Wrongfully accused of killing parents, freed man can’t escape trauma

Keith Sylvester was arrested and accused of strangling his mother and stepfather before setting their northwest Atlanta house on fire in July 2018. He was released from jail after new evidence proved his innocence. Credit: Ryon Horne

Credit: Ryon Horne

Credit: Ryon Horne

‘I know there are good law enforcement officers, but I don’t look at them the same way now’

Keith Sylvester spent 15-months in jail before new suspect emerged.

On a rainy Tuesday morning, Keith Sylvester made his way into a conference room.

“I’m nervous,” he said as he took a seat in front of a rain-splattered window. He talked softly, his hands clasped together.

He’d come to talk about the pain of his mother and stepfather’s deaths two years ago — and the agony of being accused of the crimes. He was in custody for 15 months before charges were dropped earlier this year, evidence having pointed to another suspect.

“I prayed a lot,” Sylvester, 49, said of his time behind bars. “I would cry when I was alone in my cell."

The bodies of his mother, Deborah Hubbard, 65, and stepfather, Harry Hubbard, 67, were found inside their burning home in northwest Atlanta in July 2018. Sylvester said he worked closely with detectives to find the culprit, but five months after the incident, he was arrested and charged with the couple’s murder.

“When (the detective) presented me with a citation and told me that I was under arrest for the murder of my parents, I thought it was a trick for him to try to get more information,” Sylvester said. “I was thinking that this was a mistake. They were going to realize something, and I was going to be out of there pretty soon. I was thinking I was going to get out within a couple of days.”

That didn’t happen.

“They kept showing me on the news for this person that had did these terrible crimes,” he said, recalling his close relationship with his mom and stepdad. “We spent a lot of time together. We went a lot of places together. When they had doctor’s appointments or other errands, I was often the one that would take them or go along with them.”

In an affidavit at the time, police said Sylvester, his mother’s oldest son, was the sole beneficiary of her insurance policy. Zack Greenamyre, Sylvester’s attorney, said that’s simply untrue.

“The insurance policy doesn’t name him anywhere,” said Greenamyre, who joined Sylvester during a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And he would be one of six children and stepchildren that would be beneficiaries of the policy.”

As the investigation dragged on, so too did the length of Sylvester’s incarceration.

“I was writing the courts a lot and I was writing the media. I was writing to a lot of civil rights organizations,” he said. “And I don’t know if my mail was being tampered with at the jail, but no one was responding.”

Then in March, the Fulton County district attorney dropped all charges against Sylvester, and another suspect was arrested following a court-ordered Google geofence search. The warrant required the tech company to search for mobile devices within a specific area. It took Google nearly nine months to send that information to investigators, according to the DA.

“The result of this investigation shows that an assailant, who was unnamed in the original police investigation, was, in fact, in the house of Deborah and Harry Hubbard 20 minutes before a 911 call was placed regarding the fire that caused their deaths,” DA Paul Howard said in a statement to the AJC. “The results of this search warrant identified Cornelius Muckle as the culprit whose phone was inside the house at the time of the crimes.”

Muckle pawned several items belonging to the Hubbards two days after their deaths, the DA’s office previously said. Muckle is charged with two counts of felony murder and remains in jail without bond, records show.

Sylvester said if he were able to go back in time to when he first started working with Atlanta police detectives, he would’ve done things differently.

“I would have never went down to those offices several times,” he said. "I know there are good law enforcement officers, but I don’t look at them the same way now. I don’t trust them, but I know we need them.”

Sylvester recalls the bittersweet moment he learned he was being released.

“I started crying in the courtroom,” he said. “The judge started smiling and she said, ‘Well, see, something good did come out of this,’ but I just started crying.”

He walked out of jail a free man on March 4.

“It was dark, and it was raining outside, and I didn’t have an umbrella or a ride or anything or any money,” he said. “I just was happy to get out. I just started walking.”

Sylvester has sued two Atlanta police detectives, James Barnett and Darren Smith, in U.S. District Court. The complaint contends the detectives “obtained a warrant that obviously lacked probable cause on its face” and did so “based on deliberate and reckless material falsehoods and omissions.”

The Atlanta Police Department does not comment on pending litigation, Atlanta police spokesman Officer Anthony Grant said.

The lawsuit seeks damages, saying Sylvester was harmed financially and emotionally and “continues to be humiliated given the online presence of news reports showing he was arrested for heinous crimes against his own family.”

“Once they put the story about me on the news, they evicted my wife from the apartment community that we lived in,” Sylvester said. “My mother’s house went into foreclosure. So we lost all of my mother’s personal items and the items that we had at my mother’s house.”

And it wasn’t just material goods he lost. “A lot of family members just disowned me and cut me off,” Sylvester said. “And it really hurts because, you know, my mother or my stepdad can’t come back and say, ‘Well, you know, you know, he was the person that was there.’ They can’t come back and help me. And I just feel alone sometimes.”

A GoFundMe page has been set up to assist Sylvester and his family. If you’d like to support him, please click here.

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