Sole Eyewitnesses Recant in Two Recent Murder Cases
Gunshots ring out, bodies drop and the perpetrators escape in two separate incidents. Later, the detectives uncover two alleged sole eye-witnesses, who supposedly didn't stick around, but then they are brought downtown and they make positive identifications; the one of her nephew and the other of her sister's ex-boyfriend. Both photo line-ups are just a formality and are done during the videotaped interviews. Solid IDs are made.
The following fact patterns faced defense counsel in each case ten months apart. There were no other witnesses, no CSI matches, no surveillance video or telephone taps and no gun recovered implicating either defendant. As importantly, no confessions were extracted. Just one witness in each case, pointing the finger and saying, "That's him. He shot (the victim)".
We know that juries give eyewitnesses way too much credence, given their unreliability. If we learn anything from the parade of DNA exonerations, we see that – more than any other reason – people are wrongfully convicted based on eyewitness MIS-identifications. But that wasn't the situation in these two cases you would think, because they knew the defendants personally before each of the shootings.
But then something odd happened. When I approached both witnesses at their homes on cold calls, they recanted. Both claimed they told the detectives what the detectives wanted to hear, so that they get out of the police station. They said that both sets of detectives had already identified the defendants and wanted confirmation. Both eyewitnesses gave me, and then the court, the reasons why they were susceptible to "persuasion". Yet, even with the recantations on record, the State wanted to proceed with the original statements, given that they were closer in time to the events. Besides, the State argued that they both were pressured to recant by the family and friends of the defendants. Really?
So what to do? Tear apart the original video statements and go after all the discrepancies. In the first case, the witness claimed to be hiding behind a tree and witnessed the shooting occur behind a dumpster ten feet away. (See Photo) Then she went home.
Forensics placed the shooting location 90 feet away in a different direction. The shooting happened in total darkness. No evidence of the crime was found behind the dumpster. Neighbors in her building came out immediately when they heard the shots and did not see the eyewitness outside at all that night. Neither did other neighbors who knew her. More information was learned about the reliability and truthfulness of this "neighborhood snitch."
During closing arguments, Counsel held up the crime scene photos and showed the jury that if they were to believe her original story, she couldn't have seen the shootings. It helped that in the week prior to trial, she voluntarily approached Counsel when I was showing him the crime scene and she recanted again. She became our witness, even though the State called her. Not Guilty on the murder charge was the jury verdict.
In the second case, the sole eyewitness, in her statement to the police, placed herself with girlfriends at a nearby park prior to going to the area of the shooting, then she ran away when the shot rang out. Two witnesses who were at the scene at the time of the shooting said they knew her by face and said that she wasn't at the scene. Two of her friends from the park said that she never separated from them when they left the park and they all went directly to the hospital to see a gunshot victim from a previous shooting and were in the hospital when they all got wind of it. One of the girls was the victim's best friend and she was adamant that the sole eyewitness was with her in the hospital when her best friend was killed. Six more alibi statements put the defendant on the other side of town all day and night of date in question. In this case, the State couldn't shake all those signed statements and couldn't find any evidence to support the eyewitness' first statement to the detectives. The State dismissed all charges two weeks ago.
As a veteran investigator, I encourage you to investigate or deploy investigators in all serious cases where the State’s case rests solely on eyewitness identification. In many cases, this effort makes all the difference in the world. Not only does it serve your clients, but it serves the cause of justice and raises awareness of how frequently people identify the wrong person, or are never even at the scene to make the identification in the first place.
Links to articles about both cases are below.