends of Wilhite gathered in his grandmother’s living room. For a time, the family sat in shock. “I don’t think anyone believed it could come to a trial,” Vira Douangmany Cage, an aunt of Wilhite, said. When her nephew went before a grand jury, then to trial, she said, “We still were really optimistic that there is no way he could be found guilty.”

That night, disbelief turned to anger. “I believe there was deliberate intent to convict Charles despite evidence that other people or other persons could have been pursued as suspects. But they chose not to pursue, or even consider,” Cage said. “I think that he was a scapegoat, an easy target. People like Charles, people like Alberto Rodriguez — who cares if they’re dead or imprisoned? Unless the victim was white, unless the victim was somebody in the community, people won’t pay attention.”

The family formulated a way for the Pioneer Valley to pay attention. Within Wilhite’s large family, there are several community activists. Cage spent years working for the group South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). Wilhite’s grandmother, Helen W. Drungo, organized public housing tenants in collectively advocating for rights. “She’s always been a person who, when folks have problems, visit,” Cage said of Drungo. “To this day, there’s always someone in need who seeks her out.”

This informal family gathering was the first meeting of Justice for Charles, a citizens’ advocacy group fighting for the release of Wilhite. “You can either choose to channel your passion in a way that builds on the community’s strength, or you can really tear yourself apart and everything that’s around you,” Cage said. “We chose the route of building, of coming together.”

Family and friends met to discuss court documents and the appeal process. Those meetings attracted people from Springfield to Greenfield, of varying race, age, and educational background, with attendance averaging more than a dozen people. Many members of Justice for Charles didn’t know Wilhite personally. Though Cage had spoken briefly with her nephew by marriage, “I never had an extended conversation [with him] before he was incarcerated, before his nightmare started,” she said.

Carlie Tartakov and her husband Gary, of Amherst, have been involved in Justice for Charles for more than a year. “I had never seen Charles until I went to the trial, but I felt this connection to him,” she said.
All believe Charles, who maintains that he didn’t commit the crime. Today Wilhite is trying to readjust to life outside of prison, and did not wish to be interviewed for this story.

Last year, Wilhite’s appeal saw progress. A motion for a new trial was brought to the Hampden Superior Court by lawyers William J. O’Neil and David A.F. Lewis, who argued the jury couldn’t have considered all 55 articles of evidence and the testimony of 19 witnesses in three hours.

In the meantime, the prosecution’s star witness Nathan Perez had recanted his testimony identifying Wilhite as the killer. Fifty members of Justice for Charles sat in the courtroom while the prosecution and defense attorneys spoke. After reviewing court and jury transcripts, Judge Peter A. Velis granted Wilhite a new trial.
In early 2013, Wilhite got his day in court. Again. On January 7, his supporters lined the street outside the courthouse. Justice for Charles activists held signs and wore t-shirts featuring a caged bird set free. Over 40 members of the group sat together in the last two rows of the courtroom, smiling whenever Wilhite looked back. Among the group supporting Charles was Thomas Rodriguez, Berto’s brother.

Wilhite’s lawyers, O’Neil and Lewis, seemed confident from the start. During the second trial, Wilhite was not tied to Hernandez, whom prosecutors said provided the motive for murder. Additionally, two more prosection witnesses who had helped convict Wilhite were having second thoughts.

Just as in 2010, Albello was called to the stand, though her testimony differed greatly this time. While questioned by prosecution, she denied ever being in the market on the night of the shooting. While shaking and crying she said “I wasn’t there,” and said twice, “I was threatened,” though she declined to expand on this statement.

Archie, who originally told police she only saw the lips of a black man wearing a gray hoodie on the night of the shooting, repeated this on the stand. “I wasn’t sure then and I’m not sure now,” Archie said. When questioned by the defense, she said her young daughter was waiting at the police station during her three-hour interview with detectives, and she wanted to leave so she just picked someone out of the lineup.
Though he was the cornerstone of the Commonwealth’s case in 2010, the prosecution took a different tone towards Perez during the second trial. Under intense questioning from Assistant D.A. Blake J. Rubin, Perez maintained that he did not see Wilhite shoot Rodriguez, that he lied to police to avoid being charged as an accessory to murder for picking up the shell casings. “I said that, and I wasn’t being completely honest because I don’t remember seeing Angel hand the gun to anybody,” Perez said. “I don’t remember seeing him there, the defendant. I made that part up in my statement. I lied last time I was on the stand.”

According to his recent affidavit, Perez saw Angel grab the weapon from inside the store, but did not see the shooting.

