On June 15, 2000, a Bronx, NY jury convicted an innocent man of attempted rape. There was only one witness—the victim herself.
Erroneous eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of all wrongful convictions. Over 75 percent of all DNA exonerations relied on eyewitness identification. Fourteen years after his conviction, on May 15, 2014, Tyrone Hicks appeared in the Bronx Hall of Justice to have his case dismissed and all charges dropped.
At trial, no physical evidence linked Hicks to the crime. Luckily for him, a few years later, New York Law School students, under the direction of Professor Adele Bernhard, located physical evidence that could be tested for DNA, as technology had improved in the intervening period. The Bronx District Attorney's Office agreed to the testing, and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner compared skin cells scraped from underneath the victim's fingernails to Tyrone's DNA. He was excluded.
In February 2014, a Supreme Court Justice granted Hicks' post-conviction motion to vacate his conviction finding that the DNA evidence would have convinced a jury to acquit— had it been available at trial.
On my first day of the Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic at New York Law School, I was assigned Tyrone Hicks' case. By the time I got to know him, all of the legal work was complete.
The Post-Conviction Innocence Project (PCIP) provides an opportunity for law students to represent clients in post-conviction matters. Supervised by Professor Bernhard, who began the program at Pace University School of Law and then brought it to New York Law School, it consists of eight students, and changes each semester. Students work in teams of two. Each team is assigned two cases.
Students from previous semesters asked the DA to test the fingernail scrapings, and the 440 motion was granted. When the DA appealed, students wrote Hicks' appeal brief, which was supplemented by an amicus brief from the Innocence Network.
We were waiting for the appellate court decision. My professor warned my partner Khari Moore and me that the wait could be considerable and asked us to familiarize ourselves with the file. My assignment was to introduce myself to Hicks. Over the course of the semester, I had the pleasure of getting to know Tyrone Hicks, the father, the friend, the Navy vet, and the church volunteer—not the Bronx rapist. Our first phone call was difficult. He was upset because he had to jump through hoops to keep off the Sex Offenders list, for a crime he did not commit.
In South Carolina, where he currently resides, his photograph is published in the local newspaper on a quarterly basis as a sex offender. He moved over 600 miles away and was still ashamed to go out in public for fear of being recognized as a “rapist.”
I did my best to listen and provide positive advice, although I knew that nothing I said would erase the misfortune he endured. By the end of the conversation, he was apologizing to me for his outburst. I assured him I understood his concerns and that I was always available to talk.
After I hung up the phone, I began to think. How could a jury convict an innocent man with practically no evidence? Even when my mind is at its sharpest, I wouldn't trust myself to pick a perpetrator out of a lineup. I simply could not wrap my head around the fact that Hicks was convicted based solely on one person's identification. I did not have to sit with these thoughts too long.
Mid-semester, the court affirmed the Supreme Court decision vacating Hicks' conviction. It was now up to the District Attorney to decide if they wanted to retry the case. Immediately I called Hicks.
“I'm a free man,” he exclaimed, and my heart sunk. I had to explain to him that the DA still had the option to retry his case and it would be weeks before we knew their decision. After a month of waiting, the DA decided not to retry the case, and all charges the charges were finally dismissed.
On May 15th, I met Tyrone Hicks in person.
I sat beside him, his family, past students and advocates as the court gave him back his freedom. While May 15th was a time to celebrate, we will not forget the lessons learned: how a single eyewitness was mistaken and changed a life forever, and how preserving crime scene evidence brought justice.
Hicks served his entire eight year-sentence and was forced to register as a sex offender in both New York and South Carolina. Every day he lived with the label of rapist. Today, Tyrone Hicks is finally free.
But the possibility that many innocent men like him are still trapped behind bars has set a template for my own future career as a lawyer.
Meagan Kelly is a paralegal who is currently studying law at New York Law School. She welcomes readers' comments.