In April 1974, a security guard was shot and killed during an armed robbery of a grocery store in Baltimore, Maryland. Two employees described the shooter as slim, light-skinned African-American, about 5’10” tall.
Police released a composite sketch a month later and received a tip that led them to 25-year-old Michael Austin – whose appearance differed significantly from the man described as the shooter – and to another man.
Austin was arrested, but the second man could not be found. One of the employees identified Austin as the shooter.
At trial, the key evidence against Austin was the testimony of that one employee and a business card with his supposed accomplice’s name found in his wallet. Austin claimed that he was at work too late to have committed the crime, but his defense attorney failed to call any witnesses to support his alibi.
In April 1975, a jury convicted Austin of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and a handgun violation, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
Following his conviction, the witness’s family came forward with the information that, contrary to the prosecution portrayal, the eyewitness was not an upstanding college student, but a drug addict.
Ultimately, Austin enlisted the support of Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that works to overturn wrongful convictions.
In 1997, after the witness overdosed on heroin, his brother came forward and said the witness had confided that he had helped to convict an innocent man. It was also revealed that the prosecution had failed to turn over the statement of the other employee, whose description did not match Austin.
In December 2001, a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge reversed Austin’s conviction and in January 2002, prosecutors decided to drop the charges.
In 2003, the governor granted Austin a pardon, allowing him to seek compensation. In November 2004, the State of Maryland authorized a $1.4 million compensation package.
- Stephanie Denzel