How to Get Away with MURDER

A woman witnesses her boyfriend's murder, is then raped, and now faces criminal charges herself. Unbelievable but true

Some of the police reports are subtly shaded with this bias. Detective Blanco wrote that Lola told detectives she went "voluntarily" with Leon to his home, when she in fact is claiming the opposite. Bernstein's close-out memo notes that after Lola jumped from the window, Leon came outside "and helped her up and into her car, behavior that seems totally inconsistent with the defendant having raped her."

But Kellie Greene, the rape-victim advocate, says if police had kept an open mind, they might have viewed Lola's actions as consistent with those of a trauma victim, especially one already suffering mental illness.

In that context, it follows that Lola viewed herself as a hostage after the beating. "She's seen what they could do; she's probably in fear for her life and the life of her boyfriend," Greene surmises. "You become numb and do whatever they tell you in order to survive." That would be why Lola went with Leon when he ordered her to. And given that she was having sex against her will, it follows that her leap from the window was an attempt to escape. Afterward she may have been traumatized, in a state of shock and disbelief complicated no doubt by her schizophrenia. "Driving around could be seen as a normal reaction to an abnormal situation because of the high stress she had been in," Greene says.

Jonathan Postal
The people and the place (clockwise from above): Frank Pacheco was 
severely beaten during a botched drug buy at this street corner; police 
later questioned Cornell Clay and Lyvonne Jackson, while arresting and 
then dropping charges against Luis Leon
The people and the place (clockwise from above): Frank Pacheco was severely beaten during a botched drug buy at this street corner; police later questioned Cornell Clay and Lyvonne Jackson, while arresting and then dropping charges against Luis Leon

And not reporting a rape is nothing new, Greene notes. Many victims are awash in shame, guilt, or denial. During his deposition, Detective Romagni conceded that point when he was asked if he'd ever heard of a woman not telling police she had been raped. "From what I hear, it's not unusual for some to conceal that," he said.

Statistics bear him out. Studies ranging from a 1994 National Crime Victimization survey to the Department of Justice's 2000 statistics estimate that between 70 and 80 percent of rapes go unreported. "The criminal justice system does not work well for rape victims," says Susan Lewis, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "It is so hard for victims to report because of the propensity to blame the victim and the fear they won't be believed."

If authorities had allowed for this factor in their equation, they might have found Lola more credible and might have been more willing to prosecute the alleged attackers. Even Bernstein concedes that the "lie" (really an omission) alone did not kill the case.

"Lying is an interesting thing, legally," says defense attorney Sam Rabin. "In some contexts, it's completely understandable why someone would lie. Here you've got a witness with a reasonable explanation why she lied -- she was involved in illegal activity. Presented properly and in context, a jury would understand it. A good prosecutor could make a jury believe it. It makes the case more challenging, but to let a murderer go free is just the wrong result." (Rabin's analysis doesn't bode well for the state's case against Lola, which is being handled by another assistant state attorney, Deisy Rodriguez.)

In the end, it wasn't the potential effect of Lola's untruthfulness on a jury that sank the case against Leon; it was the effect on the prosecutor. "I felt there was no way to ask a jury to convict Mr. Leon of murder when I was so unsure of the credibility of the lone eyewitness against him," Bernstein wrote in the last line of his close-out memo.


Celia Lola, of course, was not the lone witness. Pacheco's death resulted from a group beating, and police strongly suspect there were onlookers. But prying the secrets from West Perrine's streets has proven difficult.

A year after the murder, police staged a re-enactment of the crime for the media, hoping to stir up new leads in the case. It did no good.

Today people in the neighborhood cautiously remember the episode. "I ain't heard nothing about that in a long while," says one young man standing across the street from the crime-scene corner on a recent weekday.

As he speaks a tall lanky man on a bicycle pedals over, a pair of women's shoes dangling from the handlebars. "Oh, yeah, I remember that," the cyclist says when asked about Pacheco's death. This man, it turns out, is Lyvonne Jackson, who Lola picked from a lineup and police questioned. "I don't know why they grabbed me. I didn't do nothing. And I told 'em that. I got nothing to hide," Jackson says. No, he responds when asked, he doesn't know what happened that night, nor does he know the two other men questioned about the murder. He doesn't know much of anything, he shrugs, except how to hustle to stay alive. "Right now I'm trying to sell these ladies' shoes," he says. "You know anybody who wants to buy 'em?"

As Jackson pedals off, the young man on the corner, who won't give his name, notes that Pacheco isn't exactly forgotten. "I seen his kinfolk come by and lay flowers a couple of times," he says.

Pacheco's parents, Dominador and Pastora, who declined to comment for this story for fear it might hinder the prosecution of Lola, have indeed stopped by with flowers, as well as business cards with a confidential police tip-line printed on them -- anything, it seems, to keep the memory of their son's murder from fading into oblivion.

Lola's trial next month will briefly resurrect the family's tragedy, but it's difficult to imagine how her conviction could offer even scant solace for their grief.

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