Perez, who was 17 at the time of the murder, said during his interview with police detectives, Pioggia and Tatro offered to seal his criminal record if he testified against Wilhite. Pioggia contests this claim. When Perez denied seeing the shots fired, “they started getting angry because they thought I was lying,” he said on the stand. Det. Pioggia began to yell at him. “I said I really don’t know him, and they reminded me of the accessory charge,” Perez said.

Perez claimed he had only written “shooter” on the photo of Wilhite because, “the police told me to write it.”
Perez had left out another detail from 2008 at the first trial. The day after Rodriguez was shot, Abinal Zayas, known in the neighborhood as “Pete,” showed Perez a gun that looked like the one Hernandez had the night of the shooting. Perez didn’t divulge this detail before the second trial because, “I didn’t want to incriminate anybody at that time.”

When asked why he recanted his statement Perez said, “Because nobody deserves to be in jail for something they didn’t do.”

On the stand, Det. Pioggia denied claims of intimidation, and said Perez identified Wilhite willingly.
In a surprising turn, the prosecution called a new witness. Anthony Martinez wrote to detectives from Hampshire County Jail in September 2009, while he awaited charges of armed robbery. He said he had information about Berto Rodriguez’s killer and wanted to talk.

The night of the shooting, Martinez told police he walked past Angel Hernandez speaking with “a black guy with a caramel complexion. He looked to be in his twenties, about 5 feet 7 inches and had a small build.” Inside the market, Martinez had purchased two single cigarettes, and lit one when he stepped outside. In his statement, he said he saw Hernandez hand the man a gun, and “I then heard Angel say, ‘I’ll pay you to go kill him.’ I then heard the black guy say, ‘okay.’”

When asked why he hadn’t divulged this information at the time of the murder, Martinez said he had “feared snitching on Angel Hernandez and the black guy that shot Alberto. What I am telling the officers today is the truth. I know it looks funny because I am in jail and all of a sudden have this information, but it is the truth.”
In exchange for his testimony, the District Attorney’s office agreed to drop a pending indictment against Martinez and not to fight his parole for the armed robbery. When asked by Wilhite’s defense if his testimony was a “get out of jail free card,” Martinez responded, “Correct.”

Defense witness Chelsea Ortiz, Anthony Martinez’s girlfriend at the time of the shooting, contested his claims about where he was on the night of the shooting. She testified that she and Martinez were both inside her apartment that night, well before they both heard shots. He wasn’t at the market.

After 10 days of testimony, the case went to the jury. The following day, the jury deliberated for four hours. During that time, members of Justice for Charles filled six rows in the courtroom, waiting and praying for a not guilty verdict. In the early afternoon, the jury came back into the courtroom and handed the verdict to the clerk. As soon as the clerk read, “Not guilty,” the room filled with cheers, smiles, and tears.

“I heard ‘not guilty’ and everybody stood up,” Wilhite’s aunt, Cage, said. “I whispered to my husband in his ear, they did say ‘not guilty,’ right?”

As the group left the courtroom, they waited outside for Wilhite, who entered the hallway with a smile, hand-in-hand with his high school sweetheart, Victoria Hazel. “When he walked out of the courthouse he was holding his daughter, and the hand of Vicky,” Cage said. “He didn’t have handcuffs or shackles on. He was a freestanding man for the first time in more than three years. I said to the group, ‘he’s real! You can touch him!’”

After the trial, Hampden County District Attorney Mark Mastroianni told a group of reporters, “The reaction is, as a prosecutor’s officer, we are disappointed with the verdict, but we are very respectful of the jury’s decision. Our system is based upon a jury hearing evidence and not finding guilt unless there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

At the date of this publication, it has been 43 days since Wilhite was released. He spent 1,217 days behind bars. He is readjusting to life with his family and community, but he isn’t finished with the court system. Justice for Charles has shifted its focus from winning his acquittal to studying wrongful conviction laws. “The not guilty verdict is part one,” Cage said. “There is a part two to this.”

“The second trial affirmed my belief that there was a campaign to get Charles,” she said. “We need to address that. We need to hold people accountable, hold our district attorney accountable for actions that could have been prevented. [Charles’] nightmare could have been prevented.”

In Massachusetts, defendants judged to have been wrongly convicted can receive up to $500,000 in restitution from the state. The Hampden County District Attorney’s office did not return repeated calls for comment.

After discussing the possibility of a wrongful conviction suit with lawyers, Cage asked Wilhite what he’d like to do. “I asked him, ‘could you move on instead of pursuing a case against the state?’ And he said, ‘and let them get away with it?’ That’s the Charles I know who doesn’t give up.”

Luis Daniel Brignoni contributed this report.