Psychology professor and graduate students assist in overturning conviction in Missouri
Anthony Williams was 14 years old when he attended a middle school dance in St. Louis City, Missouri, where another middle school student was later shot and killed. First a fight broke out during the dance, and then after the dance, in the dark outside the building, gunshots were fired. One witness recalled standing with Williams at that moment, and like her, he ducked and ran.
When Williams was brought in to be questioned by police and then accused of the murder, he told police his father taught him not to lie, and he wouldn’t lie to them. He said he did not fire the gun that killed 14-year-old Cortez Andrews.
Instead of taking a deal for a light sentence, Williams, who had no criminal history, was tried as an adult, convicted, and given a sentence of life without parole in 1995. In an almost unbelievable turn of events, Williams walked out of prison 20 years later on July 3, 2014, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of his attorney, Jennifer Bukowsky, and help from Dr. David Ross, UTC Professor of Psychology, and two UTC graduate psychology students, Dominick Atkinson and Joseph Jones.
Bukowsky became involved in the case in 2012. In July 2013, she contacted Ross, who had done extensive research on eyewitness memory. Ross has been invited to teach and explain how to properly collect identification evidence at the annual meeting of district attorneys in both Tennessee and Illinois. Ross also serves as an instructor on this topic at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
He says data consistently shows the number one reason people are wrongfully convicted in criminal court is related to errors in eyewitness lineup identification.
Bukowsky was particular interested in Ross’s research into unconscious transference and lineup identifications. This means a witness can become confused, implicating a familiar, innocent person by putting them at the scene of a crime as an assailant.
“The witness isn’t lying, their memory is just inaccurate,” Bukowsky explained. “I reached out to Dr. Ross for help in reviewing the testimony in Anthony’s case. He not only reviewed what I asked him to do, he asked for everything associated with the case. He and his students went over everything with a fine toothed comb. His work ethic is wonderful.”
When Bukowsky and Ross offered their services pro bono, it was Williams’ last opportunity. Prior appeals had failed. Ross, Atkinson, and Jones worked for six weeks nonstop and compiled 1,000 pages of transcripts, affidavits, and testimony. Ross called it the worst case he’s ever seen.
“The lineup procedure, the way eyewitness testimony was collected—all the protocols were violated,” Ross explained. “Cortez’ half-brother Tehran saw the fight at the dance that night, but he did not see the shooting. Yet the police report quotes him as an eyewitness. At the trial, this ‘eyewitness’ testified he did not actually see the shooting.”
In the final report Ross turned over to the Missouri court, the UTC team explained that an eyewitness description of a suspect’s appearance and clothing should be reflected in the lineup. Four of the witnesses who said they saw Andrews’ shooter described a young man wearing dark clothing and a black cap with white lettering that said “St. Louis.” Yet in the first lineup, all the young men wore red sweatshirts and no caps. A month later, two of the four young African American men included in the lineup had a dark skin tone, even though the majority of the witnesses said the suspect had lighter skin.
The UTC team’s final report also indicates witnesses in this case had been shown multiple lineups, a clear departure from Department of Justice and the International Association of Chiefs of Police guidelines. The report goes on to explain this is “problematic because there is extant research showing that repeated exposure to the same suspect can dramatically increase the rate of identification of that suspect.” Later, the report said DOJ and IACP guidelines stress “that a witness should NEVER be shown multiple lineups with the same suspect and foils because it can produce witness inconsistences…”
After Ross and his students submitted their final report at the end of August, they waited for Williams’ hearing. It came on a cold day in February 2014. Ross testified for more than two hours while a snowstorm whipped around the old Cole County courthouse.
Ross explained unconscious transference—in the case of Williams, several witnesses thought they had seen him in places they actually had not—at a school he never attended and an apartment complex where he never lived.
“The judge was very attentive to Dr. Ross’ findings,” Bukowsky explained. “Dr. Ross was able to show how many fundamental problems there were the procedures. He was wonderful to work with.”
It took four months for a Missouri judge to decide to vacate Williams’ sentence, and when Ross found out, he said he was shocked, because there was no guarantee the judge would rule the way he did.
“It has been an incredibly humbling experience,” Ross said. “It is the culmination of my career.”
Atkinson was really excited to receive the news.
“I was even more excited about the judge overturning the conviction without DNA evidence. That is extremely rare,” Atkinson said.
When Jones got the text with the news, he said he stared at his phone for a while. “It’s really cool to have been a part of that case. I’ll never forget it.”