If a picture is worth a thousand words, they may still not amount to the truth. Shawn Massey, a thin and tidy 37-year-old black man with an understandably tense face, knows this all too well. At a press conference Thursday, his grandmother—whom he refers to as “mom”—aunt, gathered around him. He has a solid support system; that much is clear. Unfortunately, he no longer has any such confidence in North Carolina’s justice system.
Massey was released on May 6 from the Maury Correctional Institution after being in prison for 12 years for crimes he didn’t commit. After faculty and students in Duke Law School’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic and Innocence Project toiled for six years to prove a witness mistakenly identified Massey, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superior Court vacated his conviction on multiple counts of second-degree kidnapping, one count of felonious breaking and entering and one count of robbery with a dangerous weapon.
“I feel that North Carolina gets away with a lot of stuff, as far as putting people in prison, because it’s cheap,” Massey said, in discussing his long-term goal of instituting a method of accountability in the justice system.
The Wrongful Conviction Clinic focused on discrepancies between Massey’s hair style, height and weight and the witness’ description. Now, Massey hopes to form watchdog groups to monitor the North Carolina Department of Correction, North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services and other related departments to avoid future mistakes.
After learning about Massey’s case from the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, one of many institutions Massey regularly wrote letters to, clinic co-James Coleman and Theresa Newman directed students to, as Coleman put it, “look for loose threads, not a smoking gun.”
Massey’s loose thread came down to a series of photographs and a perhaps cultural misunderstanding. Massey was convicted of forcing Samantha Wood and her two young children into their Charlotte apartment at gunpoint and robbing Wood on May 22, 1998. Woods described her attacker as a 5-foot-9, 180-pound black male with cornrows. His conviction was largely based on photo identification by Woods, when she wrote under his photograph that he looked like the suspect, “except for the braids.”
Massey was never visited by detectives on the case. Nor did Woods and Massey have a face-to-face encounter until the trial nearly one year later. That’s when Woods remarked that Massey appeared smaller than her attacker and did not have braids, although she remained confident that he committed the crime. A jury convicted him and he was sentenced to a minimum of 11 and a half years.
Nine years after his conviction, Duke Law students Emily Sauter and Susan Pourciau found seven color photographs in the District Attorney’s files that had been taken by the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Department throughout Massey’s sentencing. In all of the pictures, particularly one dated March 9, 1998, 11 weeks before the robbery, Massey had very short hair.
Sauter emphasized “how important [the DA] giving the file to us was,” because without it, the loose thread could not have been followed.
The students sought the opinion of professional barbers with hair-braiding experience, who confirmed it was impossible that Massey’s hair could have grown long enough in 11 weeks to be braided into cornrows.
According to Eric Cottrell, the former Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted Massey, Wood admitted she was uncertain that Massey was her attacker. Throughout the trial, there had been multiple testimonies by Massey’s friends and family that he never wore his hair in cornrows, but those statements had always been disregarded.
The students discovered that both police and prosecutors had incorrectly assumed Woods’ attacker had braids only on the back of his head; they misunderstood the meaning of “cornrows.” Therefore, police and prosecutors had assumed those seven pictures showing Massey without cornrows to be of little significance because “they didn’t show the back [of Massey’s head], he could’ve cut off his braids” following the robbery, Coleman said.
It was a minor detail with huge consequences, but clinic faculty and students don’t blame the system entirely. It took “a lot of attention, of close examination” by three teams of students over more than four years to unravel this miscarriage of justice, Coleman said, and law enforcement often doesn’t have the resources to approach every case so thoroughly.
“If they view what we do as part of the justice system,” Coleman said, reforms could happen.
Kisabeth, the first student to work on the case, echoes his optimism. “It’s shown me that there’s room for change,” she said, “and that changes can happen.” As for Massey, he will continue to put his faith in God and God alone. “I love people— well, I used to,” he said, “I’m mad. I’m upset … I’m a little off balance right now, but it’ll level out.”
He plans to follow his grandmother’s example—she is a pastor—and “pray that the Lord lead my life and direct my footsteps.”
He said that his past 12 years will become part of his advocacy for legal reforms and part of his “testimony throughout life. I’m going to say this to young people and old people … and, I want watchdog groups over these entities.”