Eyewitness testimony is a serious problem when it comes to the American criminal courts. The Innocence Project has exonerated almost 300 people who have been wrongfully convicted of heinous crimes. The organization has stated that “eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide.” The Innocence Project described misidentification as playing a role “in nearly 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.”
So what does that say about cases that rely entirely on eyewitness testimony?
Now ask yourself if you would be comfortable convicting a person if a case is based entirely on the eyewitness testimony of confirmed gang members. If the answer to that question is “no”, I have a story you must read.
Martin Anthony Villalon Jr., known to his friends and family as Anthony, is 19 years old. He resides in the Wabash Correctional Facility in Indiana – a prison well known for housing some incredibly violent and aggressive offenders. He was 15 when he was arrested in connection with the shooting of another teenager named John Shoulders. Though the DNA recovered from the crime scene did not match Anthony or the other person accused of the offense, he was subsequently convicted of murder and sentenced to 60 years. The prosecution’s case was based on eyewitness testimony.
The other individual charged with committing the crime, Prevaun McDaniel, was acquitted in adult court. The case against both boys was equally as weak, but McDaniel’s defense attorney fought hard in the court room for his client. He meticulously debunked the prosecution’s cases, piece by piece. He discredited alleged witnesses who were admitted gang members and likely had nefarious motives for lying to police about the shooting. McDaniel’s attorney systematically answered every question the jury could possibly have about his client and as a result of this painstaking approach, McDaniel is free.
Anthony was not nearly as fortunate. His attorney showed up to the trial, but he did not put on a defense that came close to rivaling that of McDaniel’s. In fact, a number of people waited in the halls of the courthouse to testify on Anthony’s behalf – including his grandmother, Cheryle. None of the people who could verify Anthony’s alibi, or speak to his character, were called to testify. Additionally, because these people anticipated they would testify, they were not allowed into the court room to observe the testimony of others.
Cheryle was present at the trial of Prevaun McDaniel, however. She credits the avoidance of a wrongful conviction in McDaniel’s case to his attorney. “His lawyer fought like it was his kid on trial,” she explained to me. “He pounced on every lie, every conflicting testimony, every witness…every flaw was discussed. Every time the prosecutor came up with something the lawyer jumped on it and tore it apart.” She went on to explain that even though his attorney was working for free, “he fought like he was being paid very well.”
The eyewitness testimony did not include anyone who observed the actual shooting. Instead, it consisted of a colorful array of characters. First there was Sergio “Outlaw” Rosa. Rosa admitted in court he was a gang member – belonging to the Latin Kings. He alleged that the day after Shoulders was shot, Anthony and Prevaun told him they committed the murder. He said they did it because Shoulders was the member of the Vice Lord street gang.
Another eyewitness was less certain about Anthony’s involvement in the murder. At Anthony’s trial, the witness said he did not know the teen and admitted that in his original eyewitness description he had failed to identify Anthony as Hispanic. He also confirmed he had been unable to identify Anthony when the police showed him photographs.
The third witness, Becky Clemens, took the stand and claimed Anthony stopped by her house on the day of the murder, looking for Shoulders. She said he was looking for him because he was “going to get his ass beat on the G” and because Shoulders was apparently “claiming Vice Lord.” Her testimony lacked credibility because upon further examination it was determined she had her own gang affiliations. In an appeal on behalf of Anthony, an attorney wrote, “Clemens testified that she had previously had boys living in her house who were members of the Spanish Gangster Disciples. She was shown a copy of her MySpace page, and admitted to its accuracy.”
The same defense attorney described Clemens as a “gangster mother at heart”.
The eyewitness accounts were conflicting and at times witnesses testified to seeing or hearing things that were factually incorrect. People who could have provided information countering these claims were not called to testify at Anthony’s trial.
There were other problems as well. Allegations of jury misconduct were revealed after the conviction. It was alleged that one juror was observed hugging a family member of the victim during the course of the trial.
