At about 9:30 p.m. on April 15, 1989, two white Air Force police officers, one male and one female, were returning to their dormitories at Fort Dix, a military base near Trenton, New Jersey, when they stopped under a bus shelter on the base to wait out a light rain. A few minutes later, a black man entered the shelter, drew a pistol and demanded money.
The man handed over his wallet containing an unsigned money order for $100 and the woman said she had no money. Then the robber forced the woman to perform oral sex on him while he held a gun to the man’s head.
The robber then ordered both to run into an adjacent field and he fled. The two officers called the police and were taken to the Fort Dix military police station. They were asked to look at a “wanted” board on the wall and both identified 32-year-old Richard Stevens as the attacker, although the woman said Stevens looked heavier than their assailant. Stevens’ photograph was on the board because he previously had been convicted of stealing wallets from military personnel.
The woman was then taken to a hospital where personnel attempted to obtain semen from her mouth and from a stain on her jacket.
Five days after the attack, the victims viewed a live lineup and both independently identified Stevens, who was arrested and charged with aggravated sexual assault and robbery. Stevens was charged by federal authorities because the crime occurred on federal property.
The FBI sent three slides to their crime laboratory that had been taken at the hospital. One contained no semen, another contained traces of semen, but too little for testing, and a third contained enough semen for serological analysis, but not enough for DNA tests. Despite a court order that the evidence be preserved, all the evidence on the third slide was used during the serological testing, and the result was inconclusive.
In January 1990, Stevens went on trial before a jury in U.S. District Court. Both victims identified him as the attacker.
The defense called Stevens’ father, who testified that Stevens was left-handed. Both victims said the attacker carried the gun in his right hand.
The defense also called an expert witness to testify on the fallibility of eyewitness identification. The expert said that cross-racial identifications are particularly prone to error, and also said that stress and the presence of a weapon can diminish the accuracy of witness identifications. The trial judge, however, barred the expert from testifying about the suggestiveness of the wanted board—Stevens was the only person on the board depicted in a photograph; the other suspects were depicted by composite sketches. The judge also refused to allow the expert to testify about the low correlation between witness confidence in an identification and the accuracy of the identification, and forbade the expert from testifying that some witnesses who make an initial identification will stick to it at subsequent photographic or live lineups, even if their initial choice was erroneous.
The defense also sought to introduce the testimony of Tyrone Mitchell, the victim of a similar crime at Fort Dix that occurred three days after the attack for which Stevens was on trial. The defense said that Mitchell would testify that his attacker robbed him at gunpoint within a few hundred yards of the other attack and that his attacker fit the description given by the two victims of the sexual assault and robbery. Moreover, the defense said that Mitchell had viewed Stevens in a lineup and said that Stevens was not the man who robbed him.
The defense argued that after Mitchell was robbed, military police suspected both crimes were committed by the same person based on the similarity, location and time of the crimes and the similarity in description of the assailant.
Moreover, the money order taken in the sexual assault/robbery crime later was cashed at a pharmacy across the street from Fort Meade, a military base in Maryland. The defense wanted to present evidence that Mitchell’s military identification card—taken when he was robbed—was used to cash two stolen checks at the Fort Meade Exchange store at about the same time as the money order was cashed. The judge, however, barred Mitchell’s testimony and the evidence about the use of his military identification card.
A mistrial was declared when the jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict. At a second trial in March 1990 the same evidence was barred again. Stevens was convicted of sexual assault and robbery. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
In June 1991, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. The court held that the expert should have been allowed to testify to the lack of a correlation between confidence and accuracy in eyewitness identifications. The court also ruled that Mitchell should have been allowed to testify.
Despite the additional defense evidence, Stevens was convicted at his retrial in September 1991.
In August 1992, while Stevens was still awaiting sentencing, federal prosecutions asked that Stevens’ conviction be vacated and a new trial granted because of new evidence suggesting another man committed the crime. He was released on bail and on October 19, 1992, the charges were dismissed.
The man suspected of committing the crime was identified as Earl Richmond Jr., a former Army drill instructor at Fort Dix, who bore a strong resemblance to Stevens.
Ultimately, Richmond admitted to a 1991 murder of a woman at Fort Dix and he was accused of a rape in the same month and the same neighborhood where Mitchell was robbed and the two others were attacked. Richmond was convicted of three murders in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and was executed by the State of North Carolina in 2005.
– Maurice Possley