Incident Date: November 10, 2003
Jurisdiction: Seventeenth Judicial Circuit
County: Broward County
Charge: Armed Robbery with a Firearm, Aggravated Assault with a Firearm
Conviction: Armed Robbery with a Firearm, Aggravated Assault with a Firearm
Sentence: Life in Prison
Year of Conviction: 2004
Release Date: April 14, 2020
Exonerated: December 14, 2020
Sentence Served: 16 Years
Real perpetrator found? No
Contributing Causes: Eyewitness Misidentification, Official Misconduct, Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
In Dania Beach, Florida on November 10, 2003, a man with a revolver forced his way into a Walgreens store in the early morning hours. After threatening one employee with the revolver, the suspect left the store with $1,700 in cash. Ashraf Rizk and Kathy Venhuizen, the only two employees present during the robbery, told police their recollection of the events. Rizk saw the perpetrator in the parking lot when he arrived at work and asked if he needed anything. The perpetrator told Rizk he was waiting to make sure his child got on the bus. When Rizk opened the doors to let his colleague in the store, the perpetrator then proceeded to fight with Rizk and eventually pulled out the revolver, causing Rizk to back off. Once inside the perpetrator was able to get money from the store safe. According to Rizk, he opened the doors for Kathy at 7:15 a.m and the perpetrator fled the scene at approximately 7:24 a.m.
Two days after the incident, both victims, who are also the only witnesses, met with the detectives to complete a composite sketch based on their recollection of the person. Unfortunately, the observations of the two witnesses did not match. Kathy described a Black male, five foot eight inches, stocky, and missing teeth on the left side of his mouth. Rizk himself had no recollection of the perpetrator missing any teeth. A week later, detectives had constructed a lineup and asked both individuals to identify the suspect independently.
Out of the six men presented to her in a lineup, Venhuizen chose number three, Leonard Cure. Rizk on the other hand was between Cure and another suspect but concluded number three (Cure) was not the same complexion as the perpetrator. Although Rizk later testified he did not choose out of the lineup, Detective Jeff Mellies testified that Rizk had circled and signed the photo of Cure. Not mentioned in this stage of investigation is that more than one of the six photos in the lineup was of Leonard Cure. Additionally, the ‘suspects’ from the lineup were gathered in a highly unethical way, through combing a law enforcement database of people who had previous interactions with law enforcement.
The day after the identifications were made by the witnesses, November 20, 2003, police arrested Leonard Cure for robbery with a firearm and assault with a firearm. Police also collected black shorts and a black jacket as evidence when making the arrest.
In May of 2004, Judge Paul Backman of the Seventeenth Judicial Court approved the motion to suppress the clothing evidence authorities obtained because it was not collected with a search warrant. However, the judge ruled the identifications by Rizk and Venhuizen were reliable despite the lineup being “unnecessarily suggestive.”
In his investigation, Detective Mellies opted to speak to a young boy who was observed by Detective Connie Bell in front of a nearby elementary school, south of the Walgreens. Bell saw the boy walking to school that day with a guy who was wearing blue jean shorts, a blue jean jacket, and a red baseball cap. This was the same clothing as the perpetrator described by Rizk, but did not match the clothing collected by law enforcement during the arrest of Leonard. Detective Mellies additionally showed the young boy the lineup and claimed he had selected Mr. Cure. The boy was not called as a witness. Mellies later made clear he had no report of the boy’s identification to support the allegation.
Leonard Cure went to trial in August of 2004, without any physical or forensic evidence attaching him to the crime. The victim testimonies, with conflicting identifications, were the only evidence used against him.
Leonard, right, with his son.
Although Detective Bell testified, she did not make any mentions of the guy she saw earlier that day by the school until days after the robbery. To identify a person from the vague description, she and her Lieutenant searched through a Track Repeat Arrestees Program (TRAP), a computer program containing information of people nearby who had been arrested or were on prisoner release.
