Darius Elam had a promising future when he left Chicago for Houston in 1979. He went to college on a track scholarship. In Houston, Elam would face the biggest hurdle in his life.
Elam never came back home. He’s far from the finish line. Today, Elam is 61 and a convicted criminal. For 39 years, Elam languished in a Texas jail for a conviction based on lies and a bogus piece of evidence that has since been destroyed.
In 1984, Elam was convicted of aggravated robbery after he was arrested for an altered credit card and ID card that a co-worker tried to use at a shoe store. The credit card had been stolen from a man who had been found dead. With no DNA evidence, and a false confession from a jail informant, Texas authorities have kept Elam behind bars for a crime that many people believe he did not commit.
Despite securing a conviction of aggravated robbery, Houston police and prosecutors never proved that Elam’s fingerprints were on the credit card and ID that belonged to Richard Bowen, who was found murdered in a car behind Rice University in 1983.
Activists and Elam’s family also have doubts about a yellow sheet of paper that wasn’t initially logged and inventoried with other pieces of evidence taken from the crime scene. Police said Elam’s bloody fingerprint was on the yellow sheet of paper found in the car where Bowen was found dead.
But as Elam stepped up his fight for freedom, the yellow sheet of paper that allegedly contained his bloody fingerprint was destroyed.
In one of the toughest states on crime, Elam has served 39 years in prison simply on a conviction of aggravated robbery that has never been proven.
Elam is not a convicted murderer but an incarcerated father from Chicago who never watched any of his children grow up. Their high school and college graduations went on without him. Elam’s mother died as she waited for her son to come home a free man.
Last month, The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Elam for the tenth time. After so many denials Elam reportedly didn’t expect a hopeful outcome. He remains more determined to clear his name than to get out of jail.
But the wait is taking a toll on his family, which has never seen their father as a free man. For decades they suffered pain and despair as they watched their father fight delays, poor legal representation and injustice in a never-ending battle to remove a conviction that took away his life and changed it forever.
On April 13, Elam received a break from a Texas Criminal Court of Appeals. That court ordered a lower court to review a false confession by a jail informant and new DNA evidence that proves Elam’s innocence.
The appellate court’s order sets a time limit of 90 days from the April 13 ruling.
The ruling and time limit brings some relief to Elam’s children and siblings who have struggled to move on with their lives as the post-conviction case dragged on with endless delays. Yet the ruling also raises questions of a criminal justice system that has been accused of being too quick to prosecute an innocent man instead of giving him a fair chance to prove his innocence.
Tammie Lang Campbell is the founder and executive director of the Honey Brown Hope Foundation in Houston, which has advocated for Elam’s exoneration and release from prison.
“This is a gross miscarriage of justice,” Campbell said. “Darius Elam is the victim of a broken criminal justice system that took away 39 years of his life. This man has suffered far too long for a crime he did not commit. Release him now.”
Campbell’s foundation aims to help inmates readjust to society once they are released from prison. “God sent me into the prison to advocate for Darius’ freedom,” Campbell said. “This work is His divine appointment.”
While he fought to get out of jail, Bertha, Elam’s 82-year-old mother died on October 11, 2020. She visited him every year until her health declined in 2020. He could not attend her funeral at Gatlin Funeral Home and watched the services livestreamed on a computer from jail.
“It was pretty hard on him,” said Iraynia Elam, Darius’ sister who lives in Chicago.
“He was devastated. She was in the hospital at the time. He called her the day she was hospitalized on October 9. She died two days later from medical complications.”
“He used to call her every Sunday morning at 10 am. Then at 2 p.m. he would talk to me. He wouldn’t miss a week talking to my mom.”
Darius’ father Samuel Elam, died at 50-years-old in 1975, of sickle cell anemia.
Today, Elam’s four children are among his strongest supporters. His oldest is Davina Wilson, who is now 43. His other children are twins Dwight and Dwayne Elam, 42 and Abass Rachaman, 39.
All of them were babies when he went to jail in 1983. Wilson was just three years old, and Abass was just three days old. They never had a real relationship with their father like many children do. Elam and Wilson’s mother never married because of Elam’s situation. The mothers of the twins and Abass have their own heartaches and stories.
Today, Elam’s children bear many scars of not having a father around as they struggled through life.
Wilson said she saw her dad for the first time when she was 11. She said he was dressed in an all white prison uniform.
“I remembered being overwhelmed with emotion because no one told me that he was incarcerated. Every time I went there with my aunt and cousin from Chicago, no one said the word prison. When I first saw him, I spent at least an hour with him. I gave him a long, long embrace.
“He kissed my head. He was crying. I was crying. He said he loved me. He was very apologetic for not being there. I was overwhelmed because I heard about bad things that go on in prison.
“I was trying to convince him that I was a good girl who was getting good grades in school.”
Wilson said she did not learn about her father’s conviction until she was 27. She traveled to Texas by herself in what became a journey of personal growth fueled by the truth.
