Only a few days before he was to be deported back to Sierra Leone, West Africa, Maligie Conteh’s conviction for armed robbery was overturned. He was arrested and has been incarcerated since November 24, 2009 solely based on a single eyewitness misidentification. The judge is now so convinced of Conteh’s innocence that he will acquit him if the Attorney General’s Office wants a new trial.
The crime – two black men, one with a knife, stole Alfredo Cordona-Lopez’s wallet containing $150 – happened around 6 p.m. in a parking garage of the Plaza at Landmark shopping center in Virginia. Considering it was not daylight savings time and the time of year (November), it is easy to know that it was either dusk or close to nightfall when the crime occurred.
While Cordona-Lopez was telling police at the scene of the crime that the man with the knife was wearing a gray hoodie and white tennis shoes, he saw Conteh riding by on his bike, wearing a black, hoodless jacket and flip-flops. His identification is even more “amazing” considering it was definitely dark by this time and Conteh was probably riding at a distance from the interview. The police arrested him and did not find a knife or any money on him.
And I have not even mentioned that the identification of Conteh happened only 15 minutes after the crime. This means if he had committed the crime, it would mean he ran to stash the money and knife somewhere where he was able to change his clothes and pick up a bike.
This is a 22-year-old guy who, in his home country of Sierra Leone, escaped a rebel ambush that killed his step-sister and -father. He sends money to his relatives still in the country. He also was waiting for an acceptance letter from the U.S. Marine Corps. These inarguable characteristics do not match that of a thief.
But the argument for Conteh only gets better and renders his ability to have stashed the knife and money physically impossible. Ten minutes after the crime, Conteh posted a photo on Facebook from his friend’s house, which was located about a half-mile away from the crime scene. Again, consider the timeline – if he had committed the crime, he would have had to run to his friend’s house, stash the knife and money, change his clothes, take a calm photo and post it, and ride a bike a half-mile back to the crime scene.
The Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Virginia Law School helped with overturning Conteh’s case. His trial attorney never presented the Facebook alibi during his trial. However, it seems Judge Randy L. Bellows doubted the conviction of Conteh when he learned more about the credibility of Cordona-Lopez .
“Just a month before the robbery, the alleged victim had himself been charged with possessing fraudulent documents and driver’s license which would have caused the judge to doubt his testimony,” said Dierdre Enright, Director of the UVA’s Innocence Project Clinic.
Pro-bono attorney Anand Ramana and the UVA Innocence Project Clinic said prosecutors “unintentionally” failed to reveal this information during the convicting trial. The Attorney General said this information was available to the public, so they did not have to disclose it.
Prosecutors persisted that maybe someone else made the Facebook post for Conteh. That is not argument enough to defeat all of the other circumstances, because they have no proof that was what happened. The Facebook post is simply an augmentation to his alibi. The defense has apparently never presented or wasn’t allowed to present anything about faulty eyewitness identification and all of the estimator variables—factors that exist during the time of the identification and are out of the investigation’s control—that distract the witness’s attention.
Cordona-Lopez’s identification of Conteh was inaccurate due to weapons-focus, which says that the weapon the perpetrator is holding during the crime steals the attention of the victim and/or witness. While I explained Cordona-Lopez’s moment of identifying Conteh I touched on multiple other estimator variables, like the fact that it was dark out and Conteh was riding on a bike—therefore in motion.