Charlotte News-Observer

Wrongfully convicted, he's free after 12 years

Charlottean served time for '98 kidnapping. D.A. says office didn't disclose victim's doubts.

By Gary L. Wright

May 21, 2010

A Charlotte man wrongfully convicted of kidnapping and armed robbery is finally home after spending 12 years behind bars.

Shawn Massey, 37, was the victim of erroneous eyewitness identification, say researchers from Duke Law School, whose Wrongful Convictions Clinic and Innocence Project spent more than four years examining the case.

Massey was released from a state prison on May 6, after Mecklenburg District Attorney Peter Gilchrist decided his office had botched the case.

"We messed up by failing to disclose to the defense that the victim at one point expressed doubt about her identification of the defendant," said Gilchrist, who obtained a court order vacating Massey's convictions.

Massey went to prison for the 1998 crimes against a Charlotte woman and her two young children. He had two years left to serve on his 14-year sentence.

"I thank God for being free," Massey said through a lawyer Thursday. "I'm thankful to the Duke Innocence Project for helping to free me. And I thank God for my grandmother and family believing in me."

Massey is among 19 people in North Carolina whose sentences have been vacated during the past 15 years due to wrongful convictions, according to the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence in Durham. Twelve of them had been erroneously identified by eyewitnesses and were later cleared by DNA or other evidence.

The Wrongful Convictions Clinic raised questions about the identification of Massey.

In reviewing a series of suspect photos, the victim noted Massey's resemblance to her attacker but told police he lacked her assailant's cornrow braids, clinic researchers found. She made the same observation when she first saw Massey in person before the start of his trial, and also observed that he weighed less than her attacker.

Those observations, uncovered years later by Duke Law students investigating the case, were not passed on to Massey's trial lawyer, the clinic said.

Gilchrist said Thursday that after reviewing the case, he believes his office should have told Massey's lawyer about doubts the victim expressed.

Before a court hearing, Gilchrist said, the victim had approached the prosecutor in the courtroom and mentioned her doubts. But the prosecutor told her he didn't have time to talk at that moment and asked her to have a seat. After the hearing, the victim told the prosecutor she had seen and heard the suspect in court and no longer had any doubt.

Gilchrist did not identify the prosecutor involved, but he said he doesn't believe the prosecutor intentionally withheld the information from the defense. It was a case of bad judgment, Gilchrist said.

"After I reviewed it, I anticipated that a judge, upon hearing the evidence, would order a new trial, and that a jury in a new trial would find him not guilty," he said.

It's only the second time Gilchrist could recall in his 35 years as DA that he's sought to set aside a conviction. The other case also involved a misidentification.

On May 6, Duke's Wrongful Convictions co-directors James Coleman and Theresa Newman picked up Massey at the state prison in Maury, near Greenville, and drove him to Charlotte to be reunited with family.

Kim Kisabeth, who helped win Massey's freedom, said it was a joy to phone Massey in prison to tell him he would be released within hours.

"This has been a long time coming, and I think he was speechless," she said. "His initial reaction was excitement at getting to reunite with his grandmother and with his aunts, and especially to be able to see his son, Dantrez, who is now a junior in high school."

Kisabeth also reveled in telling Massey's aunt and grandmother to expect him home.

"Both of them just started crying as soon as I gave them the news," Kisabeth said. "(His aunt) started praying and thanking God for making this happen - and thanking Duke for making this happen."

The Wrongful Convictions Clinic pored through evidence and records of Massey's alleged crime and prosecution. It focused on the perpetrator's hair style and weight - two key issues at Massey's trial.

"We believe the evidence is clear that Shawn is innocent and this was an erroneous eyewitness identification," said Coleman, who is also a Duke law professor. "We think when the victim identified him at trial she did so in good faith, but we think she made a mistake.

"The public has the view that wrongful convictions are proven by DNA evidence because those cases get the most publicity, but those represent a relatively small percentage of wrongful convictions," Coleman said. "Cases like Shawn's, where the perpetrator has not left biological evidence, are far more common."


Recent Cases
Eyewitness ID

Truth in Justice