On April 12, 2004, a payday loan store in Tacoma, Washington was robbed. After viewing a photo montage, a witness identified 26-year-old James Anderson of Los Angeles California as one of the robbers.
Police in Tacoma had Anderson’s mugshot because he had spent time in a Tacoma jail. Based on the identification, Anderson was arrested and charged with the robbery. Anderson insisted he could not have committed the robbery because he had been meeting with his probation officer on the day of the robbery, more than 1,100 miles from Tacoma. When records from the Los Angeles County Probation Office confirmed his claim, the robbery charge was dropped.
Several days later, Anderson was arrested again, this time for a robbery of a Safeway in Tacoma in the early morning of April 8. Two men who were suspects in other robberies in Tacoma said that Anderson had bragged that he had robbed the Safeway while they were in jail together. They identified Anderson as one of the robbers whose images were captured by a store surveillance camera.
Anderson again said he could not have committed the robbery because, less than 12 hours before, he had been at the Probation Office in Los Angeles. However, the Probation Office wouldn’t provide records for the relevant date, and Anderson was charged with the robbery.
At trial in Pierce County Superior Court, Anderson insisted on representing himself, but the judge appointed a standby attorney to assist him. Anderson filed a subpoena for all probation check-in logs from Los Angeles County from April 7 to April 8. However, the Probation Office refused to give Anderson the records directly, and neither his standby attorney nor the prosecution obtained them.
Anderson brought the missing records to the attention of the judge before trial started, but the prosecutor responded that he had personally contacted the Probation Office and there were no records of any contact with Anderson between his release from jail on April 6 and the robbery on April 12.
The prosecution also checked the airlines to see if Anderson had flown to Washington, but found nothing. The only evidence connecting Anderson to the robbery was the identification by the two men, who received reduced charges on other robberies in return for their testimony. Although Anderson and his girlfriend testified that he was in California at the time of the robbery, the jury convicted him of armed robbery in May 2005, and he was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
After the conviction, the Innocence Project Northwest in Seattle took Anderson's case. The Project immediately obtained records confirming that Anderson had been at the Probation Office in Los Angeles on April 7, and did not have time to drive to Tacoma to commit the robbery.
Based on the new records, the Project filed a Personal Restraint Petition, Washington’s version of a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus, challenging Anderson’s conviction.
The Washington State Court of Appeals granted Anderson’s petition in December 2008, and ordered a new trial. Anderson was released on bail in December 2008, and in February 2009, prosecutors dismissed the charges.
- Stephanie Denzel