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Hyde Out

David Hyde is trying to adjust to a world that changed dramatically while he was in prison.
Emily Piraino

These days, few students at Gateway Community College at 40th Street and Van Buren are aware of the horrible events that happened at the site more than 13 years ago.

On a chilly March evening in 1991, 72-year-old John Lee Sr. and his 50-year-old daughter, Ginger, were tending to their little grocery store, the Joyland Market, which had been serving the surrounding neighborhood for years.

When the pair failed to make it home after closing, Mr. Lee's wife and Ginger's mom, Hazel, went by the market to check on their welfare. She found her loved ones bludgeoned to death almost beyond recognition behind the meat counter.

The robbery/murders were front-page news and, according to Madeline Ong-Sakata, the president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, "touched the lives of every single Chinese family in the community."

A Silent Witness tip about a week after the homicides led police to Phoenix half-brothers Jackie Johnson and David Hyde, then in their 20s. (Actually, the tip fingered Johnson and another man, who never was charged.)

A search of Johnson's car revealed a large, bloodied bowie knife, which the county medical examiner said could have been the murder weapon. Eyewitnesses told police detectives that the brothers -- who lived in the neighborhood -- had been hanging around the market on the night in question.

Johnson never did confess. But after a grueling police interrogation that lasted more than six hours, Hyde "confessed" to taking part in the brutal murders. His recantation the following day would prove of little consequence, especially after a jailhouse informant claimed that Hyde also had confessed to him (winning himself a sweetheart of a deal for his efforts in aiding the prosecution).

Just as important as Hyde's damning admissions -- the reliability of which later would come under serious scrutiny -- was the blood found on jackets owned by Johnson and Hyde. Though authorities didn't know for sure at the time whose blood it was, prosecutor Noel Levy would tell jurors during his closing argument at David Hyde's trial in May 1992:

"This jacket had blood right here on the right sleeve of a right-handed hacker. And it's human blood, a swipe on the left chest. Where did the blood come from? I suggest the Joyland Market. When? March 8, 1991. Whose blood? John and/or Ginger Lee."

In separate trials, Johnson was acquitted, then Hyde was convicted of killing the Lees during a robbery gone bad. Hyde was sent to death row, where he spent the next decade or so.

But in May 2002, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Tom O'Toole took the rare step of granting Hyde a new trial. O'Toole agreed with Hyde's appellate attorney Alan Simpson that new DNA evidence "probably would have changed the verdict or sentence" to not guilty on all counts.

The DNA evidence was a doozie: The blood on David Hyde's jacket hadn't belonged to either of the victims. Instead, it was his brother Jackie's blood.

Scrambling prosecutors inferred that the turn of events proved Johnson had been injured in a struggle with the Lees, but, as O'Toole pointed out, they had no evidence to prove that.

In fact, the supposed blood evidence was all that prosecutors had to substantively link David Hyde physically to the crime scene.

"There was no credible eyewitness testimony placing [Hyde] at the scene," O'Toole wrote, "and his statements [to police and, allegedly, to a jailhouse snitch named Lipps] were contradictory and suspect. The State heavily relied on the victims' blood being on the jackets. Without the bloody jackets to bolster its argument that Hyde was the sole killer, the remaining State's evidence was substantially weakened."

The judge also ruled that Hyde's attorney, Duane Varbel, had done a monumentally ineffective job during the 1992 trial.

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley put on his best face after O'Toole's order, saying that "this is not a case where DNA is the linchpin evidence," and announced plans to retry Hyde.

For various reasons, that retrial kept getting postponed, as the once-convicted killer, now 42, sat in a cell at the Maricopa County Jail. Then, earlier this summer, prosecutor Levy offered David Hyde a hell of a deal.

If Hyde would plead guilty to charges of second-degree murder and to burglary, he could walk out of prison as a free man after being sentenced to time served.

