Aaron Michael Howard
|Date / Location:||1988; Washington, D.C.||Conviction:||Murder|
|Year of Conviction:||1990||Release Date:||August 5, 2008|
|Sentence:||21-life||Sentence Served:||19 years|
|Real perpetrator found?:||Yes, his 3 co-defendants||Contributing cause to wrongful conviction:||Bad lawyering; his lawyer failed to interview his alibi witnesses|
On August 5th, 2008, Aaron Michael Howard was released from prison after serving almost twenty years for a crime he did not commit. In 1990, Howard and three co-defendants were sentenced to 21 years to life for the 1988 murder of Bobby Parker in Washington, D.C.Parker, 23, was stopped at a red light at Chesapeake Street and Southern Avenue in Southeast Washington when he was shot eight times. Howard was one of four young men from the surrounding neighborhood who were charged and eventually convicted of the crime.
While the government’s evidence against two of Howard’s three co-defendants was very strong, there was hardly any evidence connecting Howard to the murder. At trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Saffern called a total of 26 witnesses. But only two of those 26 placed Howard at the murder scene—Bobby Taylor, a man with a history of psychiatric problems, and his sister, Caroline Thompson. When asked by Saffern to identify Howard in the courtroom, Thompson pointed to one of Howard’s co-defendants, further undermining her and her brother’s already weak testimony.
At the time of the murder, Howard was at home his mother and other friends. While he gave his court-appointed lawyer Nathan Silver the names and addresses of his alibi witnesses, Silver failed to interview them and see if they could vouch for his whereabouts. Despite the weak evidence implicating him, Howard was convicted along with his other co-defendants.
In 2002, Howard filed a motion under the relatively new DC Innocence Protection Act, reopening his case for investigation. In 2006, D.C. Superior Court Judge James Boasberg assigned Howard’s case to D.C. criminal defense attorney Zack Rosenburg. After working on the case for a year, Rosenburg explained to Seth Rosenthal that while the case was promising, there was just too much evidence to explore. Since Rosenthal sat on the board of directors of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, he asked if Rosenthal could help out. After getting approval from his law firm, Venable LLP, Rosenthal agreed.
Howard’s legal team filed its amended motion to vacate Howard’s conviction on April 28th, 2008, which included multiple declarations they had obtained from various witnesses. With the help of private investigator Ronetta Johnson, Howard’s attorneys secured two declarations from eyewitnesses saying Howard was not at the crime scene and three declarations from witnesses who said they only saw three gunmen. Another declaration came from the mother of Caroline Thompson and Bobby Taylor, who said that her children were home with her at the time of the murder, making them unable to have seen anything, let alone Howard, at the crime scene.
The legal team interviewed Howard’s co-defendants multiple times and secured declarations from all three stating that Howard took no part in the murder. In addition to affirming that Howard was not involved in the crime, these statements established the involvement of a fourth individual other than Howard—an individual the government was aware of shortly after the murder but failed to investigate diligently. That fourth man, identified as the triggerman in Parker’s shooting, had since passed away. The new statements were corroborated by a vast amount of other evidence, including forensic evidence and testimony introduced at trial, eyewitness accounts the government possessed but did not present at trial, and other documentary evidence that had emerged in the years since Howard’s conviction. The newly discovered evidence was so convincing that the lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney T. Anthony Quinn, withdrew from the case, stating that he could no longer defend the jury’s guilty verdict.
On July 29th, prosecutors offered Howard a deal. If he would agree to a voluntary manslaughter conviction, then his other convictions and sentences would be vacated. The agreement would impose a sentence of time served, no term of probation, no possible term of parole, and no government supervision. If accepted, Howard would be released from custody. Facing the prospect of a second wrongful conviction (and having already spent two decades in prison), Howard agreed to the deal on August 3rd, which was approved by Judge Boasberg.
On August 5th, 2008, Howard left prison. Although Howard was released, he unfortunately is not considered officially “exonerated.” “The agreement … is not perfect,” Howard said in a written statement. “It is not perfect because, although it allows me to maintain my innocence, it requires me to accept a conviction for a crime I did not commit.”
Howard now lives in Alexandria, VA with his wife, Gabrielle. Because of his plea, he has received no compensation for his wrongful conviction.
Click here to watch Aaron Michael Howard speak at the 2009 MAIP Awards Luncheon