Monday, December 17, 2007

Innocent man's conviction shows flaws in lineups

December 13, 2007

By Bill Rankin, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When the elderly rape victim was asked whether her attacker was in a lineup of five men, she picked the man in the middle — John Jerome White.

Based almost entirely on that identification, White was convicted of the 1979 attack in Meriwether County and sent to prison. But 28 years later, DNA evidence proved what White had been saying all those years: He didn't do it.

The DNA evidence did match with someone else standing in that lineup in 1979. In a stunning coincidence, the man now charged with the assault stands to White's left in the fuzzy photo of that long-ago lineup. His name is James Edward Parham.

White, 48, would serve more than 12 years in prison for the crime now blamed on Parham; Parham, now 54, would rape another Meriwether County woman six years later.

Parham happened to be in the Oct. 4, 1979, lineup not because he was a suspect but because he and the three other men standing alongside White were in jail at the time for unrelated offenses.

The photograph of that lineup — with White, in the middle wearing ragged shorts and a white T-shirt, and Parham, on the far right wearing a striped shirt and a concerned expression — was released Thursday during a meeting of a legislative study committee considering new standards for eyewitness identification procedures in Georgia.

"It was just a fluke [Parham] was put in the same lineup with John White," said Aimee Maxwell, director of the Georgia Innocence Project, which secured White's exoneration. "This is a tragedy, on many levels."

White, the seventh man in Georgia cleared by DNA evidence, attended Thursday's legislative committee meeting and said he supports passage of new laws setting protocols for officers to follow when gathering eyewitness identification evidence.

During a break, standing in a hallway at the Capitol, White said he met Parham again while the two served time in Macon State Prison in Oglethorpe. "He's got a cross to bear," White said of Parham.

When he was told the rape victim identified him in October 1979, White was shocked, he said. "I felt like I was in trouble. I wondered how was I going to get out of this."

White, defended at the time by now-U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.), did not take the witness stand at his trial. When the jury found him guilty, White said, he told the judge he didn't do it. "Then, when they put me back in the holding cell, I just cried," he said. Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield (D-Atlanta) told White she will support legislation to compensate him for the time he spent wrongly incarcerated.

Benefield released drafts of proposed legislation that says, beginning July 1, 2011, all photographic or physical lineups must be conducted by officers who have successfully completed eyewitness ID training. The legislation also says if a law enforcement agency does not have written protocols on eyewitness ID by Jan. 1, 2009, the agency can be denied state funding or state-administered federal funding.

Benefield said improved eyewitness ID procedures are necessary because there are only so many cases where DNA evidence can be used to identify the perpetrator.

The GBI supports improved eyewitness ID protocols, spokesman John Bankhead said Thursday. "Nobody in law enforcement wants to arrest the wrong person," he said.

DNA testing was unavailable at the time of the Aug. 11, 1979, sexual assault in Meriwether County.

The 74-year-old victim, who is now deceased, lay asleep on her couch when her attacker broke into her home around 4 a.m. She was raped and beaten so severely her face was left partly paralyzed. Before her attacker left, he handed her a pillow and said, "Hold this to your face until I get out."

The woman had prescription eyeglasses but she was not wearing them at the time, the Georgia Innocence Project's Maxwell said Thursday.

On Sept. 28, 1979, the woman was shown a number of photographs, including White's, and she said she was "almost positive" it was him. When she was presented the lineup of five men at the jail a week later, she said she was positive that White — not Parham standing just a few feet away — was the man who raped her.

The Georgia Innocence Project began investigating the case in 2004 after receiving a letter from White in prison. The project eventually learned that hairs linking White to the crime through microscopic analysis were still on file at the Meriwether County Clerk's Office.

In November, the hair was sent to the GBI Crime Lab. DNA testing determined the hair belonged to Parham, whose DNA was already in a state database, according to the GBI.

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