"I told [my attorney] that I wasn't about to plead guilty to something I didn't do, and that we'd have to let the cards fall where they fall," Hyde tells New Times. "Then they said they'd let us go 'no-contest.' I took it, because I've learned that you never know what a jury is going to do."

A no-contest plea meant Hyde didn't have to admit to the crime, but conceded he could be convicted at a trial. On August 11, Judge Gregory Martin sentenced Hyde to time served and ordered his immediate release from custody.

"I honestly believed back in 1991 that there was no real evidence to convict me," says Hyde, a reserved man who still seems a bit stunned by what's happened. "I'm just the lucky one of the innocent people in the justice system who gets a fair shake. I consider Mr. Simpson an angel because he got me off death row. He did more than I could have asked for. But I want to stress that I'm innocent."

That begs the question of who killed the Lees, who were loved by their family, their community, and, in the case of Ginger Lee -- a veteran Phoenix elementary school teacher who worked at the Joyland Market after hours -- by students and colleagues.

During Jackie Johnson's trial in October 1991, prosecutor Levy claimed Johnson was the actual killer, as Hyde looked on inside the store.

Johnson's attorney, Varbel, argued that the eyewitness identification testimony was badly flawed, and that his client had been elsewhere when the murders were committed.

Without any evidence to back him, Varbel claimed the murders were a professional hit orchestrated by a big firm that wanted the land on which the market sat.

The jury didn't hear about Johnson's aggressive tendencies -- a probation officer in an unrelated case would call him "an extremely violent individual who [has] assaulted many people."

Nor did the first panel hear much about the blood found on both Johnson and Hyde's two jackets.

The panel then acquitted Johnson on the murders, though he later served about seven years in prison for an early 1991 carjacking during which he pummeled the car's owner with his fists.

Hyde's trial was another story. His family hired Duane Varbel to represent him just one day before the trial began, which relegated attorney Jose de la Vera to a minor role.

Varbel never interviewed Hyde before the trial, nor did he amass details surrounding Hyde's self-incriminating statements to police and to the aptly named jailhouse snitch, Billy Lipps. Instead, the attorney again claimed that bad police work had failed to discover that the Lees had been victims of a professional hit by a big corporation.

Just as crucial, Varbel didn't prepare to counter new blood-spatter evidence and expert prosecution testimony that hadn't come up at Jackie Johnson's trial.

Also at Hyde's trial, prosecutor Levy now contended that Hyde, not Johnson, had committed the murders.

But Judge O'Toole noted in ordering Hyde's new trial that "the keys to the state's case were the bloody jackets and bowie knife, and Hyde's incriminating statements." However, the judge said, "Hyde's statements to police were the product of six hours of suggestive interrogation, misrepresentation about the nature and strength of the evidence gathered at the crime scene, and other intentional misstatements designed to obtain an admission."

As for Lipps' testimony, O'Toole wrote, "there were inconsistencies between his version of Hyde's activities at the crime scene and what the evidence showed."

Testimony in O'Toole's court suggested that attorney de la Vera had intended to argue that Hyde's brother Jackie Johnson had been the killer. But Varbel -- who had walked Johnson months earlier -- insisted they blame the mysterious national company as having orchestrated the murders.

David Hyde may well know if his brother Jackie indeed stole the lives of two innocent people, which seems quite plausible. But he's not about to give it up.

"He's my brother," he says. "I love my brother. I've seen him a couple times since I got out. He's got his problems."

Hyde says he has a line on a job with a local company that hires felons. Recently, with the blessing of his ex-wife, he's been establishing a relationship with his 17-year-old son.

Mostly, though, Hyde says he's trying to adjust to a world that changed dramatically while he was away. "Cell phones, malls, aisles and aisles of things, everything is so advanced now," he says. "Tasting different food is like being in heaven. When I got out, I went to my mom's right away to eat her enchiladas. That's what I dreamed of all the time."

E-mail paul.rubin@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8433.


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