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Texas Man Positively Identified by Six Eyewitnesses and Sentenced to Life Granted Actual Innocence Relief as Result of DNA Evidence

by Casey J. Bastian

Aaron Scheerhoorn was stabbed to death outside a Houston bar in 2010. During the investigation, multiple witnesses told detectives an unknown Black man was the perpetrator. Detectives believed that man was Lydell Grant. Witnesses were asked to participate in a lineup. The lead detective administered the lineup and was convinced Grant was guilty. This bias likely played a role in the travesty that would unfold over the next 11 years.

Six eyewitnesses identified Grant. While testifying for the prosecution, one witness claimed he identified Grant “without doubt or hesitation.” A second witness declared that Grant was the killer because Grant’s face was “burned into [her] memory immediately.” Grant was convicted in 2012 and sentenced to life in prison. The witness identifications were the only evidence tying Grant to the murder—and as is very often the case with eyewitness identification of a stranger, all six were mistaken.

Several years passed before biological material samples were collected from beneath Scheerhoorn’s fingernails. TrueAllele, a software program by Cybergenetics that analyzes DNA using statistical methods, conducted its recently-developed testing processes on the DNA. The results excluded Grant. The DNA indicated that 43-year-old Jermerico Carter is the culprit. When confronted, Carter confessed and was arrested for killing Scheerhoorn.

Grant brought this new evidence to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2019. Grant was allowed out on bond to await his appeal, but the court refused to issue an exoneration. The Innocence Project of Texas and its executive director, Mike Ware, represented Grant. The court would not issue an order until the six witnesses provided responses to Grant’s claims. One question required an answer: How did six people insistently testify they saw Grant commit the murder when he is clearly innocent? Especially when Grant and Carter do not resemble one another aside from both being Black.

Ware suspects outdated and flawed techniques, coupled with investigative bias, led to Grant’s wrongful conviction. The Innocence Project notes that 375 wrongful convictions have been overturned through the use of DNA evidence, of which 69% involved mistaken eyewitness testimony.

Laura Smalarz is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University who has studied this phenomenon. These false identifications often occur as a result of investigator bias. The lineup administrator should not also be an investigator who knows which person being identified is an actual suspect. Inadvertent confirmation cues often contribute to reinforcing the witness’s belief in the accuracy of their identification. Multiple studies have concluded lineups should be conducted similarly to double-blind medical trials.

Fortunately for Grant, who is now 44-years-old, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted him actual innocence relief in May 2021. Ex parte Grant, 622 S.W.3d 392 (Tex. Ct. Crim. App. 2021).

“I knew this day was going to come and I just didn’t know when,” said Grant. The ruling makes Grant eligible for the $80,000 in compensation from the state for every year he was wrongfully imprisoned. Ware thanked the Harris County District Attorney’s Office for its assistance in freeing Grant. Ware said, “It’s a huge day for justice.” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg emphasized the importance of the ruling. Ogg said, “The exoneration of innocent individuals is as important as the conviction of guilty ones. The highest priority of a prosecutor is to see that justice is done.”

Grant says he is still in shock and remains wary but is ready to move on with his life. He hopes to write a book about this experience.

Source: Associated Press, theconversation.com and forensicmag.com

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