|Date / Location:||May 15, 1991; Washington, DC||Conviction:||First degreee murder|
|Year of Conviction:||1992||Release Date:||December 24, 2004|
|Sentence:||15 years to life in prison||Sentence Served:||12 years|
|Real perpetrator found?:||Not yet||Contributing cause to wrongful conviction:||Eyewitness misidentification, coerced confession, police misconduct|
Steven Dewitt spent 13 and a half years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Despite the fact that reliable evidence pointed to another man as the killer, four District of Columbia detectives managed to secure his conviction when they fabricated inculpatory evidence, destroyed exculpatory evidence, intimidated and beat up a defense witness, procured unreliable (and inaccurate) eyewitness identifications by staging an outrageously suggestive lineup, and then perjured themselves at Dewitt’s trial.
On May 15, 1991, Paul Ridley was shot while filling up his car at a Washington, D.C., gas station. Witnesses saw a car pull up to the pump behind Ridley’s car. They then saw a young black man get out of the car and walk over to Ridley and shoot him in the back of the head without saying a word. After shooting Ridley, the perpetrator slowly and deliberately returned to his car and casually drove out of the gas station. Witnesses tried to get a good look at both the car and its license plate number and immediately called the police. After some initial confusion, one witness told police that he was able to get a look at the car. He described it as a red Acura with white and blue temporary tags bearing the last three digits of either “825” or “829.” The witnesses had slightly different descriptions of the offender, but they all described a young black male who was tall and thin.
After the witnesses gave police a description of the car, patrol cars began to search the area for a red Acura with temporary tags. They soon pulled over Dewitt, who was driving a red Acura with temporary tags from Virginia. Although the tags were white with red writing and bore the numbers “818461,” Dewitt and his companions were taken in for questioning. Dewitt did not know Ridley, nor had he and his companions been at the gas station that evening. However, after being threatened and abused by police interrogators, a 17-year-old passenger in Dewitt’s car told police that Dewitt had killed Ridley. Although the details of the crime given by the 17-year-old to police did not match what eyewitnesses said happened, police accepted the statement and decided that Dewitt was guilty of the murder.
One witness, in viewing the photo array, picked Dewitt’s picture and said, “this looks like the guy I saw.” Later, at trial, this witness identified Dewitt by saying “I guess this guy over here.” The second witness failed to pick Dewitt in the initial photo spread and picked Dewitt only in a live lineup in which Dewitt was dressed in clothing similar to that the witness reported seeing during the crime.
In 1992, Dewitt was convicted of the murder and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. At trial, the witnesses testified that Dewitt looked like the man they had seen shoot Ridley, but not one witness was able to identify him with complete certainty. Police had not found the murder weapon in either Dewitt’s house or his car. There was no physical evidence linking Dewitt to the crime.
In 2002, Dewitt filed a post-conviction petition to vacate his conviction on the grounds that he was innocent. The court appointed an attorney, Frances D’Antuono, who exhaustively investigated the case. The post-conviction ultimately became a petition under D.C.’s Innocence Protection Act, which allows prisoners to bring forward newly discovered evidence of innocence at any time.
Dewitt presented extensive evidence that proved his innocence. New witnesses were discovered who claimed that Samuel Carson, a known gang-member who had previously been convicted of nine separate murder charges, had been the real killer. One witness said that Carson had bragged about committing the crime. Notably, Carson also had a red Acura, and, at the time, his had temporary tags from Maryland, which were white with blue writing and bore the last three digits of “829.” Carson knew Ridley and had a motive to kill him: Ridley had been scheduled to testify in court against one of Carson’s close friends and associates days after his death. Carson and Dewitt also bore some physical resemblance to each other, so witnesses who were not able to get a good look at the perpetrator could have mistaken the two men for each other.
It also became clear that the prosecution had withheld significant evidence from the defense. Most notably, it had not told the defense about the witness who described the perpetrator’s car and license plate numbers, giving a description that did not match Dewitt’s license plate in either color or number. Nor were they told about the traffic stop of Samuel Carson shortly after the murder, driving a car with tags that did match the description given by the witness. Instead, a police officer had lied on the stand and claimed that a witness told him that the perpetrator’s tag number included the digits “818.”
On December 24, 2004, after a lengthy hearing during which all of the above facts came to light, Steven Dewitt was released from prison. Samuel Carson is believed to have been the real killer. He is currently serving nine life terms for nine other murders.
The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project recruited the law firm of Akin Gump LLP to represent Dewitt in a civil lawsuit seeking compensation from the District of Columbia and its police department, including five former detectives. In October 2006, District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Judith E. Retchin ruled that Dewitt may proceed with the lawsuit. After more than nine months of legal arguments, the Judge denied the defendants’ motions to dismiss, holding that Dewitt had a right to proceed with his lawsuit. Dewitt’s case was the first in the 26-year history of the Unjust Imprisonment Act to move past the “motion to dismiss” stage.
As of September 2009, the suit continues to remain pending.