Another problem with the jury in Anthony’s trial pertained to one of its members. “We had a big problem with one juror,” Cheryle recalled. “He was someone who knew some of our family members. We begged our lawyer not to have him sit on the jury. The judge gave the lawyer a chance to do something when she asked him if there was a problem. He said, ‘we already picked him’. Later it was discovered he had ties to the prosecutor and he gave another juror a ride home on several occasions, admitting in court that they discussed the case outside the jury room”.
Many people have maintained that neither Anthony nor Prevaun were members of a gang. The prosecution’s theory was based on this premise, despite the unsettling lack of reliable or credible evidence supporting it. Neither of the boys have ever confessed either. Cheryle explained this was despite the police having attempted to coerce a confession from Prevaun.
She noted, “Prevaun was tortured in the adult jail and every time he was beaten or hurt, the prosecutor would tell him if he said Anthony did this crime he could go home. Prevaun never did say it was Anthony. He said he didn’t know Anthony personally. He stood up to the system. Not many adults could have done that.”
Anthony is particularly vulnerable in the prison setting. He has an I.Q. of 71 points and he is described by his grandmother as being the kind of person who wants to please those around him. She does not believe he had any part in the murder of John Shoulders. She does not believe he is even capable of such a crime. “If I believed for one second he killed John I would do my best to help him live with his punishment, but I would not fight to free him,” she told me.
Cheryle worries about her grandson’s time in prison immensely. “He can be very naive. He is still like a 15 year old. He listens to these grown men and is starting to trust in what they say.” Her biggest fear is that in prison “he will change into someone else”. She despairs at the thought of losing the kind and caring boy she has always known. “We have so many great memories with Anthony. Our family loves to spend time together.”
When asked about her fondest memory she described a vacation the family took to Tennessee a year before Anthony was arrested. “There were seven of us, including my best friend. We rented a cabin for 6 days over the New Year’s holiday. Anthony and his friend carried the entire luggage, food, and other supplies up the longest flight of stairs I had ever seen. They never once complained”. She also described all of the time spent laughing and enjoying each other’s company.
Anthony has a strong network of support. Members of the family visit him as often as possible. Sometimes Anthony has to remove a person from his approved list of visitors just to accommodate all of the people who want to see him. Cheryle believes that close connections with family are critical for Anthony. She is fighting to maintain his emotional well-being, while also balancing an expensive legal battle in the hopes of clearing her son’s name.
In 2011, the Indiana Court of Appeals denied Anthony’s request to have his conviction overturned. His appeal called into question the constitutionality of the waiver into adult court. It also challenged his sentence of 60 years as “excessive”.
Anthony’s hope rests with the United States Supreme Court. The Court will make a decision about whether or not to hear Anthony’s case on September 24th of this year His motion is asking the court to consider if he should have had a right to a jury trial within the juvenile system. At the present time a Magistrate is responsible for making the decision as to whether a juvenile should be tried as an adult. Cheryle, and many others who signed a petition she posted online, believe that a jury should be involved in making such a serious determination.
To date, Cheryle’s petition has 484 signatures. The petition is located on Change.org, which you may access by clicking here. If the Supreme Court rules in Anthony’s favor it will set a precedent that would effect other countless other juvenile cases. Please help to make this petition a success by signing it and sharing it with others.
Cheryle wants the people reading this to know that her grandson “is innocent”. She went on to add, “If my grandson loses all his appeals he will be spending 60 years in prison. The real murderer will still be out there living his life. When Anthony comes home, I will be dead”. Most of Anthony’s other family members will be deceased as well.
“I want people to know all children are worth saving. No human being deserves to be locked in a cage for their entire life, even if they are guilty.” She then pointed to the punitive aspect of the adult system when it comes to punishing juveniles for crimes. “These children have no purpose in prison. They are wasting away. Anthony has had no schooling. He has only an eighth grade education”. She wonders how the people who support this kind of system can ever expect people who spend the majority of their lives in the prison environment – quite literally – to one day emerge from the prison setting and become a functional member of society.
“Our justice system has no mercy in their hearts,” Cheryle said finally. “It is so hard for me to grasp an understanding of what kind of society does this to children. Some children have committed terrible crimes, but does that give us the right to do terrible things to them?”
It’s a valid question. Does it?
And what about those who are wrongfully convicted? What about them?