On January 22, 1979, a man was arrested by the police for robbing a local bank. He was put on trial for this three times. The first time, he was found guilty, but the court reversed the judgment because there was a mistake in the charge to the jury. The second time, the jury could not come up with a decision and a mistrial was declared. The third time, he was found guilty again. The defendant then appealed to the Court of Appeals.
The main issue that the Court debated on was if there was enough evidence to show that the defendant was guilty of first degree robbery. Majority decided that there was enough to show that he was guilty. They voted to affirm the decision of the last trial. Justice O’Connor however, disagreed. He argued that there was an issue of misidentification, an error on the court’s (court during the last trial) part, a violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights, and that the testimonies presented by the prosecution were unreliable.
Let’s start with what happened. According to reports, on the morning of January 22, 1979, at around 9:40, a masked man entered the bank, showed a gun, and asked the bank employees to fill a bag he had brought with money. The man then exited the bank and drove off in a black car.
Three witnesses testified that the robber looked like the defendant and identified him as the robber in a lineup. The heavier evidence however was the license plate on the getaway car. According to the bank’s acting branch manager, he followed the robber outside and saw the car’s plate number as the car was driving away in a black vehicle. Another witness said that he saw the robber exit the bank and start to pull the mask off his head. When the man saw him however, the witness said the man started to run across the parking lot and go inside a blue vehicle. Later, he changed his statement and said that the car was black.
A few hours after the robbery, the witness was brought to another place where he identified the car he had seen in the parking lot.The license plate was a bit bent under the, so the numbers were hard to see. The was then brought to where defendant lived. The defendant was then being arrested. He saw three men leave the house but could not identify who the men were. One of the men was the defendant. Later, the witness picked the defendant out of a lineup and identified him as the bank robber.
The police ran a check on the car and license plate and found a black vehicle with a matching license plate was registered to the defendant. The defendant admitted to owning the vehicle.
The defendant did have an alibi to prove that he could not have been at the bank when the robbery occurred. His alibi was supported by three people, his wife, a neighbor who was also a close friend, and the neighbor’s housekeeper. The alibis that they gave were conflicting however, and the Court did not give much weight to them because they all had “self-serving interests” in proving that the defendant was innocent.
As to Justice O’Connor who dissented with the majority’s vote, the Court argued that the main reason he disagreed with them was because he doubted the testimonies of the witnesses, especially the “incredible” nature of one testimony. However, according to a source, it is a common principle in law that the credibility of witnesses’ testimonies are up to the jury to decide and that their decision on this, is usually immune to second-guessing. Meaning, Justice O’Connor could not second-guess the jury’s decision and put forth his own judgment.
Now let’s go on to Justice O’Connor’s explanation of his side. Why did he believe that the witnesses’ testimonies were not believable? First, all of them maintained that the bank robber had blond to light brown hair. The defendant’s hair is dark brown. They mentioned that the bank robber probably was around his teens to late 20s. The defendant is in his 30s. None of the witnesses mentioned that the robber had a scar. the defendant has a very prominent scar when he had cancer many years back. They said that the bank robber was five feet and a half to six feet. The defendant is a bit taller than six feet.
Also, one of the witnesses was a bank teller who had known the defendant for quite some time, since he was a regular customer of the bank. According to reports, when she found out that the defendant was arrested on the afternoon of the bank robbery, she had talked to her co-workers and family members about it. However, during the trial, she said that it was the first time she had seen him.
Now, about the car. An report on the investigation into it showed that when the police found that the plate number the witnesses said they saw matched the plate number of the defendant’s car, they had stopped the investigation. However, when interviewed later, the officials of Department of Motor Vehicles admitted that there were outstanding plate numbers very close to the plate number that the witnesses had seen. Furthermore, a man was even found who admitted that he used to own a license plate in good working condition with the same numbers as the defendant, but that he had thrown it away a few years back.
Now, about the witness. According to reports, he was brought by the police to the defendant’s house and he saw him being arrested. This was before the suspect lineup where the witness positively identified the defendant from the lineup as the bank robber. According to a report, this is a violation of police policy. Witnesses are not allowed to see the people in the lineup before the actual lineup. Furthermore, according to Justice O’Connor, this is a violation of the defendant’s rights.
Now, about the “incredible” testimony. One of the witnesses, said that on the day of the bank robbery, she was sitting out in the parking lot, counting cash when she saw a man approach. She immediately became very frightened and felt that “he was staring right through me”. He walked in front of her in plain sight and then turned the other way so she saw his other side as well. According to Justice O’Connor, criminals aren’t in the habit of allowing witnesses to see their faces clearly. When asked about what she noticed about him the most, she said that it was his eyes which were very sad.
In the lineup, the witness positively identified the defendant as the robber because of his “sad” eyes. Justice O’Connor finds that she seemed to be very hysterical. Although he does not doubt that she believes what happened to be true, her physical distress may not have allowed her to make an intelligent decision. According to him, “This is the curse of eyewitness identification–the witnesses are not lying but they are so often mistaken.”
Justice O’Connor also finds another problem in the fact that at the police station, before the lineup, the witness was able to talk freely with the defendant. This is a violation of official policy and should not have been allowed. The report explains that witnesses are not allowed to talk to each other before the lineup so that they can come up with independent opinions.
As for the defendant’s alibi, Justice O’Connor finds that although there were some inconsistencies in the three women’s stories and in the defendant’s story, it is not for the defendanat to prove its truthfulness. By law, it is the prosecution’s responsibility to prove that the man on trial was guilty of the crime and if needed, to disprove his alibi.
The alibi properly placed the defendant in his house when the robbery happened. He was on the phone with his neighbor, who was also one of the witnesses, and her housekeeper, who did not know the defendant until the trial, verified that she heard her employer talking on the phone with him. Another witness, now from the defense side, also maintained that the robber had blond hair, that he was around 25, and that he was less than six feet. None of these descriptions match the defendant.
Moreover, it was proven that the defendant is an outstanding citizen. He served with the Marines for four years, and was a police officer for thirteen years. An investigation into his finances also proved that he had no debts or money problems.
In conclusion, Justice O’Connor believes that the verdict on the trial was unfair and should be reversed.
It can be very difficult to be in a situation where you are wrongly accused of something that you did not do. It is also difficult to watch your loved one in a similar situation. Stephen Bilkis & Associates, together with its team of excellent lawyers can provide you with excellent advice and guidance to help you through this time.