Normally I'm critical of the Court of Criminal Appeals - over the last few years they have issued some really bad decisions. If you are going to criticize you need to recognize them when they do something right. They did just that this week in the case of Richard Miles.
Mr. Miles was convicted of murder and attempted murder based mostly an eyewitness and a criminalist who testified that residue found on the defendant's hands indicated he had fired a gun. He had a good alibi, but as usual that was not enough; Eyewitnesses almost always trump everything to the contrary. Over the course of the last few years - and through repeated open records request - he was able to obtain two additional police reports. One confirmed that there were other suspects, and another concerned an altercation the victims had before the incident. He also eventually obtained a recantation from the only eyewitness, as well as a statement from the criminalist that she would not testify again the same way she testified at trial. For what its worth, he also passed a couple of polygraphs.
The new suspect came from his girlfriend, who claimed he admitted to shooting two people. He had a record of violence, and also matched the description given by the witnesses - which the defendant never did. There was also evidence about an altercation the victims had been involved with earlier, where one of them had to pull a shotgun. The criminalist testified at the original trial that under FBI guidelines she believed the residue was the result of firing a gun. She later admitted that guidelines of the lab where she worked were different - the amount was not sufficient to say it came from firing a gun, as opposed to picking it up from innocent sources.
What makes this case was unique is that it wasn't based on DNA. There was a recanting witness, but it was an eyewitness who was emphatic at the time of trial that Mr. Miles was the person he saw. The fact that he was shorter, lighter skinned and had different clothes on didn't phase him - or the police. Nor did the alibi - which was provided almost immediately. The evidence of innocence was compelling, but in the past that has not been enough. It was here though, and maybe it signals a change in the way the Court is going to handle these claims.
Prevailing on an actual innocence claim is next to impossible - especially when you don't have physical evidence like DNA. Even though the court has acknowledged the problems of eyewitness identifications, that hasn't been enough to grant enough relief. There was a Brady claim here, which has increasingly been the basis for granting relief. You also had unreliable scientific evidence, but the court all but shut the door earlier on that as the basis for relief.
This case had a little bit of everything, and maybe that makes it unique. There was a Brady violation, bad eyewitness testimony, and faulty forensic testimony. Unfortunately, that is not that unusual. It is often the case that a number of different things go wrong when someone is wrongfully convicted. The courts have tended to isolate each issue, and not view them together, as the jury would. To their credit, they did that in this case.
I'm not going to get overly optimistic - but I can't help but feel encouraged by this decision - even if it did them two years to deliver it.