Ex parte Chaney

Decision Date19 December 2018
Docket NumberNO. WR-84,091-01,WR-84,091-01
Citation563 S.W.3d 239
Parties EX PARTE Steven Mark CHANEY, Applicant
CourtTexas Court of Criminal Appeals

Hervey, J., delivered the opinion of the Court in which Keasler, Alcala, Richardson, Newell, and Walker, JJ., joined.

Applicant, Steven Mark Chaney, was convicted of murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment and fined $5,000. His conviction was affirmed on appeal. Chaney v. State , 775 S.W.2d 722 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1989, pet. ref'd). He now claims that he is entitled to relief because (1) new scientific evidence contradicts bitemark-comparison evidence relied on by the State at trial,1 (2) his conviction was secured using false evidence,2 (3) the State violated Brady ,3 and (4) he is actually innocent.4 The State and habeas court agree that Chaney is entitled to relief on all grounds. After reviewing the record, we agree and relief is granted.


On June 20, 1987, Rhea "Jack" Rasnic and his girlfriend, Nicole Strange, found the bodies of John and Sally Sweek in their apartment. Their throats were slashed, and they had been stabbed multiple times. Police also found what they believed to be a human bitemark on John's left forearm. There were no eyewitnesses to the offense.

a. Discovery of the Bodies

The day of the murders, Rasnic and John were supposed to go fishing, but they never went because Rasnic was unable to reach John. Throughout the day, Rasnic called John's apartment phone almost a dozen times, and he stopped by his apartment a few times, but no one answered the door when he knocked. Because they had plans, he thought it was odd that John had not gotten in touch with him, but he decided that he and Nicole would try to meet up with John and Sally that evening at a pool party at the Sweek's apartment complex. However, John and Sally never showed up at the party. Rasnic and Nicole walked over to John and Sally's apartment and knocked on the door, but again no one answered. The pair went back to the party for a while, then returned to the apartment between 9:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Rasnic and Nicole looked through one of the windows and saw two bodies lying on top of each other on the floor. After discovering the bodies, they went home,6 and Nicole called her brother Gary Strange, John's best friend. Gary called John's father, Henry Sweek, and one of John's brothers, Rick Sweek. Afterward, Rasnic, Nicole, and Gary went to John and Sally's apartment to meet Rick. Between 10:30 p.m. and 11:00 p.m., Rasnic, Gary, and Rick walked to the apartment window together and looked in. Rick fell to his knees and started crying. After Rasnic and Gary comforted him, Rick called his father, and Rasnic went back to the pool and called the police from a pay phone.

b. The Crime Scene

When Officer Robert Hinton arrived at the scene, he entered the apartment and found the bodies of John and Sally in the kitchen lying in a pool of blood. He also noticed shoeprints made of dried blood on the carpet. Investigator James Vineyard and his supervisor from the Dallas Police Department Physical Evidence Section processed the crime scene, which included photographing, collecting evidence, and searching for fingerprints. They noticed some bloodstains in the foyer that Hinton had not seen. The shoeprints began on the linoleum in the kitchen and went into the carpeted dining room and through the living room to the front door. Vineyard thought that the prints had been made within the last day. He also thought that they could have been made by two different shoes because some prints appeared to have been made by a flat-heeled shoe, while others had a gap between the sole and the heel.7 One of the bloody shoeprints in the kitchen appeared to show a pattern of parallel lines from a design on the sole of the shoe. After photographing the shoeprints, Vineyard removed portions of the carpet to preserve some of the prints.

In the kitchen, Vineyard found the bloodied bodies of John and Sally.8 He saw a large amount of both dried and wet blood on the bodies and on the kitchen floor. He also saw blood spatter on the kitchen counter, the refrigerator, the stove, and the dishwasher. Some of the spatter was between three and three-and-a-half feet across. He also found blood smears and spatter on the wall dividing the dining room from the kitchen. According to Vineyard, "with the amount of blood that was present in the kitchen area, any individual that walked away from there probably had a large quantity of blood on his shoes, his pant-leg area, maybe even higher than that."

After documenting the crime scene, Vineyard began collecting evidence, including dusting the apartment for fingerprints. He and his supervisor processed the inside and outside of the front door, portions of the foyer wall, areas around the dining room and kitchen, window sills, the entrance way to the kitchen, countertops, appliances, and some countertop items. They found no fingerprints outside of the apartment, but inside they found between three and four dozen. Some of them were bloody or near blood. Of the dozens found, only one partial fingerprint was identified as Chaney's: a partial left-thumb print found on the small wall abutting the entrance to the kitchen. It was not bloody. The print was two-and-a-half to three feet above the floor pointing up and was a few feet from John's body. Vineyard thought that the print could have been left by someone who had been crouching down over someone and grabbed the wall (the State's theory), but he also thought that it could have been left by someone who walked past the wall and touched it, or even by a person leaning down to pet John and Sally's small dog (the defense theory), which was found alive in the apartment under the bed.9

c. The Investigation

Homicide Investigator John Westphalen arrived on scene shortly after Vineyard and Vineyard's supervisor. He walked through the apartment and spoke to people who had been gathering in the parking lot outside, including some Sweek family members. No one that Westphalen spoke to saw or heard anything. A few hours later, Westphalen spoke to members of the Sweek family again and learned that John and Sally were involved in selling drugs and that a man named Juan Gonzalez, who supplied drugs to John, might be a person of interest.10 About a week after the murders, one of Sally's sisters, Mary Sweek, gave Westphalen a spiral notebook that she found in the apartment after the police left. The notebook appeared to be a drug ledger, and it had names, weights, and the amount of money people owed John. Chaney's name was in the notebook with some others, including members of the Sweek family.

