New twist surfaces in man's 1999 conviction
After a Daily Press inquiry, a prosecutor saw something that could help a defendant.
By Peter Dujardin | 757-247-4749
April 12, 2008
Aquil K. Wiggins has spent nine years fighting what he says was a wrongful conviction in 1999 for a robbery and attempted carjacking outside a Hampton Food Lion.
To anyone who would listen, through letters, petitions and appeals, Wiggins said he was eating dinner and watching a movie with his girlfriend that September 1997 night that the crime occurred — and that eyewitnesses were mistaken when they picked his picture out of a group of photos.
Now Wiggins, 31, may have an opening that his lawyer said could lead to the case being reopened — and possibly Wiggins' exoneration — before his scheduled release in 2012.
Hampton Commonwealth's Attorney Linda D. Curtis, in recently reviewing the case, said she discovered something that bothered her. Curtis said she looked at the case on previous occasions at Wiggins' urging, but didn't notice anything amiss.
But after the Daily Press called about the case in late March, Curtis reviewed it again before a scheduled meeting with a reporter. During that interview Thursday, Curtis said she had come across something that could be beneficial to Wiggins' case.
"The commonwealth has come across information which should be provided to an attorney representing the defendant's interests," Curtis' chief deputy, John F. Haugh, wrote in an April 3 motion in Hampton Circuit Court. "Accordingly, the commonwealth would ask that an attorney be appointed to represent the defendant."
Curtis would not elaborate on what she found, saying it would come out in court. And she said she still believes Wiggins committed the crime.
She declined to comment about whether her staff handled the case properly, but said a review is ongoing.
James E. Schleissmann, who led Wiggins' prosecution in 1999 while working as an assistant commonwealth's attorney under Curtis, now works at the Virginia Attorney General's office in Richmond. He did not return a phone call.
Last week, Circuit Court Judge Wilford Taylor Jr. appointed Robert Harris, a Hampton attorney who represented Wiggins on some of his appeals, to represent Wiggins again. Asked if the new revelation could lead to Wiggins' ultimate release, Harris said, "Potentially, yes."
It's not along the lines of new DNA evidence or a key witness recanting, Harris said. And given that the case has already been through its appeals, there's a question over how it will be admitted. "It will be tricky to get it through," Harris said. "But it may be something that could have some outcome ... if procedurally we're not prevented from doing this."
Wiggins hadn't heard
Wiggins could not be reached Friday at the Dillwyn Correctional Center, in Dillwyn in central Virginia. His wife, Rene Wiggins, of Atlanta, said neither she nor her husband knew the motion was filed until the Daily Press told her about it. She had a guarded reaction to the news, saying the family's hopes have been dashed before.
"I do feel like it's beneficial," she said. "But I'm not going to read into it. I'm just hoping it will make people listen. I hope they look at the facts of the case and realize that this person was not involved ... They should have paid attention a long time ago."
In the September 2007 incident, the robber approached a minister named Herbert Harrison about 8:30 p.m., outside the then-Food Lion grocery store at Coliseum Crossing Shopping Center.
According to trial testimony, the robber, wearing a skull cap, baggy jeans and a shirt with a gold medallion, placed a gun at Harrison's side and said: "Give me your wallet, old man, or I'll kill you."
Harrison put his hands in the air, turned over his wallet and keys and watched as the robber got in his car. Then he decided to fight the attacker, approaching his own car and scuffling with him. The robber's shirt was ripped off, but he ran off with Harrison's wallet.
Harrison and another witness picked Wiggins out of photo spreads, in which photos of possible suspects are laid out for a witness to identify. Wiggins was arrested and charged with robbery, attempted carjacking, possessing a gun as a felon, and two counts of using a firearm in a felony.
Had criminal record
Wiggins had a prior criminal record. He'd pleaded guilty in 1995 to robbery and grand larceny and received a 10-year suspended sentence. He said he served as a lookout during that crime. Wiggins had also been charged with maiming involving a fight six weeks before the attempted carjacking, but that case was dismissed.
He has steadfastly maintained his innocence in the robbery and attempted carjacking.
Harrison testified at the trial that he was certain Wiggins was his robber, saying he was only 12 inches from him during the scuffle. "It was burned into my mind, my eyes ... what he looked like," Harrison said. "I made sure that I knew who was trying to take my life."
Two other eyewitnesses also testified that Wiggins was the attacker. They included a 15-year-old girl who was sitting in a nearby car, a girl who also picked Wiggins out of a photo spread. And the third witness who was also in the parking lot that night, picked Wiggins out in court.
But not everyone agreed.
Also during the trial, Kristle Holimon, who said she had been watching the robber in the parking lot before the attack because she and her sister found him attractive, said Wiggins was not the right man. She also said she jumped into the struggle to get the robber off of Harrison, and got a good look at the robber's face.
She said the attacker had a smooth, hairless chest and no visible tattoos or scars. Wiggins has chest hair, a scar and a tattoo. She also said Wiggins' eyebrows, lips and face were different than the attacker's. "The features are way off," she testified. Wiggins and his ex-girlfriend testified they were together the night of the attack, her birthday. She and Wiggins both said they went to eat at Red Lobster for dinner, and then went to see the movie "Soul Food."
They also said he had no reason to commit the crime: He had recently received a $37,000 settlement in an injury case, had just bought a new Acura, was working at West Communications and attending Thomas Nelson Community College.
Wiggins' mother testified that she was with Wiggins and the girlfriend earlier that day, too.
Richard Kerns, Wiggins' defense attorney at the time — and now a Newport News District Court Judge — questioned how the prosecution's witnesses didn't notice the color of the attacker's eyes or whether he had freckles. Wiggins has green eyes — unusual for a black male — and noticeable freckles, the lawyer said.
Kerns also questioned the manner of the police photo spread, conducted by then-Hampton Detective Thomas Killilea. That process included showing Harrison an additional photo of Wiggins — a mug shot — that he didn't show for the other people in the photo spread.
Taylor found Wiggins guilty of all charges.
"All it takes is one credible witness or more credible witnesses," Judge Taylor said at the time. "In this case, I just believe Mr. Harrison is not mistaken in his confrontation or identification of the defendant in this case."
He sentenced Wiggins to 35 years in prison, 16 years to serve and 19 suspended. Wiggins is scheduled to get out in 2012 after accounting for time served and some credit for good behavior.
While in prison, Wiggins has continued to fight his cause. Among other things, he cites the fact that two pieces of evidence were never investigated, including the T-shirt that was left at the scene of the crime.When Wiggins asked Curtis for the T-shirt in 2002, thinking DNA could be found on it, Curtis wrote back, saying it was destroyed by the Hampton Police Department two years earlier "in the normal course of business." Wiggins' appeals were still under way at the time.
Under state law, material from trials must be kept at the court. But that didn't apply to the T-shirt, which was never introduced as evidence. And although the police department asks before it destroys such additional evidence from murder cases, it doesn't do so in most other cases, the prosecutor's office said.
There's also Harrison's stolen calling card. Harrison testified that someone made $1,700 in phone calls from that card after the robbery. But no one apparently ever investigated to see which numbers were dialed, Wiggins said.
Curtis said she's looked at various portions of the case file over the years as Wiggins would bring concerns to her attention in his letters. But she recently gave the entire case a more comprehensive look.
"I didn't see this until I looked at it from a different angle," she said of the newfound issue.