At 29 years old, New Jersey man Rodney Roberts was coerced by his own lawyer to plead guilty for the kidnapping and rape of a 17-year-old girl despite professing his innocence.
Roberts shared his horrific experience traversing the inner workings of the criminal justice system during an exclusive sit-down with The Innocence Project in January.
Back in 1996, Roberts was turning his life around. He had a job in a men’s clothing department, he had his own place, he was in school and he was active in his son’s life. That all changed, however, after he was arrested for assault. Roberts was taken into a Newark, N.J., police precinct and booked.
“So, I gave my fingerprints and everything thinking I was just going to be in, be out,” he recalls. “All this was going to be was a simple assault and I’m gone.”
Roberts was mistaken. He spent three or four more days in jail before being transferred to Essex County Jail. A public defender informed him that he was being charged with kidnapping and sexual assault because a 17-year-old rape victim had picked him out of a photo array.
“They say it can happen to you and it happened to me,” Roberts says. “I mean, out of nowhere this comes, false allegations.”
Roberts said his attorney pressured him to take a plea deal even though he was nowhere near the scene of the crime. Roberts recalled his attorney saying that he would be home in two years. “‘And, if not, they’re going to take it off to trial and judge is ready to give you a life sentence if you get found guilty,'” Roberts says, quoting his lawyer, “and I think you’ll be found guilty.'”
On July 16, 1996, Roberts pled guilty to the kidnapping in Essex County Superior Court and was sentenced to seven years in prison. The prosecution dismissed the sexual assault charge after he pled guilty to an unrelated robbery charge for a prison term to be served concurrently with the kidnapping sentence.
Roberts was scheduled for release June 1, 2004, but he was instead committed to a treatment facility because he was considered a “violent sexual predator.”
For 10 years, Roberts appealed to have his DNA tested against the original rape kit but prosecutors claimed it was nowhere to be found. He wasn’t freed until 2014 after the rape kit was located and DNA evidence cleared him of all wrongdoing.
In 2015, Roberts filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages from the Newark Police Department, Essex County Prosecutor’s Office and others.