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Justin Kirkwood

Other Pennsylvania Cases with Mistaken Witness Identifications
In August 2002, a craft store in New Castle, Pennsylvania was robbed of $170 at gunpoint. The two women clerks in the store at the time provided police with an initial description of the robber: a white man with brown eyes, 5 feet, 4 inches tall and no tattoos.

A few days after the crime, the clerks identified 22-year-old Justin Kirkwood as the robber from a police mugshot book, even though Kirkwood was 5 feet 7 inches tall, his eyes were not brown, and he was heavily tattooed.

Kirkwood said he was home with his family at the time of the crime, and had been on the phone with someone from a local car dealership.

In July 2003, Kirkwood went to trial in Lawrence County Court of Common Pleas. The clerks testified and identified him as the robber. The car dealer, William Fitts, testified that he had called Kirkwood at the time of the robbery. However, during cross-examination, the prosecutor, Birgitta Tolvanen, waved telephone records around and noted that since the call wasn’t in the records, Fitts’s testimony was false.

On July 18, 2003, a jury convicted Kirkwood of armed robbery. He was sentenced to 3½ to 7 years in prison.

In 2005, the Innocence Institute at Park Point University began reviewing Kirkwood’s case and determined that the phone call from the dealership would have been a local call, and thus would not have been in the phone records.

Kirkwood filed a post-conviction petition to vacate his conviction. During a hearing, Lawrence County District Attorney John Bongivengo said that Tolvanen had admitted that she knew that local calls would not have been in the phone record, and said she was just trying to trick the witness.

Bongivengo filed a motion to vacate the conviction and dismiss the case.

Bongivengo argued before Lawrence County Judge Dominick Motto that Fitts was a credible defense witness and “the only purpose for Tolvanen’s line of questioning was to discredit him.”

Judge Motto agreed, saying that Fitts “was clearly” an alibi witness and that his credibility was critical for the defense. The judge said he concluded that Tolvanen’s actions were misconduct.

In August 2005, Judge Motto vacated Kirkwood’s conviction and in December 2006, the charge was dismissed and Kirkwood was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 10/1/2018
State:Pennsylvania
County:Lawrence
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2002
Convicted:2003
Exonerated:2006
Sentence:3 1/2 to 7 years
Race:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:22
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No