“There were a whole bunch of questions I had. How this happened and why he had been going through this ordeal for so long and why no one was fighting for him. A lot of things he was doing himself. He studied a lot of things for himself.
“There was just anger and frustration. I felt helpless and completely hopeless. Nothing can ever replace the time gone. I’m not ok with that.”
Wilson said she tried to attend one hearing on DNA evidence with an uncle and cousins, but that hearing was canceled in 2019.
The Crusader was unable to reach Elam’s twin sons, Dwight and Dwayne. Wilson said Dwight lives in Arizona and Dwayne still lives in Chicago.
Elam’s youngest son, Abass Rachaman, moved from Chicago to Houston when he was seven. Throughout his life Rachaman said he would receive counseling as he struggled to get through hard times without his father.
“My life has had a lot of pitfalls without my dad,” Rachaman said. “I’ve had a really hard life without him. I had to work two or three jobs in high school in Houston.”
Rachaman said he visited his father in jail many times, but he remembers the visit when he was only eight years old.
“I remember he always talked about wanting to be out of jail and bring the family together,” Rachaman said.
Rachaman said he and his siblings grow weary in hoping to see their father become a free man one day.
“We’re always hopeful one year after another,” he said. “It just ends up being hopeful one moment then it’s a letdown.”
Elam was born and raised in Chicago. He was the fifth of 11 siblings. His sister Iraynia was the third child. He attended Fenger High School before he transferred as a sophomore to Julian High School. He excelled in track and then transferred to Calumet High School, where he graduated in 1978.
He earned a full track scholarship and in 1979 enrolled at Texas Southern University (TSU), a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), whose alumni include Hip Hop Singer Megan Thee Stallion, ABC’s Good Morning America, Host Michael Strahan and Gospel Singer Yolanda Adams. Tony award-winning singer and actress Jennifer Holiday attended the school.
At TSU, Darius pledged Black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. In his junior year, Darius worked at a shoe store inside Houston’s Galleria, located nearly nine miles from TSU.
The Galleria is a high-end mall full of ritzy stores like Neiman Marcus, and Saks Fifth Avenue. At one point, The Galleria claimed Chicago’s storied but now defunct Marshall Field’s department store as a tenant.
It was here that Darius Elam would find work at a shoe store along with co-worker Clarence Richardson.
On May 7, 1983, Richard Bowen was found dead with a gunshot wound in his head. His body was found in a red vehicle behind Rice University, located five miles east of The Galleria.
A day earlier, on Friday, May 6, 1983, Elam went to pick up his paycheck at the shoe store inside the Galleria. He ran into Richardson who asked for a ride home. Elam agreed to the request but the two stopped at a shoe store in the mall. Richardson offered to buy a pair of shoes for Elam, who promised to pay Richardson back.
Richardson attempted to pay for the items with an altered credit card and driver’s license that happened to belong to Bowen, the dead man in the car behind Rice University. Richardson had altered the driver’s license by putting his own photo over Bowen’s picture. When the store clerk realized that the altered driver’s license wasn’t authentic, she contacted security. The two men were arrested and placed in the Houston City Jail.
Richardson claimed he found it at Houston’s McGregor Park, located 11 miles east of The Galleria.
Elam’s sister Iraynia was in Chicago when she learned of her brother’s arrest.
“We lived in Roseland. I was working at the U.S. Postal Service. I was working inside the building when I got a call from my brother, Samuel Elam. My mom was out somewhere. We couldn’t believe it.”
While in jail, two inmates-turned informants claimed Elam admitted that he and Richardson killed Bowen and stole his credit card. On March 26, 1984, Darius Elam was convicted of aggravated robbery and was given a life sentence in the 232nd Judicial District Court, Harris County, Texas.
While Elam was given a life sentence, Richardson was sentenced to just five years in jail; he served just three.
Questions remain why Richardson received a far less severe jail sentence than Elam when it was Richardson who possessed the stolen credit card and Bowen’s altered driver’s license with his name on it.
Elam had never been convicted of a violent crime but may have stirred suspicions when he reportedly ran from the store when a store clerk called security.
For the next four decades he would fight an uphill battle with the support of his mother, children and siblings.
The case against Elam crumbles when one looks at the lack of evidence against him.
At the crime scene, two investigators as part of their routine documented the objects they found in the car with Bowen’s body. The investigators and forensic officers inventoried and photographed all that was present at the scene of the crime.
Gruesome crime photos obtained by the Crusader show a white construction helmet with a red stain streaked on it, on the front passenger seat, where Bowen’s head slumped towards. The helmet sat on top of two black binders, one of which had several papers attached to the cover with a silver binder clip. There is also a midsize white foam cooler wedged between the dashboard and passenger seat. Because the carpet and the car are red, it’s difficult to tell from the photos how much blood splattered in the vehicle. None appears on the foam cooler or the papers on the black binder. The only possible blood splatter is the streak of red on the white construction helmet. Bowen has blood stains under his lower right eye, but there appears to be very little blood on his three-piece gray suit.
