Unfortunately, wrongful convictions occur in the United States quite often, and the process of vacating these false convictions can take many years. This was the case for Malcolm Alexander, who fell victim to incorrect eyewitness identification, an incompetent defense attorney, and lost evidence.
In 1980 Malcolm Alexander was arrested and convicted for a rape he did not commit. The rape, which took place in 1979, was linked to Malcolm Alexander solely by eyewitness identification. The victim initially described the attacker as a 6ft tall male, but eventually, though somewhat uncertain, identified Alexander. The victim was attacked from behind and did not identify Malcolm Alexander until four months after the rape had occurred. Even then, the police incorrectly conducted the perpetrator line-ups and only regarded her identification as “tentative.”
This incorrect eyewitness fits a pattern in wrongful conviction cases. Eyewitness identification is the number one reason for wrongful convictions. Specifically, 71% of wrongful conviction cases are due to an incorrect eyewitness identification. In fact, in the legal profession, there is growing evidence against the accuracy of eyewitness identification; one in four is incorrect. (See criminal appeals attorney Aaron Spolin’s book, Witness Misidentification in Criminal Trials, to read about this topic in greater depth).
While most humans believe they can recognize those that have caused them or others harm, the misidentification stems from a variety of factors. Some of the most crucial factors are: witnesses being under high levels of stress, witnesses tending to concentrate more on weapons than the identity of the perpetrator, police or prosecutors using suggestive tactics to sway witnesses while they are in the identification process, and more.
In the case of Malcolm Alexander, the witness was both in an extremely high-stress situation as she underwent a rape, and did not have a good line of sight to the attacker — both of which could have led to the misidentification. In spite of the victim’s uncertain identification, the trial for Malcolm Alexander was quick. The lawyer defending Mr. Alexander did not point out any of the inconsistencies with the witness identification, nor promote another narrative of his innocence. In fact, the lawyer defending Malcolm Alexander presented neither opening nor closing arguments on behalf of his client, nor did he call any witnesses to defend Mr. Alexander. The entire trial of Mr. Alexander lasted one day. In spite of the existence of DNA evidence, including pubic hairs and semen, neither attorney requested that DNA testing be completed. Malcolm Alexander was 21 years old, and the father of a two-year-old, who was then given life without parole.
Malcolm Alexander advocated for his innocence while he was in prison, and eventually, the Innocence Project picked up the case. Unfortunately, the innocence project faced many challenges. Most notably, the evidence from the case had been destroyed by the New Orleans Police Department. However, after a continuous push from the Innocence Project, the pubic hairs from the scene were recovered.
After 38 years in prison in Louisiana, Malcolm Alexander was exonerated, thanks to the evidence found by the attorneys working on his case. A sample of his pubic hair did not match the pubic hair left by the perpetrator at the crime scene. Malcolm Alexander was released from prison on January 30th, 2018.
- “MALCOLM ALEXANDER.” Malcolm Alexander – National Registry of Exonerations, University of Michigan Law, 6 Feb. 2018, www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/casedetail.aspx?caseid=5274.
- “Eyewitness Identification Reform.” Innocence Project, www.innocenceproject.org/eyewitness-identification-reform/.
- “Malcolm Alexander.” Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO), 30 Jan. 2018, ip-no.org/what-we-do/free-innocent-prisoners/client-profiles/malcolm-alexander/.