Ricky Amos (left) and Richard Jones (right)

 

The two men appear to be of similar age, each with light brown skin, their dark hair in braids. They even don the exact same facial hair design—a thin mustache descending into a goatee.

But only one likely snatched a purse from a woman in a Wal-Mart parking lot in the Kansas City, Kansas, suburb of Roeland Park back in 1999.

Unfortunately, it was the wrong man who spent 17 years in prison for the crime until being released June 7 after a judge ruled that no juror would likely convict him after seeing the photo of the newly suspected perpetrator and hearing the new evidence that implicates that man.

Law students and attorneys with the University of Kansas School of Law’s Paul E. Wilson Project for Innocence & Post-Conviction Remedies and the Midwest Innocence Project spent nearly two years working to free Richard Jones, who was sentenced to more than 19 years in prison for aggravated robbery after several eyewitnesses, including the victim, identified him as the purse snatcher.

Elizabeth Cateforis, the law school project’s supervising attorney, said she believed from the start that Jones was innocent. He had always maintained that he had nothing to do with the crime and had an alibi for the night in question. But finding Ricky Amos’ photo gave her more confidence that the team of attorneys would be able to get Jones back into court, as he had already exhausted his appeals.

Jones learned of his doppelganger from a fellow inmate, who had served time with Amos in a separate prison and told him of their similar appearance. Jones contacted the Midwest Innocence Project, which referred the case to the University of Kansas’ clinic.

The team quickly located Amos’ photo in the state’s prisoner database.

“They handed me those four pictures, and I said, ‘Yeah, it’s the same guy,’” Cateforis said. “And they said, ‘No, no, that’s Richard and that’s Ricky.’ I promptly stood up, ran around the office, and showed all my colleagues.”

Finding Amos’ photo gave the clinic a starting point for its investigation, and they proceeded to locate and interview the eyewitnesses who initially identified Jones.

During a county court hearing in Jones’ case June 7, several witness said they could not tell the two men apart in their mug shots. Jones’ team of attorneys raised concern over the mug shot lineups witnesses were given by investigators, in which Jones was the only man with lighter skin. The makeup of the lineup was “highly suggestive,” the attorneys argued. Additionally, they made the case that Amos was more likely the perpetrator, as he lived in the area where the getaway car driver recalled picking the robber up that night. The driver testified that he only knew of the man as “Ricky.” In fact, Jones lived further from the crime scene, in Kansas City.

The case hinged on the witness identifications—there was no DNA evidence or fingerprints to place Jones at the Wal-Mart parking lot, where the robber struggled with victim Tamara Scherer before getting away with just her mobile phone.

“Eyewitness identification and testimony are really bad evidence,” Cateforis said. “People are generally not very good at making identifications, especially across racial lines.”

The Innocence Project has found that 72 percent of wrongful convictions nationwide were based on faulty eyewitnesses.

Johnson County District Court Judge Kevin Moriarty found Jones innocent during last week’s hearing and he was released that same day. On Monday, the Johnson County District Attorney Stephen Howe announced he was dismissing Jones’ case and would not seek a new trial.

Scherer, the victim, told  The Kansas City Star newspaper that she was stunned when Jones’ attorneys contacted her and she realized that the identification process was flawed.

“It’s just hard,” she said. “He lost 17 years of his life. His children never got to spend any good quality daddy time.”

Meanwhile, Cateforis said Jones has been enjoying reconnecting with his family over the past week. “He’s thrilled to be back with him,” she said. Now it’s just settling in. He has to get a driver’s license and do those everyday things he hasn’t had an opportunity to do in 17 years.”

Contact Karen Sloan at klsoan@alm.com. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