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26 Years After Wrongful Conviction in Detroit Rape Case - Walter Swift is Released from Prison and Exonerated

[Print Version]

‘Deeply flawed’ eyewitness misidentification led to wrongful conviction; wide range of evidence, which jury never heard, shows Swift is innocent

(DETROIT, MI; May 21, 2008) – Walter Swift, who was wrongfully convicted of a Detroit rape in 1982, is being exonerated today because a wide range of solid evidence shows he did not commit the crime for which he has served 26 years in prison, according to the Innocence Project, which represents Swift.

“For 26 long years, Walter Swift has held onto hope that the truth would finally come out and he would be exonerated. Today, his unimaginable nightmare is ending but he is just beginning the long road to rebuild his life,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “He was convicted based on a deeply flawed and completely unreliable eyewitness identification. Even at the time of his trial in 1982, there was convincing evidence that he was innocent, but his court-appointed attorney failed to present that evidence.”

The case stems from a September 1982 home-invasion rape and robbery in Detroit. The victim was a pregnant white woman who was at home with her seven-month-old child. She described her attacker as a 15-to-18-year-old African-American man with unusual braids and “poofs of hair” on his head, but no facial hair. After the crime, police asked her to look through hundreds of photos. She selected the photos of seven men who she said resembled the assailant, and the police officer handling the case randomly decided that the next person the victim selected would be brought in for a live lineup. That person was Walter Swift, who was several years older than the victim’s description of her attacker, had a pronounced black eye at the time of the crime (which was not part of the victim’s description), had a mustache and long sideburns at the time of the crime, and always had closely cropped hair with no braids. Swift – but none of the other seven men whose photos were selected by the victim – was brought in for a lineup, and the victim was told that the eighth man she selected would be in the lineup. She selected Swift in the lineup, saying that she “believed” he was her attacker. The police officer who initially investigated the case and handled the photo identification believed that the victim’s identification was uncertain and unreliable – but at Swift’s trial, the jury heard only that she selected his photo and his photo alone, that she identified him in a lineup, and that she was certain he was the assailant.

“Walter Swift wasn’t the first person in Michigan who was wrongfully convicted based on eyewitness misidentification, and he won’t be the last. A bill is pending in the Michigan Legislature that would make sure photo arrays and lineups are conducted properly, based on what decades of scientific research and practical experience shows can reduce misidentifications. The Legislature should make this bill a priority and pass it promptly,” Scheck said.

In addition to the flawed and unreliable eyewitness identification, forensic testing before Swift’s trial supported his claims of innocence – but the jury never heard that forensic evidence. An analyst who tested semen from the perpetrator determined that if the sample she was testing was clean enough (meaning it was predominately semen from the perpetrator, which it likely was), Swift could not have been the perpetrator based on his blood type. That analyst was never called to the stand at Swift’s trial, and she was shocked to learn in recent years that Swift had been convicted.

Swift’s court-appointed trial attorney, Lawrence R. Greene, did not adequately pursue the identification procedure during the trial and did not present the exculpatory forensic evidence. Greene has been suspended from practicing law several times in just the last decade based on misconduct and inadequate representation in other cases.

From the first time police questioned Swift about the crime, he had an airtight alibi from a woman he was dating at the time. The woman, whose relationship with Swift ended two decades ago, maintains that she was with Swift when the crime was committed, and she had documentation at the time of trial (shopping receipts) corroborating her story of their whereabouts. She has been a law enforcement officer for 24 years and has no motive to fabricate an alibi for Swift.

Swift has been denied parole five times since 2000 because he would not admit to a crime he didn’t commit.

The Innocence Project accepted Swift’s case 10 years ago, hoping to conduct DNA testing on crime scene evidence that could prove his innocence. The evidence had all been lost or destroyed – but the Innocence Project began to uncover evidence about the eyewitness identification procedure, the forensic testing, Swift’s alibi and the depths of his inadequate defense counsel at trial.

“Over the course of a decade, each layer we pulled back led to more evidence that Walter Swift is innocent,” said Innocence Project Staff Attorney Olga Akselrod. “We also began to work with people throughout the criminal justice system, some of whom were directly involved in convicting Mr. Swift, who were becoming increasingly convinced of his innocence. It’s highly unusual to have the original prosecutor, the police officer who investigated the case and the lab analyst who handled the case all come forward to support an innocent prisoner – but that’s exactly what happened in this case.”

In an extraordinary development, the prosecutor who convicted Swift and the police officer who initially investigated the case both assisted the Innocence Project in seeking to vacate Swift’s conviction. Both filed formal affidavits, as did the alibi witness.

The Innocence Project presented all of the evidence in the case to Wayne County Prosecuting Attorney Kym Worthy, whose office investigated it thoroughly. “The Prosecuting Attorney’s office looked at this case carefully and closely. Each piece of evidence needed to be analyzed on its own and in combination with the other evidence, and the Prosecuting Attorney was extraordinarily thoughtful and reached the right conclusion,” Scheck said.

In addition to staff attorneys and Cardozo clinic students at the Innocence Project, a student from Ireland was assigned Swift’s case in 2003 – and has worked on it for the last five years, helping uncover much of the evidence that led to Swift’s exoneration. Niamh Gunn won a competition at her college in Ireland to work at the Innocence Project in the summer of 2003; she extended her stay in the U.S. as she became more involved in Swift’s case, and she continued working on the case after moving back to Ireland. In part because of Gunn’s efforts, the police officer and lab analyst who worked on the case before Swift’s trial came forward to support vacating his conviction.

Gunn and her colleagues in Ireland have now launched a website, www.walterswift.com, to solicit non-tax-deductible donations to help Swift rebuild his life.

While a bill is moving forward in the Michigan Legislature to compensate people who were wrongfully convicted, the state currently does not provide any financial support or basic services (such as healthcare, housing or job training and placement) to people after they are exonerated. Swift’s supporters – including boxing legend Emmanuel Steward, who attended today’s hearing to exonerate Swift – are helping him find employment in Detroit and asking the public for contributions to help him get back on his feet.

In addition to Scheck and Akselrod, Richard Lustig is co-counsel on the case. Cardozo School of Law student Kate Rose worked on the case at the Innocence Project for the last year.