On April 21, 2008, two men, one armed with a handgun, approached 21-year-old Alberto Ortiz as he waited for an elevator on the 8th floor of a building in Brooklyn, New York after he left the apartment of close friends.
When the gunman attempted to snatch the chain necklace from Ortiz, he resisted and the unarmed man fled. The gunman then knocked Ortiz down, shot him in the neck and fled without taking the necklace.
Fifteen-year-old Aida Rivera, who lived in the apartment that Ortiz had been visiting, was in the hallway at the time of the crime. She went to the police station and was shown photographs of potential suspects, but did not select anyone.
Ortiz later said that when he and a friend initially approached the building to go inside, they saw two African American men sitting on a bench outside. When Ortiz and his friend went inside, the two men followed them into the elevator.
When Ortiz and his friend exited at the 8th floor, so did the men, although they had punched the button for the 12th floor.
When Ortiz left the apartment, the same two men confronted him, he told police.
In a stairwell of the building, police found a plastic bag holding some clothing, and Ortiz said the bag looked like a bag carried by the man who shot him. Ortiz said the gunman had handed the bag to his accomplice during the elevator ride.
Video surveillance footage inside the elevator was not helpful because the images were of poor quality and both robbers were wearing baseball caps which shielded their faces.
Three days after the shooting, police said Ortiz told them he had heard in the neighborhood that one of the robbers was named Lawrence Williams—although Ortiz would later deny giving Williams’ name.
Police found photographs of 64 people with that name in their computer photograph image system and showed them to Ortiz. Police said Ortiz picked a photo of Lawrence Williams, 32, who had a history of 15 arrests dating back to 2003—although Ortiz would later deny picking out Williams's photo.
Williams was arrested on May 20, 2008 and was picked out of live line ups by Ortiz and Rivera. Williams was charged with attempted murder, assault, attempted robbery and illegal possession of a firearm.
Williams went on trial in March 2009 in Brooklyn Supreme Court. Ortiz and Rivera identified him as the gunman. The prosecution buttressed Ortiz’s identification of Williams by contending that the elevator video showed that Ortiz was looking at the man during their ride to the 8th floor.
The defense presented evidence showing that DNA testing on a shirt inside the plastic bag revealed a DNA profile that was not Williams. Police told the defense that the man whose profile was identified could not be found, although the defense would learn later that the man had been interviewed by police and denied involvement.
On March 8, 2009, the jury acquitted Williams of attempted murder, but convicted him of assault, attempted robbery, and illegal gun possession. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The appeal of the case was assigned to Lisa Napoli, an attorney with Appellate Advocates, a non-profit organization that handles indigent criminal appeals in New York City. On appeal, Napoli argued that the trial judge had wrongly denied a defense motion to present expert testimony about the fallibility of eyewitness identification, particularly in highly stressful situations—such as being robbed at gunpoint.
While the appeal was pending, Williams’ family continued to work to try to prove his innocence. Using Facebook, two investigators hired by the family tracked down Taevon Hutchinson, the man whose DNA was found on the clothing in the bag carried by one of the robbers. During conversations, Hutchinson confessed that he was the gunman and said that Williams was not involved.
In February 2012, Williams’ family faxed a letter outlining Hutchinson’s statements to the Kings County District Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn, and it was passed to John P. O’Mara, head of the Conviction Integrity Unit. Napoli received a copy of the letter as well.
Napoli sought to overturn Williams’ conviction on the basis of this new evidence of innocence. On April 23, 2012, Williams was released from prison and his prison sentence was suspended.
The investigation by the Kings County District’s Attorney’s Office confirmed that Hutchinson had confessed to the shooting and had exonerated Williams of involvement. Further, an examination of the surveillance video from the elevator showed that the gunman was taller than his accomplice. Since Williams and Hutchinson are approximately the same height, the prosecution concluded that they could not have committed the crime together.
The prosecution’s investigation, however, failed to determine how the police came up with Williams’ name.
On October 16, 2012, O’Mara filed a motion agreeing that the conviction should be vacated because “(I)t is my opinion that defendant Lawrence Williams is not guilty.”
On October 26, 2012, Williams’ conviction was vacated and the charges were dismissed.
In August 2013, Williams filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging misconduct.
– Maurice Possley