Dubious eyewitness identification puts conviction of Arundel man in doubt

June 06, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

AT 8 P.M. APRIL 8, Condell Woodson dressed in black and left his mother's Orange, N.J., home to head out for a robbery spree. Toting a 9 mm TEC-DC9 handgun, he stuck up two men 10 minutes later.

Heading north and then east, Woodson robbed three more men. He continued his northerly direction and hit two more guys. By this time several of the victims had called police. Joyce Carnegie, a patrolwoman for the Orange Police Department, had a description of the suspect and stopped Woodson shortly after 8: 30 p.m. Woodson shot her twice, killing her.

Within mere blocks of the shooting, Terrance Everett and his wife, Ebony, were in a Wendy's restaurant, where they had arrived about 8: 20 p.m. The manager remembered Ebony Everett's "long, thick hair." He remembered Terrance Everett because the girl who took his sandwich order got it wrong several times, prompting Everett to return to the counter and complain.

Two days later, police barged into Everett's home and arrested him in Carnegie's murder. His parole officer had identified Everett from a police composite photo as a possible suspect. Three of the victims had also identified Everett as the man who robbed them. Eventually, police said, no fewer than eight eyewitnesses identified Everett as the robber of seven men and the murderer of Carnegie.

Everett denied any involvement in the crimes. He convincingly passed a polygraph test. His wife and the Wendy's manager gave him a solid alibi. Eventually, police found the handgun Woodson had tossed into a yard and traced it to a man in Georgia, who said Woodson had stolen the weapon from him. Police arrested Woodson in Newark, N.J. He confessed to the crimes.

So much for the value of eyewitness identification. Let's bring the moral of this pitiful tale that took place in Orange, N.J., back to Annapolis here in Maryland, where Brady Spicer still sits in the Anne Arundel County Detention Center. Spicer was convicted in 1992 for the brutal beating of Annapolis bar owner Francis "Bones" Denvir. There was not a shred of physical evidence linking him to the crime. Spicer was convicted solely on the basis of eyewitness identification.

Three men claimed they saw Spicer running from the scene. Two, Harry Connick and Sam Novella, saw the suspect only briefly. The other, Larry M. Brown Sr., was a career felon facing drug charges and looking to cut a deal. He has since admitted he lied. So Spicer remains in jail on the testimony of two men who saw him briefly and identified him in court 27 months after the crime.

Denvir claimed he never saw his assailant and did not give eyewitness identification. Not that it would have mattered. As the Terrance Everett case shows, victim eyewitness identifications are no more reliable than those of nonvictims. No fewer than three victims in the Condell Woodson/Terrance Everett affair fingered Everett, not Woodson, as the culprit.

Nancy Cohen, one of Spicer's two attorneys, is preparing for his appeal hearing Tuesday before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. Cohen noted that in several rape cases victims have also wrongly identified their attackers. Several convictions have been overturned when DNA evidence proved the convicted person had been wrongly identified.

A federal court, in the 1967 case U.S. vs. Wade, noted the problem with eyewitness identification.

"The vagaries of eyewitness identification are well known; the annals of criminal law are rife with instances of mistaken identification."

That court opinion about eyewitness identification is never quoted to jurors in a case. Cohen says defense lawyers have tried to put expert witnesses on the stand to testify about the high unreliability of eyewitness identifications, only to be thwarted by appeals courts.

Dr. David Schretlen, a neuropsychology professor at the Johns Hopkins University, has done some research on the unreliability of eyewitness identifications and lectures on the subject once a year at the Police Leadership Training Program.

"Courts worry that expert testimony invades the province of the jury, that juries will rely too much on expert testimony," Schretlen said. But, he cautioned, research shows that juries rely heavily on eyewitness identification and are prone to believe such identification, whether or not it's accurate. Studies also show that eyewitness reliability relies on how long a witness saw someone and the amount of time that elapsed between when the suspect was first seen until the time he was identified in court. Schretlen said most eyewitnesses lose the majority of details within 24 hours.

In Spicer's case, there was a period of over two years between the time the witnesses claimed they saw him and the time of his trial.

"That's a very long interval," Schretlen observed.

Pub Date: 6/06/99

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