As prison looms, convicted robbers raise mistaken identity, racial issues

September 22, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

MIAMI -- The two young men believed that the truth would somehow set them free.

The young waitress says she is certain of the truth; they attacked and stabbed another man in a parking-lot mugging.

A Broward County judge was surprised by what a jury believed was the truth -- but must follow their verdict and punish the men for a crime they say they didn't commit.

This much is certain: Leonard Williams and Marvin Shaw are soft-spoken, churchgoing men with solid backgrounds and little history of trouble. But that changed when police arrested them for a brutal mugging outside a Sunrise restaurant four years ago.

Since then, Shaw, 24, and Williams, 30, have been fighting to prove their innocence -- despite a jury's conviction. Their battle has cost thousands of dollars in legal fees -- and could cost them 4 1/2 years in prison.

The men say they are victims of mistaken identity and that race is an issu. Both are black. Stopped by an officer looking for two black suspects, Shaw and Williams cooperated with police, didn't have a weapon and couldn't be positively identified by the victim.

But the waitress, Aimee Bianchini, 26, said she saw the men stab Scott White in a dim parking lot at the Hooters Restaurant in September 1990. And an all-white Broward County jury believed her.

"I'll probably go to prison for something that I did not do," Shaw says. "What frustrates me is that I did all the things in life that people say are the right things to do -- go to school, work, go to college, get involved -- and it looks like I'm still going to go to prison."

Shaw had never been arrested before and Williams had only a misdemeanor conviction.

The prosecutor is sure that the case against them was solid.

"In this case, the jury had every piece of information that I had," says Al Guttman, assistant state attorney. "They came back with a verdict of guilty. Based on the evidence that I had, yea, I'm sure that they did it."

The attack against Mr. White happened Sept. 4, 1990. According to court records:

Mr. White and John Avakian were walking in the Hooters parking lot when two black men confronted them. One put Mr. White in a headlock while the other drew a knife.

Mr. Avakian bolted to the restaurant for help. Moments later, the armed mugger plunged the knife into Mr. White's abdomen and ran away with his accomplice.

Ms. Bianchini got to a window just in time to see the stabbing and immediately called police. Based on her description, police dispatchers issued a bulletin: Look out for two black men in dark clothing running north near an adjacent golf course. The warning didn't offer a more detailed description of the suspects.

Within minutes, officer Scott Hoffner saw Shaw and Williams walking on University Drive near the golf course. He stopped the men and questioned them.

The men weren't sweaty, bloody or soiled from a fight; Williams was wearing jeans and a red T-shirt while Shaw was dressed in a light-colored shirt and shorts.

Officer Hoffner ordered Shaw and Williams into his squad car and drove them to Hooters.

"I wasn't nervous. I had no reason to be nervous," Williams said. "I was just wondering what was going on. I was asking him what was going on. He just said, 'Be quiet.' "

At the restaurant, Mr. Avakian couldn't identify Williams and Shaw. Mr. White, who was undergoing emergency treatment for three stab wounds, also wasn't sure if they were the ones who stabbed him.

Anxious to leave, Shaw and Williams said they told detectives they had spent the day in a friend's apartment nearby and were walking to a convenience store for party supplies. (The friends later testified on their behalf.) But detectives told them to be patient; Ms. Bianchini would be the last one to look at them.

"I thought, 'Oh, well, when this woman gets back, this will clear up because she'll see that we weren't the ones that did it,'" Williams said.

After talking to police, Ms. Bianchini was allowed to make the identification from inside her boyfriend's Jeep. Shaw and Williams were leaning against a police car and flanked by several patrolmen.

Ms. Bianchini admitted she was frightened and nervous, but said she was sure that Shaw and Williams were the muggers. The men were arrested and handcuffed.

Shaw and Williams languished for months in the Broward County jail before being released on bail. By the December 1991 trial, defense lawyers hadn't found any new evidence, so they hammered away at Ms. Bianchini's testimony.

On the witness stand, Ms. Bianchini said she didn't get a clear look at the attackers' faces, but recognized them mostly by their clothing and builds. She said she saw the fight for less than a minute from about 50 feet away, didn't talk with police immediately after the stabbing and identified them after detectives told her suspects were in custody.

But Ms. Bianchini was certain: she saw Shaw and Williams stab Mr. White.

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