More than a decade after a case of misidentification put him in jail, Shawn Massey is a free man.
After serving in prison for crimes he was wrongly convicted of for 12 years, Massey, 37, was released from the Maury Correctional Institution in Maury, N.C. May 6.
Massey delivered his first press conference since his release at the School of Law Thursday afternoon. Faculty and students in the School of Law’s Wrongful Conviction Clinic pursued Massey’s claim of innocence from Fall 2006 until his release.
“We tell our students that in these cases we are looking for loose threads, not smoking guns,” said James Coleman, co-director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic. “We’re looking for details that [the police] missed, or were not available at the time.”
Massey said he began writing letters from his cell to the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence and other innocence facilities two days after his conviction.
“I wrote everyday and I wrote all over the United States, even one in Hawaii too,” Massey said. “I did a lot of writing and a lot of praying. It seemed like forever to me.”
Theresa Newman, co-director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic, said the NCCAI sent Massey’s case to Duke’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic in 2004. Beginning in 2006, three separate teams of law students worked on the case for three consecutive one-year periods until Massey’s release.
Coleman said the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department conducted a very limited investigation of the case. The victim, Samantha Wood, described her perpetrator as wearing four to five small braids on his head—a hairstyle commonly known as cornrows. Police, however, were unfamiliar with this hairstyle and assumed that Massey, the suspect in custody, had cut off the braids.
Massey’s friend April Thompson told police Massey wore his hair in braids and no other individuals were interviewed for confirmation. The Wrongful Convictions Clinic later revealed through photographs found in the District Attorney’s file that Massey’s hair was too short for cornrows at the time of the crime.
“At every step if there was some accountability… Shawn may not have been convicted,” Newman said.
In 2008, former Assistant District Attorney Eric Cottrell admitted to students at the Wrongful Convictions Clinic that Wood expressed uncertainty upon seeing Massey at trial. Wood said Massey was thinner and taller than the perpetrator, but that they had similar voices. Wood’s uncertainty later led current District Attorney Peter Gilchrist to question the legitimacy of the conviction.
“When [Wood] saw Shawn for the very first time in person she wasn’t sure it was the person who robbed her,” Coleman said. “She did not disclose that to defense and the case went on. That was part of evidence that I believe convinced [Gilchrist] that a miscarriage of justice had occurred in this case.”
Coleman said Gilchrist’s cooperation was “key” to solving the case. Gilchrist gave students Susan Pourciau, Law ’09, and Emily Sauter, Law ’09, unrestricted access to Massey’s files to pursue his claim of innocence.
“It really was in the DA’s interest in being transparent and cooperating with us,” Sauter said. “Not every prosecutor would admit his victim doubted the identification of her perpetrator.”
Massey said his plan for the future is to create an oversight program to prevent false convictions from occurring.
“These students found more evidence… than trained, professional attorneys,” Massey said. “That’s one of my long term goals… to have people in these positions watch over situations.”
Massey said he has not received an official apology from the state and is currently struggling to deal with his animosity.
"In my heart I have compassion, but in my mind I want somebody to go to jail," Massey said. "I want somebody reprimanded because I was actually wronged."
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