A few days later, Westphalen received an anonymous call suggesting that Chaney might be a person of interest.11 The caller told Westphalen that he and Chaney bought cocaine at the Sweek apartment three to four times a week for months before the murders and that they went to the apartment a week before the murders. He also told Westphalen that Chaney owed John money when he was killed and where Chaney worked in case he wanted to talk to him.12

Based on the phone call and the fact that police found a partial thumb print from Chaney's left thumb, Westphalen and his partners visited Chaney at his construction job. When Westphalen approached Chaney and identified himself, Chaney immediately asked Westphalen if his visit was about the murders. Westphalen responded that it was, and Chaney told him that he had "eight witnesses who knew where he was on the night of the 20th and he had not been in that apartment in three weeks." Westphalen arrested Chaney for two outstanding tickets, took him back to the police station, and interviewed him before releasing him.

When Westphalen questioned Chaney again on July 20, he noticed that Chaney was wearing tennis shoes that, in his opinion, resembled some of the bloody shoeprints on the apartment floor. Westphalen seized Chaney's shoes and arrested him on suspicion of capital murder.

a. The Mistrial

On October 28, 1987, the trial court held a pretrial hearing about the admissibility of oral statements made to Westphalen and Hilton (the anonymous caller) by Chaney; the extent to which the defense could introduce evidence about Gonzalez, a drug supplier for John (and an alternate suspect according to the defense); and extraneous offenses committed by Chaney. Westphalen testified first. During his testimony, it became clear that he had notes and other evidence that were not disclosed to the defense in violation of the parties' agreed discovery order. At the end of the testimony, the trial judge adjourned the hearing, so he could examine Westphalen's file for other exculpatory evidence. The following morning, the judge held an in-chambers meeting with the attorneys and told them that he found "several things" that he thought might be exculpatory, including evidence regarding Gonzalez, an alternative suspect. The defense was granted a two week continuance.

When the pretrial proceedings resumed on November 16, Hilton testified about the statements Chaney made to him and Chaney's extraneous offenses. He said that Chaney asked him to re-pay the money he owed Chaney because Chaney needed to buy a car, and he needed to send child support to Houston. He also told him that he might leave town. The defense objected to the admission of the oral statements because they had not been disclosed by the State. The judge ruled that the statements and extraneous offense evidence were admissible.

After the ruling, the jury was brought back in and the trial began. The State called Hilton as its first witness. On cross-examination, Hilton testified that Chaney told him that he "cleared up [his debt] with John." The defense objected because that statement had never been disclosed by the State or raised during the pretrial hearing. The court sustained the objection.13 The jury was excused, and the judge asked the State whether there were any other...

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41 cases
  • Howard v. State
    • United States
    • Mississippi Supreme Court
    • August 27, 2020
    ...the intervening years. This was newly discovered evidence not available at the time of Howard's trial in 2000. See Ex parte Chaney , 563 S.W.3d 239, 275 (Tex. Crim. App. 2018) ; State v. Fortin , No. A-5929-17T2, ––– N.J.Super. ––––, ––– A.3d –––– , ––––, 2020 WL 3406451, at *13 (N.J. Super......
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    ..."favorable to an accused violates due process if the evidence is material to the accused's guilt or punishment." Ex parte Chaney , 563 S.W.3d 239, 266 (Tex. Crim. App. 2018) (citing Brady v. Maryland , 373 U.S. 83, 87, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963) ). "It is irrelevant whether the ev......
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13 books & journal articles
  • Post-Trial Issues
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Archive Texas Criminal Lawyer's Handbook. Volume 2 - 2021 Contents
    • August 16, 2021
    ...upon further study and acquisition of additional scientific knowledge, would have given a different opinion at trial). Ex parte Chaney, 563 S.W.3d 239, 255 (Tex. Crim. App. 2018). Ultimately, the habeas courts look to whether the totality of the new evidence of innocence unquestionably esta......
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    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Texas Criminal Lawyer's Handbook. Volume 1-2 Volume 2
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    ...or in bad faith, and the defense need not request disclosure because the State’s duty to disclose is an affirmative one. Ex parte Chaney, 563 S.W.3d 239, 266 (Tex. Crim. App. 2018) (where the court found that the State suppressed material exculpatory evidence). For purposes of a Brady claim......
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    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Archive Texas Criminal Lawyer's Handbook. Volume 2 - 2019 Contents
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    ...or in bad faith, and the defense need not request disclosure because the State’s duty to disclose is an affirmative one. Ex parte Chaney, 563 S.W.3d 239, 266 (Tex. Crim. App. 2018) (where the court found that the State suppressed material exculpatory evidence). For purposes of a Brady claim......
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