Reprieve Fellow Frances Bourliot on how easily an incorrect identification can cause a wrongful conviction.
Greg is a soft-spoken, well-mannered, gracious young man. When we first met, he stood as I entered the booth, a sign of respect in the South that is rarely seen anymore.
All I knew about Greg before we met was that he had been convicted of a murder and sentenced to death. I knew that he had been convicted of shooting his cousin in the back for several hundred dollars and some drugs. And I knew that before this crime, he had never been in serious trouble.
Our first interview lasted five hours. We spoke about Greg’s family, his friends, and his life before he came to prison. He told me that most of his family was too poor and could not afford the gas to come visit him. He asked that I speak with his mother and let her know that he was doing as well as could be expected, and that she shouldn’t worry about anything. He asked me to inquire after her health and after his siblings. All in all, we spoke of everything but the circumstances surrounding his incarceration.
Greg had grown up not far from where I had lived throughout my elementary school years. The streets he roamed were streets I knew intimately. We were relatively similar in age, separated by less than five years. We were more or less contemporaries. I couldn’t help but imagine that we would have known each other and likely have been friends if we had met a decade or so earlier.
Our second interview lasted another five hours. During this interview, we spoke of his background, his childhood, the crucial events surrounding the murder, and of his trial. Greg’s conviction was based on the testimony of a co-defendant and on problematic forensic evidence.
Critical portions of the co-defendant’s story changed several times before trial; however, those previous versions were not revealed to Greg’s defense counsel until after trial was long finished. In comparing the versions, it is clear that the co-defendant was changing his story to suit his best interest. After all, his charge was reduced from capital murder, facing the death penalty, to aggravated robbery with a sentence of deferred adjudication.
The forensic evidence presented at trial was originally tested at the Houston Police Department’s crime laboratory. Several years after the trial, a scandal erupted, bringing the vast problems with this crime lab to light. Once this forensic evidence was retested, it was determined that there was no biological match between Greg and the material found at the scene.
Interestingly, the eyewitnesses connected to this case could have been used to acquit Greg. These eyewitnesses testified seeing two men leaving the scene of the crime, neither of which is at all close to Greg’s description.
Although eyewitness identifications can often be problematic, both of the eyewitnesses knew the men they saw running away, as they all lived in the same neighborhood. However, the defense attorney did not question them at all before the beginning of trial, even though he knew them to be eyewitnesses to the crime. Thus, the jury never heard their crucial testimony that, when weighed against the problematic evidence of the co-defendant’s testimony and the forensic material, would likely have proved Greg’s innocence.
Frances is using her Reprieve Fellowship to address systemic deficiencies in the way that the state of Texas conducts eyewitness identification procedures in capital cases.