The freedom of an innocent person should not be left up to luck, but our
fallible justice system is often a mere game of chance for those unfortunate
few sitting on the wrong side of a courtroom. Five eye-witnesses testified
at a trial that they had all seen the defendant shoot and kill a man,
so it is unsurprising that the jury found him guilty of murder.
However, the urge to find justice for the victim in this case only led
to injustice for another innocent victim. Here, the victim had been shot
in his driveway in front of six witnesses. The police had wrongfully suspected
one man in another shooting, so they showed his photograph to the witnesses
shortly after the shooting and they said he had not been the shooter.
At a later point, perhaps remembering his face from the photograph, one
of the witnesses picked this unlucky man out of a live lineup. This witness
told the other five witnesses the identity of the suspected shooter and
each of them then agreed.
Before trial, the witness who made the original identification recanted
that statement but the other five went forward to testify at trial. At
the defendant’s sentencing, a criminal defense attorney came forward
to inform the presiding judge that his client had been at the crime scene
and was willing to testify that the defendant had not been the shooter.
The judge was not compelled to allow this testimony and ultimately sentenced
the defendant to life in prison. Years later, a review of the case turned
up notes from an investigator that identified the man who had been prevented
from testifying as the actual shooter.
When the five witnesses learned of these notes, they all admitted that
they never actually saw the shooter. Eventually, the conviction was vacated
and the charges were dismissed, but only after an unlucky man served 20
years in prison for a crime he did not commit.