On September 21, 2000, two adolescents wearing bandanas over their faces broke into Ruth Brown’s house in Durham County, North Carolina and robbed her of over $6000 cash she had on hand because of an illegal gambling operation she ran out of her house. Brown provided descriptions to police and then looked at a middle school yearbook. After 30 minutes studying the yearbook she settled on Erick Daniels as one of the young men who robbed her. She did not, however, get a good look at either of the men and her initial descriptions did not match Daniels.
Daniels, who was 14 years old at the time, was pulled out of class and questioned by police without his parents’ permission. The only evidence against Daniels was Brown’s identification and the procedures used in procuring the initial identification have since been abandoned by the Durham police as unreliable. Nonetheless Daniels was convicted of armed robbery and burglary in December 2001 by a jury in Durham County Superior Court, and sentenced to 10 to 14 years in an adult prison.
Daniels’ mother continued to work on his behalf and eventually was able to find new counsel, who obtained an evidentiary hearing for him in 2008. At that hearing Daniels’ new lawyer presented evidence that another man, Samuel Strong, who was in federal prison following an unrelated bank robbery conviction, had confessed to the crime. Durham County prosecutors were informed of this confession about a year after Daniels’ trial but made no effort to investigate Strong’s claim or tell Daniels’ new lawyer about it. Strong closely matched the original description provided by Brown while Daniels did not, and he was known to have committed robberies with the other suspect in the Brown robbery.
Daniels’ lawyer also argued that his conviction should be reversed because of ineffective assistance of his trial counsel. His original attorney had not objected when the prosecution presented evidence that Daniels had a juvenile marijuana conviction, even though the lawyer knew such evidence is inadmissible. He also failed to seek exculpatory evidence indicating that other suspects had actually committed the crime. And, most important, he represented Samuel Strong, the actual criminal, continued to represent both of them after he learned that Strong was the real criminal, and – because of his attorney-client relationship with Strong – failed to take any action to help Daniels when Strong confessed to him shortly after Daniels was convicted.
On September 19, 2008, Durham County Superior Court judge Orlando Hudson found that Daniels had received constitutionally deficient representation from his trial lawyer, and that Daniels was innocent. He dismissed the charges against Daniels and ordered his immediate release. Daniels has since sought a pardon and compensation, but his application for a pardon was denied in February 2011.
— Michael S. Perry