A man who spent nearly 20 years behind bars is walking free after new evidence showed that he was wrongfully convicted of murder in the 1988 shooting of a motorist in Southeast Washington.
A judge ordered the release of Aaron Michael Howard this month after the prosecutor withdrew from the case in open court, saying he could no longer represent the government in trying to validate the jury’s guilty verdict.
The case represented another victory for the nonprofit Innocence Project but demonstrated a weakness of the legal system. In some cases, the Innocence Project has rescued convicted murderers from death row, helping to fuel political opposition to the death penalty.
Attorneys for the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project compiled statements from witnesses that included confessions from three other men convicted in the crime and implicated a fourth man as the killer. He has since died.
Mr. Howard agreed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter and was released immediately for time served.
“The agreement … is not perfect,” Mr. Howard said. “Although it allows me to maintain my innocence, it requires me to accept a conviction for a crime I did not commit. But I feel like I have little choice because after 20 years in prison, the agreement gives me freedom immediately.”
Nationwide, the Innocence Project claims to have exonerated at least 218 convicted criminals since it was founded in 1992 by criminal defense attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld.
The network of volunteer attorneys initially relied almost exclusively on DNA to disprove the evidence that sent innocent people to prison. Many of the crimes involved sexual assaults.
The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project has broadened its efforts to all sorts of crimes using any kind of strategy to overturn wrongful convictions. They handle cases in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
“Unfortunately, in the vast majority of these cases, there is no possibility of DNA evidence to prove the truth,” said Eily Raman, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project’s assistant director.
Like in Mr. Howard’s case, misidentification by eyewitnesses produces about 75 percent of wrongful convictions, according to a U.S. Justice Department study.
Mr. Howard was charged with first-degree murder after Bobby Parker was fatally shot in his car while waiting at a stoplight. An acquaintance of Mr. Howard’s and the acquaintance’s sister told police that they saw Mr. Howard at the scene of the shooting, which provided the bulk of the evidence against him.
He was convicted in 1990 and sentenced to 21 years to life in prison.
He might have disappeared in prison unless the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project stepped in.
“While the thought of reinvestigating a 20-year-old murder seemed all but impossible at first, the evidence was all there,” said Moxila Upadhyaya, a volunteer attorney from the law firm Venable.
In addition to the confessions from co-defendants, the new evidence included a forensic investigation and other eyewitness testimony that prosecutors knew about but did not present at trial.
Mr. Howard said he has matured through his years in prison and his struggle to be freed. He plans to live with his wife of 12 years and seek work as a youth mentor and physical trainer.
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