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Michigan Supreme Court Reverses Murder Conviction Due to Unreliable, Suggestive Showup

Sixteen-year-old DyJuan Jones was riding in the backseat of a car driven by his mother. Rosei Watkins was in her car driving her grandson, when Humberto Casas was shot multiple times, resulting in his death. Both witnessed the murder, which happened on a street around 1 p.m. Both described a gray-silver Jeep as the vehicle used by the shooter.

According to Jones, the shooter exited the vehicle and fired at Casas three times, then fired another series of shots before returning to the Jeep, which was driven by another man. He described both men as Black and wearing white T-shirts. He said the driver was about 320 pounds and had a long beard while the shooter was bald and wearing black cargo pants.

He did not note the model of the Jeep and said he “wasn’t paying attention” to the men but recalled that “CE” or “GE” were in the license plate number.

Watkins saw a gray-silver Jeep but said the driver was of average build. She could not say what model the Jeep was or how old it was.

Ten to 20 minutes after the shooting, police stopped Travis Sammons and Dominque Ramsey in a silver Jeep Commander with the license plate number DFQ 9593. Both were wearing white shirts. Ramsey weighed about 150 pounds and had short stubble on his face and a short haircut. They were arrested.

Watkins identified the Jeep as the one used in the shooting from a photograph taken after the arrest. However, it had no distinguishing marks or features. Michigan Police Detective Sergeant David Rivard had Jones look at each man through the observation window of separate interview rooms.

Both men were charged with open murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and firearms charges.

During the trial, the police played a composite video – taken from surveillance cameras and the traffic stop – showing a silver-gray Jeep Commander near the scene of the shooting, leaving that area, and stopping to disembark a passenger while taking on another. However, individuals could not be identified in the composite, and it was unclear whether the Jeep in the composite was the one used in the shooting or several different cars. 

Jones testified that he had not identified either man as the shooter during the showup at the police station. Rivard testified that Jones identified Sammons as the shooter but could not identify Ramsey. The alleged identification was not otherwise witnessed or recorded, and Jones did not sign a statement saying he had identified any person. Watkins testified regarding her identification of the Jeep but also said she did not know one Jeep from another with respect to models and year of manufacture.

A jury acquitted both men of open murder and firearms charges but convicted them of conspiracy to commit murder. Both filed motions for a directed verdict or new trial. The trial court denied Sammons’ motion but granted Ramsey a directed verdict on the basis of insufficient evidence.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, and Sammons sought leave to appeal further. The Michigan Supreme Court granted leave on the issue of whether the showup identification was impermissibly suggestive; if so, whether it was reliable; and, if so, whether any error in admitting it was harmless.

The Court began its analysis by noting that defendants have a due process right to be protected against “the introduction of evidence of, or tainted by, unreliable pretrial identifications obtained through unnecessarily suggestive procedures.” Moore v. Illinois, 434 U.S. 220 (1977). An identification must be excluded when it (1) was suggestive, (2) the suggestive nature was unnecessary, and (3) the identification was unreliable. Perry v. New Hampshire, 565 U.S. 228 (2012).

The Court condemned the “inherently suggestive nature of showups” and quoted Professor John Henry Wigmore’s characterization of them nearly 80 years ago as “next to worthless … [adding] there is no excuse for jeopardizing the fate of innocent men by such clumsy, antiquated methods….” 4 Wigmore, Evidence (3d ed) § 1130. The Court went on to state that the “suggestiveness of a showup is aggravated when it is conducted in a police stationhouse.” However, the Court acknowledged that there are instances when a showup is permissible, despite its suggestiveness. Stovall v. Denno, 388 U.S. 293 (1967).

In concluding that the identification procedure in the present case was suggestive, the Court stated that all it needed to arrive at that determination was observe the “defendant was shown singly to the witness.” The Court noted that the identification procedure was held one-on-one, took place in a police station, and the witness testified that he knew he was there to identify someone. The Court rejected the prosecution’s claim that Jones did not know that Sammons and Ramsey were involved in a criminal investigation at the time because “being the subject of a showup is involvement in a criminal investigation.”

A determination of suggestiveness doesn’t end the analysis, the Court explained. The identification can still be admitted into evidence, unless there’s a “substantial likelihood of misidentification.” Neil v. Biggers, 409 U.S. 188 (1972).

The Court used the non-exhaustive factors set forth in Biggers to determine whether the identification was reliable. According to the Court, four of the five Biggers factors militated against reliability. Jones had a poor opportunity to view the crime – he testified that he “couldn’t get a good look.” Jones also did not focus on the physical features of the shooter, did not give a description that matched Sammons well in specifics, and did not express a high degree of certainty in the identification – actually denying having made one. The only factor in the prosecution’s favor was the short period of time between crime and confrontation. But this was insufficient to render the identification reliable, the Court concluded. 

The Court ruled that the admission of the suggestive, unreliable identification was not harmless. The identification of the Jeep and the composite video were not definitive. Further, the same case without an identification was what occurred in Ramsey’s case, and the trial court determined that there was insufficient evidence for his conviction.

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Related legal case

People v. Sammons

 

 

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