Missouri Cases of Innocent People Convicted Based on Eyewitness Misidentification and Later Exonerated by DNA

Eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions nationwide.  In the 198 post-conviction DNA exonerations to date, misidentification was a factor in 75% of the underlying wrongful convictions. In many cases, multiple witnesses incorrectly identified a person who was later proven innocent.  Despite solid and growing proof of the inaccuracy of traditional eyewitness identification procedures, incorrect identifications remain among the most commonly used and compelling evidence to convict defendants in criminal cases. Antonio Beaver’s case is just the latest in a string of Missouri eyewitness misidentification cases.

Including Beaver:

  • Seven people in Missouri have been wrongfully convicted based on eyewitness misidentification and subsequently proven innocent through DNA testing.
  • At least five of the seven cases involved cross-racial misidentifications (a white victim misidentifying a black or Latino person).
  • Combined, the seven innocent people who were misidentified served more than 102 years in Missouri prisons for crimes they did not commit.
  • Six of the seven cases were in St. Louis County.
  • Five of the St. Louis County cases resulted in exonerations within just the last five years.
Following are details on several of the cases:

Johnny Briscoe, St. Louis
In 1983 Johnny Briscoe was convicted of forcible rape, sodomy, burglary, robbery, stealing and armed criminal action and sentenced to 45 years in prison, despite an alibi defense. The assailant had broken into the victim’s apartment, threatened her with a knife, stolen her jewelry and brutally raped her. The assailant identified himself to the victim as Johnny Briscoe and stayed with her for an hour after the attack smoking a couple of cigarettes in a brightly lit room. The assailant then called the victim several times after the attack, identifying himself as Johnny Briscoe. Police would later trace these calls to a payphone in the vicinity of Johnny Briscoe’s apartment. The victim picked Briscoe out of a photo lineup and a live lineup, in which Briscoe was the only person wearing an orange jumpsuit. Briscoe sought biological testing in 1997, only to have his initial request denied and later to learn that the evidence could not be found and had possibly been destroyed.  In 2006, the district attorney learned that a laboratory inventory had produced the cigarette butts from Briscoe’s case. DNA testing on one of the butts matched the profile of another man, who was currently imprisoned, and was familiar with Briscoe and may have used his name in the crime. Days later, after having served 23 years in prison, Johnny Briscoe was released.

Lonnie Erby, St. Louis
In the fall of 1985, St. Louis experienced a tragic series of rapes and robberies involving teenage girls. Three days after one of the attacks, police were called about a man looking into a young girl’s bedroom. Police responding to the call picked up Lonnie Erby in the vicinity. Four of the five victims identified Erby as their attacker from photo arrays and live lineups. Prosecutors claimed that all the attacks had been perpetrated by the same person, due to relative proximity, similar nature of the crimes and ages of the victims. Although Erby was able to present multiple witnesses to account for his location during the assaults and no physical evidence tied him to any of the crime scenes, Erby was convicted of multiple counts of kidnapping, armed criminal action, forcible rape, forcible sodomy and stealing. Under Missouri’s first post-conviction DNA statute, the Innocence Project filed for access to DNA evidence from the case in 2001 and in August 2003, Forensic Science Associates and the St. Louis police laboratory excluded Erby from the biological evidence from two of the attacks. On August 25, 2003, Erby was released after having served 17 years of a 115-year sentence for a crime he didn’t commit.

Larry Johnson, St. Louis
In August 1984, Larry Johnson was convicted of kidnapping, robbery, rape and sodomy and sentenced to life plus 15 years in prison. The victim was attacked in her car, early in the morning, by a man wearing a sweatshirt and scarf, who threatened her with a knife. The assailant then drove her to an alley, where he raped and sodomized her for two hours. The victim described her attacker as a black clean-shaven man and helped the police create a composite sketch. She later identified Larry Johnson as her assailant from a photo array and a live lineup, despite the fact that Johnson had a mustache. The court refused to admit spermatozoa evidence, and based largely on the victim’s cross-racial identification, Johnson was convicted. The Innocence Project was contacted in 1996, and attempted to locate the biological evidence, but met considerable resistance. Finally, in March 2002, the Circuit Attorney’s office agreed to Johnson’s request for DNA testing. Results from the state crime laboratory excluded Larry Johnson from the crime. Johnson was released and exonerated on July 30, 2002, after serving 18 years in prison.

Steven Toney, St. Louis
Steven Toney was convicted of sodomy and rape in 1983 and sentenced to two life sentences. The victim had been greeted, when returning home at 3 a.m., by an unfamiliar black man. When she reached her front door, he grabbed her from behind, threatened her with a knife and dragged her to a nearby wooded area where he raped and orally sodomized her. The victim was shown numerous pictures of black men over the course of the investigation and eventually picked Toney’s photo from an array of four pictures. She also picked Toney out of a live lineup, where she was able to both see him and hear him speak.  This, coupled with the testimony of a gas station attendant who identified Toney as the man he saw in the vicinity around the time of the crime, led to Toney’s conviction. In 1996, DNA testing was conducted on the biological evidence from the crime, excluding Toney as the perpetrator. Toney was exonerated in 1996 after serving nearly 13 years in prison. 

 

Armand Villasana, Greene County
Armand Villasana was convicted of rape and kidnapping in 1999. The victim had described her attacker as a Hispanic man in his mid-20s weighing between 225 to 250 pounds. Police presented her with a photo array of six men – five who were white, and just one (Armand Villasana) who was Latino. The victim positively identified Villasana, even though he was 45 at the time of his arrest and weighed about 175 pounds. Villasana sat in prison for two years without sentencing, as his new lawyer worked to obtain bench notes from the state crime laboratory which had never been provided to the original defense counsel. The defense eventually obtained the bench notes, which revealed the existence of a piece of evidence with semen present. The profiles obtained from DNA testing on this evidence excluded Villasana and was presented at his sentencing trial, where he was facing a possible 40-year sentence for the rape. With the new DNA evidence, the prosecution dropped its case against Villasana and he was freed in June 2000.

Anthony D. Woods, St. Louis
Anthony Woods was convicted of rape, felonious restraint and armed criminal action in 1984 and sentenced to 25 years in prison. On the morning of October 10, 1983, the 15-year-old victim had been going to pick up a friend and walk to school when she noticed a man across the street. It was 6 a.m. and still dark outside. The man attacked her as she entered the back yard of the house, threatened her with a knife and ordered her to walk to the back of the house. He then forced her to lie down, wrapped her head in her jacket and raped her. Later, while the victim was the hospital, police showed her hundreds of photographs, including Woods’, but she could not identify any of them. Back home and sitting on her porch, she noticed Woods walking by and identified him as her attacker. Woods lived less than two blocks away. Family and friends apprehended Woods until the police came. The prosecution alleged that she hadn’t selected Woods from the pictures because he had a different hairstyle and skin tone than he had in the photos. Though paroled in May 2002, Woods continued to try to prove his innocence. DNA testing was eventually performed on the biological evidence in the case, and though the sample had degraded, the lab was able to obtain a partial profile that excluded Woods and his conviction was vacated on April 21, 2005.