Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sloppy prosecution sees innocent man spend 3 years in jail

Suppressed evidence

MOBILE, Alabama -- In an unusual move today, prosecutors abruptly dropped a robbery charge against a Mobile man in the middle of his trial.

It was the second time Toby Priest, 42, stood trial on the robbery charge. Priest was convicted in 2008 of robbing an Old Shell Road gas station after a store clerk identified him as the perpetrator. A man had slipped a note across the counter, threatening he had a gun and demanding cash.

That conviction was overturned earlier this year by Presiding Circuit Judge Charles Graddick after another witness in the store — who was never called to testify in the 2008 trial — said Priest was clearly not the robber. At that point, Priest had served three years in prison.

Still, the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office pursued a new trial against Priest this week. The prosecution’s case appeared to quickly unravel in court.

On Monday, the store clerk couldn’t identify Priest as the robber in court. Fingerprint and blood samples taken from the note excluded Priest, according to expert testimony.

A Mobile police investigator said Priest only became a suspect after another officer heard a general description of the robber on police radio and suggested that Priest matched it.

The investigator, though, said he did not visit Priest’s home address that night, and instead issued an alert to the news media, declaring Priest a wanted man.

Priest said he was at home and saw himself on Bob Grip’s Fugitive Files on Fox 10 News that night. “It’s like the Twilight Zone,” Priest said outside the courtroom today at Mobile Government Plaza.

After the charge was dropped, Priest’s mother, Shirley Cato, wept and hugged her son. “The D.A.’s office failed the city of Mobile, failed the state of Alabama, and they failed my son,” Cato said.

Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Wright said that she still believes Priest committed the crime, but she wasn’t prepared to move forward with a case with any doubts. “I felt that this was the right thing to do,” Wright said.

Wright said the clerk couldn’t identify Priest as the robber in court this week because four years had passed.

The store clerk did select Priest’s photo in a six-photo line-up immediately after being robbed.

Priest has a facial disfigurement and a glass eye after he barely survived a shotgun blast to the face years earlier.

According to police testimony, witnesses described the robber as having a black-and-white mustache, glasses, and wrinkles or some kind of disfigurement on his face. Police were told the suspect was driving a black Infiniti car.

Priest says he never wore a mustache or glasses. He did, however, drive a black Infiniti.

Mobile police Detective Jeffrey Hilburn said that after issuing an initial description of the robber over police radio, another officer reported back that he had recently dealt with a man matching that description and car — a man named Toby Priest.

He said after the clerk selected Priest from the lineup, an alert was issued to the news media, although police never visited Priest’s home.

The next day, Priest went to Mobile police headquarters voluntarily, driving his black Infiniti, which police then photographed in the parking lot and used as evidence in the case.

“What robber drives down to the police station in the robbery car to talk to the cops?” said defense attorney Jeff Deen.

Deen said Priest also voluntarily took a lie detector test — which is not admissible in court — and passed outright. He said Priest was the only man in the photo lineup who had a facial disfiguration.

Priest denied any wrongdoing and told police that he was at his mother’s house in Mobile that night, but investigators did not interview her, according to testimony.

After the jury convicted him in 2008, Priest was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He appealed his case, and his family used a locator service to find a witness on the scene that night, Laura Stewart-Wyatt, who had since moved to Wyoming. She had given a written statement to police, and she later testified in appeal hearing that the robber did not have Priest’s facial scars.

In June, Graddick ruled that Priest’s defense attorney in the first trial, Brandy Hambright, failed to track down and interview Stewart-Wyatt, which amounted to ineffective legal representation.

The ruling says that if the witness had testified, “there was a reasonable probability, that but for trial counsel’s errors, the result would have been different.”

Original report here

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1 comment: said...

I just read your post about Toby Priest. I've written two blogs about Toby Priest's case, my interest is in wrongful convictions in general, and in the case of Rodney K. Stanberry, is particular: