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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. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

John McAfee And The Gregory Faull Murder Case

     In 1994, 49-year-old John McAfee, a computer tycoon who developed anti-privacy software and helped pioneer instant messaging, sold his Silicon Valley company for $100 million. About this time, following twenty years of drug abuse, he suffered a heart attack. In 2007, after losing all but $4 million of his fortune on bad investments, McAfee moved to Belize, a small Central American Country south of Mexico and east of Guatemala on the Atlantic coast. McAfee moved into a house in San Pedro's Mata Grande subdivision.

     According to media reports, John McAfee had slipped back into a lifestyle of hallucinogenic drugs like crystal meth and bath salts that made him erratic, paranoid, and according to his neighbors, dangerous. In April 2012, the Belize police raided his home looking for drugs and guns. Although some weapons were seized and he was taken into custody, the police quickly released him. No charges were filed. (Later, McAfee donated handcuffs, tasers, batons, firearms and other law enforcement items to the police department.)

     A few months after McAfee's arrest, a group of residents of the Mata Grande subdivision submitted a written complaint against him to the authorities in San Pedro. McAfee's neighbors complained about his security guards who "walked around with shotguns at night and up and down the beach." According to the complainants, the guards "shine spotlights right into peoples' eyes at night and act aggressively with their guns, chambering a bullet [a round] and nonsense such as this. People are scared to walk down the beach at night as a result. The tourists are terrified." The neighbors also didn't like the taxi cab and delivery truck traffic to and from McAfee's house at all hours of the night. (According to reports, the cabs often delivered prostitutes to his home.) In addition, McAfee's four security dogs frightened and harassed residents of the subdivision. One of the dogs supposedly bit a tourist.

     On November 7, 2012, one of McAfee's neighbors, Gregory Faull, a 52-year-old builder from Florida, filed a formal complaint with the San Pedro mayor's office. Faull accused his 67-year-old neighbor of recklessly firing off his guns and exhibiting "roguish behavior." Faull also complained about McAfee's loud and aggressive attack dogs.

     There was no question that McAfee's neighbors considered him, if not insane, an unstable, drug-addled gun nut in the mold of the gonzo journalist, Hunter Thompson. Photographs surfaced showing McAfee posing with a variety of pistols, rifles, and shotguns. One of the photos depicts the skinny, bearded, and bare-chested millionaire pressing the muzzle of a pistol to his temple.

     On Sunday morning, November 11, 2012, Gregory Faull's 39-year-old Belizean housekeeper, Laura Tun, found him on the second floor of his house lying face-up in a pool of blood. Someone had shot him in the back of the head. The police found a 9 mm shell casing on the floor near his body. There was no sign of forced entry and the dead man's iPhone and laptop computer had been taken. Mr. Faull had been murdered the night before.

     John McAfee immediately emerged as a suspect in his neighbor's murder. The police went to his house that Sunday to question him. He wasn't home and no one knew his whereabouts.

     Two days after the murder, McAfee was still at large. A spokesperson for the Belize Ministry of National Security publicly urged him to come in for questioning. Not long after that, McAfee, in a telephone interview with Joshua Davis, a writer for Wired Magazine, said he was in hiding. According to McAfee, "they [the police] will kill me if they find me." The so-called person of interest in the Faull murder case told the journalist that his four dogs had been poisoned by the Belizean authorities as part of a vendetta against him. He claimed that he was unarmed, accompanied by a young woman, and had to move from place to place to stay ahead of the police.

     On November 16, 2012 McAfee told a reporter for CNBC that he had spent six days hiding from the police at his compound on Ambergris Caye, a stretch of island just off the Belizean coast. When the police searched his property, he hid by burying himself in sand with a cardboard box over his head that allowed him to breathe. He denied any knowledge of Mr. Faull's death.

     On December 5, 2012, the authorities arrested John McAfee in Guatemala, but a week later, a Guatemalan judge ruled his detention illegal and released him.

     Deported from Guatemala, John McAfee, on December 12, 2012 arrived in Miami aboard an American Airlines flight.

     In May 2013, McAfee was living in Oregon working on a book and a film project about his troubled, turbulent life. That month his house in Belize went up in flames. In speaking to a Fox News reporter about the fire, McAfee said, "I believe that there are a few with great power in Belize that will go to great lengths to harm me. This fire was not just a strange coincidence."

     In speaking to a reporter with the huffingtonpost in July 2013, McAfee, in reference to Gregory Faull, said, "I never killed anyone, it's not my style."

     Gregory Faull's daughter, in November 2013, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against McAfee in an Orlando, Florida federal court. The plaintiff, in a press release, stated: "The Faull family intends to pursue all possible avenues to ensure the individual or individuals responsible for the death of Gregory Faull are brought to justice…The true facts will come to light as to how and by whom Gregory met his end."

     In September 2015, McAfee announced that he was running for president under his own creation, the Cyber Party. According to McAfee, as president of the United States, he would address the problem that "national leaders have little or no understanding of the cyber science upon which national finance, military systems and every aspect of social systems to television and automobiles are based."