CRIME STORY has received permission to feature profiles of exonerees represented by the California Innocence Project (CIP). The CIP reviews more than 2,000 claims of innocence each year and since its founding in 1999 has secured the release of dozens of innocent people who may otherwise have spent the rest of their lives wrongfully incarcerated.
On September 2, 1985, a weaponless fight broke out between Roeling Adams and three other men over a game of dice. Immediately afterwards, Roeling and several others left the San Pedro housing project where the game and fight had occurred.
Some time later, seven or eight people, including Roeling, returned to the area carrying guns. One witness reported that Roeling and another man, Edward Kennedy, then shot into the crowd, injuring two people and killing one. However, one of the surviving victims saw only Kennedy shoot.
Roeling was ultimately convicted of first degree murder and assault with a firearm, and sentenced to 27 years to life in prison. Despite having an alibi, Roeling spent 28 years in prison because of eyewitness misidentification, circumstances of gang loyalty, and a dubious star witness. It wasn’t until nearly 20 years later that Kennedy admitted to the parole board that he and two others had been responsible for the shooting, exculpating Roeling and his brother Edward.
Because of this new certified admission of guilt, the parole board finally granted Roeling parole. Upon his release in October 2014, Roeling was anxious to finish his college degree and find work in the clerical or computer industries. Despite a high rate of error (as many as 1 in 4 stranger eyewitness identifications are wrong), eyewitness identifications are considered some of the most powerful evidence against a suspect. An in-court eyewitness identification of a perpetrator is incredibly powerful to a jury. In fact, with the exception of DNA evidence, nothing can be more damning for a criminal defendant. But a witness’s identification can be, and often is, mistaken.
Despite a high rate of error (according to the Innocence Project, as many as 1 in 4 stranger eyewitness identifications are wrong), eyewitness identifications are considered some of the most powerful evidence against a suspect. An in-court eyewitness identification of a perpetrator is incredibly powerful to a jury. In fact, with the exception of DNA evidence, nothing can be more damning for a criminal defendant. But a witness’s identification can be, and often is, mistaken. Human memory is fragile and extremely malleable; it can be incomplete and faulty even as we perceive an event. After a crime, factors like stress, the short duration of the incident, and the presence of a weapon can affect witnesses’ recall. Identifications can also be influenced by a witness’s biases and by subtle cues from police and prosecutors. Nationally, 69% of DNA exonerations — 252 out of 367 cases — have involved eyewitness misidentification, making it the leading contributing cause of these wrongful convictions. Further, the National Registry of Exonerations has identified at least 450 non-DNA-based exonerations involving eyewitness misidentification. Cross-racial eyewitness identifications in particular are known to be incredibly suspect: of those 252 mistaken identification cases, nearly half involved a witness and suspect of different races.
“One of the leading causes of wrongful conviction is misidentification,” says Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project. “I am so pleased that Roeling finally has his freedom after 28 years of wrongful incarceration.”