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.
Shortly after midnight on November 30, 1991, four teenagers returned home from a double date. As they walked up their front steps, a white Cadillac driven by Claude Davis pulled up, and Howard Holt got out of the passenger seat. Dressed in a knee-length black jacket and a stocking mask that covered his face and neck, Howard stopped about 30 feet away from the group and opened fire – “retaliating,” in a fit of road rage, against the teens who had cut off his Cadillac. Howard then jumped back into the car, and Claude sped off, tires screeching, in the direction of the freeway.
Police immediately put out word to look for a white Cadillac in the area. More than five minutes after the shooting, officers found Quintin “QT” Morris and a friend, Harlan Morgan, in a yellow Cadillac, waiting at a red light just a block or two from the crime scene. The two were on their way to the liquor store to buy alcohol for a party they were attending. But, despite the fact that witnesses had seen a white Cadillac speeding from the crime scene and at least five minutes had already elapsed, police detained Harlan and QT.
QT and Harlan cooperated with police. Officers searched QT’s car, but found no guns, no bullets, and no stocking mask. Thinking QT and Harlan could have thrown the items from the car, police searched the surrounding area, but found no guns, no bullets, and no stocking mask. But despite the lack of any physical evidence connecting QT and Harlan to the crime, police placed them in handcuffs and detained them by the yellow Cadillac. In a completely suggestive identification procedure, officers then brought two of the teenagers over to the car, where one of them identified the shooter as QT.
This identification did not make sense given that QT had been driving, not riding passenger. Further, QT was wearing a waist-length jacket at the time, whereas witnesses had described the shooter’s jacket as falling to his knee or thigh. Nevertheless, over time, this witness became increasingly confident in her identification. At trial, she exaggerated what she saw, claiming that the shooter had been only eight feet away from her and, despite being showered with bullets, she had stood and looked him directly in the eye. Based on this evidence, a jury convicted QT on three counts of attempted murder.
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.
QT’s conviction was disturbing even to the trial judge, Michael Hoff, a conservative judge and former police officer who used to work the area where the crime occurred. Judge Hoff expressed “grave concerns” about the “sufficiency of the evidence” against QT. Several times during trial, Judge Hoff even tried to convince the LA District Attorney to drop the charges against him.
After his conviction, QT’s appellate attorney discovered that the true culprit was Howard Holt. Howard had just been convicted in a number of similar shootings that happened around the same time, and he drove a white Cadillac. Howard confessed to the appellate attorney and to Judge Hoff, who reversed QT’s conviction, noting that it was now clear QT was innocent.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office appealed QT’s exoneration and won on appeal. The Court of Appeal determined that Howard’s confession could have been presented at QT’s trial, and, therefore, that QT was precluded from bringing it to the trial judge’s attention after his conviction. Further, the Court of Appeal determined, despite overwhelming physical and scientific evidence to the contrary, that eyewitness identification of QT had been legitimate. On federal review, a federal judge noted that his “hands were tied” and that he could not reverse QT’s conviction because there were no “legal avenues to do so.” The judge expressed serious concern over whether QT committed the crime and suggested that QT specifically apply for a pardon from the governor.
The California Innocence Project then became involved in QT’s case and commenced an investigation into his claim of innocence. In doing so, CIP tracked down the getaway driver, Claude Davis, who confessed to driving Howard around that night, and found the identifying witness, who has since expressed doubts about her identification of QT. In 2013, CIP petitioned for clemency to Governor Jerry Brown. In 2018, the petition was granted, and Quintin was released from prison in January 2019, after serving 27 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.