Forensic officers also examined the vehicle for fingerprints. The officers were able to pull several fingerprints from the vehicle, but none were from Elam. The gun that was used to kill Bowen was found six days after he was found dead. It did not have Elam’s fingerprints on it.
A coroner’s report concluded the victim was in a struggle with the assailant and would have had the DNA of that assailant under his fingernails. But Elam’s DNA was not found on the victim; there’s no evidence to suggest that he was there or that he killed Bowen.
Another examination of the vehicle occurred at the Houston Police Department. This time, the crime scene investigator extensively searched the car for additional evidence overlooked or not found by the previous investigators.
Before returning the vehicle to Bowen’s family, the same crime scene investigator noted in a supplemental police report on June 17, 1983, forensic evidence of hair was found on the victim’s items. After tests from the vehicle and Bowen the investigator concluded that the hair did not come from an African American.
But 90 days after the vehicle was returned to Bowen’s family, on August 9, 1983, Houston Police Officer Leonard Lee Cooper Jr. produced an 8 ½” x 11” yellow sheet of paper that was not originally logged or inventoried with the other pieces of evidence found in the vehicle.
“States Exhibit No. 30,” was a sheet torn from Elam’s legal notepad he used to take notes on in his psychology class at TSU. Elam had the legal yellow notepad when he was arrested and thrown in jail.
As stated earlier, two forensic investigators said no fingerprints of Elam were found in the car and no blood splatter was found on white sheets of paper on binders on the passenger seat that was closer to Bowen’s body than the yellow sheet of paper that Cooper claimed to be on the floor. There are also questions as to why three investigators failed to locate the yellow sheet during their thorough search of the vehicle.
In 1995, according to court documents the Houston police destroyed the yellow paper that allegedly contained Elam’s fingerprint but kept the other pieces of evidence that were logged from the vehicle during crime scene investigations.
Throughout his incarceration, Elam has maintained his innocence and has rejected several plea deals that would have possibly given him a shorter sentence. His siblings said Elam never wavered in his statement that he is innocent.
In 2014, a post-conviction DNA test failed to link Elam to Bowen’s murder. A court hearing in 2019 gave the same conclusion. However Judge Josh Hill had not decided how to move the case forward and when the coronavirus pandemic struck, more delays occurred.
In 2018, Gary Udashen, Elam’s attorney, filed a motion asking the judge to throw out Elam’s conviction on the grounds of innocence and the DNA testing.
One year before that move in 2017, the State of Texas passed legislation requiring accountability and transparency in the use of jailhouse informants.
Legal analysts around the country have questioned the use of jailhouse informants as witnesses, who have often been accused of giving false information to win an early release from prison.
In Elam’s case, the Texas appellate court on April 13 ordered Judge Josh Hill within 90 days to review the confession of one jailhouse informant who has recanted his statement that he was told Elam admitted to killing Bowen.
The court has an additional 30 days to report its findings back to the Texas Court of Appeals.
Bowen’s widow Vicki Atkinson in an interview with Houston’s Fox32 station doubts Elam’s innocence. She said there were other jailhouse informants who say Elam also confessed to them.
Atkinson also said her family is certain Elam is Richard Bowen’s killer.
“You can’t even put into words how awful it is, having to tell your boys their father has been killed,” Atkinson told the television station.
Today, Elam remains behind bars at the Memorial Unit in Rosharon, Texas.
Meanwhile, questions remain. If Elam confessed to killing Bowen and the yellow sheet of paper allegedly ties him to the killing, why was Elam convicted of aggravated robbery when there were no fingerprints and DNA evidence on the gun, the credit card, the driver’s license or any object in the car? And why was the yellow sheet of paper—supposedly the most damaging piece of evidence—that was never originally logged, destroyed?
And what about Clarence Richardson. Did he collude with prosecutors in implicating Elam in exchange for a much lighter sentence that’s so far 13 times less severe than his former co-worker’s?
They are hard, unanswered questions that many believe point to the reality that Elam was wrongfully convicted.
Despite his struggles, Campbell of the Honey Brown Foundation said Elam has finished college at the University of Houston through a special program that allowed him to obtain a bachelor’s degree.
Meanwhile, Elam’s children Wilson and Rachaman are slowly moving on with their lives. Wilson obtained a bachelors and a master’s degree in psychology from Chicago State University. For the past three years, Wilson has served as a counselor at the non-profit organization, By the Hand Club for Kids.
Rachaman is now an interior designer who lives in Seattle. He moved there from Houston 13 years ago. The ruling from the Texas Court of Appeals has renewed his hope that one day his father will be free.
“I think it helps his case a lot. I feel good about it,” Rachaman said.