On the basis of a claim made by the witness Venhuizen which described the robber's physical appearance as “neat,” Lt. Stewart chose Leonard Cure’s file in the database because he seemed to be one picture in the database that suggested he maintained a well kept appearance. Detective Bell testified when the photograph chosen by Lieutenant Stewart was shown to her, she concluded Leonard was the man she saw walking by her patrol car in front of the elementary school. Although she didn’t connect Cure to the crime until she was shown the photo, she also testified another connection with Cure. A few months earlier when she was reviewing new criminal registrants and prison releases, she had been assigned to Cure and had met him previously at his residence.
As previously noted, Kathy Venhuizen indicated a missing tooth on the left side of the suspects face when describing him. Leonard Cure had both a missing side and front tooth; however, his girlfriend Enid Roman testified Cure wore a bridge and never left home without it. She never knew his teeth were missing until after they started dating.
Cure had an alibi for the time the crime occurred. Throughout investigation and trial he maintained that he left home the morning of the robbery around 6 a.m with Enid and her three children. After Enid dropped the children off at school and daycare, she then dropped Leonard off at a bus stop. After exiting the first bus and before catching the second bus on the route he took to work, Leonard stopped by an ATM. The ATM is three miles south of the Walgreens. Cure took out twenty dollars. The withdrawal was made at 6:52 a.m. This places him far from the crime at the same time it occurred. No video from the ATM was recovered by Cure’s first attorney and by the time the attorney was replaced with Cure’s trial attorney, over ninety days had passed which is the standard retention time for those types of video records.
Cure’s manager from his job testified that he had become a permanent worker with the company, because he was always on time and never gave any slack. Specifically, on the day in question Marty Weiss noted he entered the site at 8 a.m and Cure was already there. A co-worker at Presidential Towers where Cure worked additionally testified he always came to work around 7 a.m. each day. Additionally, Cure was paid in full for the entire day of the incident, however, the time-sheet was handwritten. Cure’s work attire was also described as construction boots and clothing suitable for construction work, not jean pants and a baseball cap.
For Cure to have visited the ATM, robbed the Walgreens, changed clothes, and made it to work on time, he would have had to drive his girlfriend's car. This was the only considerable theory given by the prosecution, but an implausible one that contradicted both evidence and testimony. Despite the witnesses’ testimony the perpetrator was walking, the prosecution maintained this theory.
On August 17, 2004, the jury could not reach a unanimous decision, causing a mistrial. The prosecution proceeded to offer Leonard a plea agreement that in exchange for a guilty plea he would spend seven years in prison. Leonard refused on the basis of his innocence.
The second trial began a few weeks later, only this time Rizk was a witness for the defense. Rizk testified he was not sure if Cure was the robber. Despite this, the jury reached a guilty verdict and Leonard Cure was sentenced to life in prison for armed robbery with a firearm and assault with a firearm.
Leonard Cure appealed his case in 2006 and the Fourth District Court of Appeals upheld his convictions. In 2015 and the year after, he filed for post-conviction relief and both petitions were denied.
Fast forward, four years later in December 2019, Cure wrote to the newly created Conviction Review Unit of the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit to request they re-investigate his case. After an initial review, ASA Arielle Demby Berger, the director of the CRU, reached out to the Innocence Project of Florida. The following February, IPF’s Krista Dolan became counsel for Mr. Cure.
On April 14, 2020, the CRU agreed to modify Cure’s sentence to 16 years to allow him to be released based on time served, while the re-investigation of his case continued. The investigation concluded Cure was not identified through the TRAP program, as Lt. Stewart testified at trial. While there may have been some other database through which Stewart was identified, the CRU investigation suggested an inquiry by the defense before the trial “could have led to questions about a lawful identification and subsequent lineups.” After the CRU concluded and suggested exoneration, Judge John J. Murphy vacated Cure’s convictions on December 11, 2020, and three days later all charges against him were dropped.
Where is Leonard Now?
Cure was the first person exonerated as a result of a joint effort and agreement with the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit (CRU). He is now home with his family.