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Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Aaron Jackson Murder Case: The Unreliability of Eyewitness Testimony

     The ideal eyewitness is a person with excellent eyesight who is unbiased, honest, sober, and intelligent. Unfortunately, most eyewitnesses are not sober, intelligent, unbiased, honest, or sure of their identifications. Moreover, they can be bribed, misled, and intimidated. Eyewitness misidentification has caused thousands of wrongful convictions. In the 1930s, pioneers in the field of forensic science hoped that the scientific interpretation of physical clues--fingerprints, bullets, blood, and the like--would make this form of direct evidence unnecessary. That day hasn't come. Police and prosecutors still rely heavily on eyewitnesses, and often at their peril.

The Aaron Jackson Murder Case

     In 2001, police in Springfield, Illinois arrested Aaron "Chill" Jackson, a 36-year-old ex-con who had served 6 years in prison for armed robbery. Charged with the shooting death of 27-year-old Durrell Alexander, Jackson, a vicious and dangerous criminal, was held on $1 million bond. A pair of eyewitnesses said they had seen the defendant shoot Alexander in the chest and abdomen. A year later, just before the trial, the eyewitnesses took back their identifications. Without this testimony, the state's attorney in Sangamon County had no choice but to drop the case. Investigators believed that Jackson had threatened these witnesses.

     In Washington Park, Illinois on April 1, 2010, at 5:47 in the morning, a passenger in John Thornton's 1998 Buick Regal shot him three times in the chest, causing the car to crash. John Thornton, the mayor of Washington Park, had been cracking down on local crime. Two women who saw the 52-year-old's car go off the road, told a detective they had seen Aaron Jackson climb out of the wrecked Buick and limp to a vehicle waiting nearby. Police arrested Jackson that day.

     The state's attorney, in addition to the eyewitnesses, Nortisha Ball and Gilda Lott, could link the suspect to the scene of the shooting in three ways: a latent fingerprint on the Buick's outside rear passenger door; a trace of his blood on the passenger's side deployed airbag; and a speck of the victim's blood on the suspect's left pant pocket. While this last piece of physical evidence was too small for a complete DNA profile, the state DNA analyst determined that the suspect was among a small population of black people--one in 4,200--who could not be eliminated as the donor of the blood speck.

     In October 2010, the Jackson trial blew up in the prosecutor's face when one of the eyewitnesses, Nortisha Ball, testified that a police detective named Kim McAfee, who had since been convicted in federal court of 39 white collar felonies, had forced her to pick Jackson's mugshot out of a photograph line-up. Another witness, Lequisha Jackson (no relation to the defendant) testified that Detective McAfee had offered her money to testify that he had not been at the scene of the shooting. (Apparently McAfee had initially been a suspect himself in the Thornton murder case.) The judge declared a mistrial.

     On April 12, 2012, Jackson's second murder trial got underway. The prosecutor, Steve Sallerson, put eyewitness Nortisha Ball back on the stand. Now serving time on a burglary conviction, the 23-year-old had led the prosecutor to believe she would identify the defendant as the man she had seen limping from Thornton's Buick after it had crashed. Instead, she threw him a curve ball by testifying she did not get a good look because it was dark that morning. Moreover, she was 150 yards away from the car, and was under the influence of alcohol and drugs. On cross-examination, defense attorney Thomas Q. Keefe III got Ball to say that Detective McAfee had forced her to pick the defendant's photograph out of the spread of mugshots.

     Nortisha Ball, perhaps under threat from the defendant, became a prosecutor's worst courtroom nightmare. The other eyewitness, Gilda Lott, a witness with a history of drug related convictions, wasn't much better. She contradicted herself, acted confused, then broke down on the stand. The judge had to threaten her with contempt of court to get her to respond to the prosecutor's questions. At best, as a prosecution witness, Gilda Lott was useless. It seemed the defendant had gotten to her as well.

     While the two eyewitnesses were a complete prosecution disaster, the state DNA analyst, Jay Winters, identified the blood spot on the airbag as the defendant's. Using a more sophisticated DNA analysis on the speck of blood found on Jackson's trousers, Winters placed the defendant in a one in 46,000 population of black people who could not be excluded as the donor of this crime scene evidence.

     State fingerprint examiner Melissa Gamboe testified that the latent print on the rear passenger door of the mayor's Buick had been left by the defendant. 

     On April 27, 2012, the St. Clair County jury took just 5 hours to find Aaron Jackson guilty of murder. The judge, on August 27, 2012, sentenced Jackson to 35 years in prison. 

     The Jackson case is a good example of the value of physical evidence over eyewitness testimony. Because most jurors have seen TV shows like "CSI," they tend to have faith in forensic science and forensic scientists. 

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