If white Charlotte police officers and prosecutors had understood more about African-American hairstyles in 1999, Shawn Massey probably would not have spent 12 years in prison, says the Charlotte Observer. It took a cadre of Duke University law students and black barber instructors to prove that Massey couldn’t have been – the robber who held a mother and her two children captive in 1998.
Massey, who was released three weeks ago, joins a host of North Carolinians wrongly sent to prison when victims cross racial lines to identify the men who hurt them. Often, these identifications prove unreliable because victims must describe features unfamiliar to them. Making identification across racial lines has become a red flag for lawyers who examine claims of innocence. A jury convicted Massey of kidnapping and armed robbery in 1999. The robbery victim, Samantha Wood, told police her attacker had braids. When shown a photo of Massey, his hair cut short and tidy, Wood, who is white, hesitated before telling police that he looked like her robber except for his lack of braids. Moments before trial began, Wood expressed doubts again, this time to the prosecutor. Wood’s word was the only evidence against Massey. Mecklenburg County District Attorney Peter Gilchrist said this month that Massey should have been told of the victim’s doubts. Gilchrist, a veteran prosecutor who has announced plans to retire, asked a judge to vacate charges against Massey.