Shortly before 6 p.m. on November 24, 2009, 19-year-old Alfredo Cardona-Lopez called police to report he had been robbed at knife-point by two men who attacked him in a parking garage in Alexandria, Virginia.
Cardona-Lopez said one of the robbers flashed a knife and demanded money. The other pulled his hands behind his back, removed his wallet containing $150, then punched him twice in the face and fled on foot. He said he chased them briefly, but stopped and called 911.
When police arrived, Cardona-Lopez said that both men were black and were intoxicated. He said the man with the knife was wearing tennis shoes and carrying a plain black drawstring bag. The other man was wearing a hooded jacket, Cardona-Lopez said.
As Cardona-Lopez sat in a police car providing the details, 19-year-old Magilie Conteh rode past on his bicycle. Cardona-Lopez saw him and said that Conteh, who was carrying a black bag, was one of the robbers. An officer radioed for assistance and Conteh was stopped in a nearby parking lot. The police car containing Cardona-Lopez drove to the lot and Cardona-Lopez, who was sitting in the back seat, identified Conteh, although Conteh was not wearing a jacket with a hood, was wearing flip-flops rather than tennis shoes, and his black bag had a white insignia on it. Conteh also had not been drinking alcohol.
Conteh came to the United States after fleeing Sierra Leone with his father at the age of nine to avoid being conscripted as a child soldier. He was a permanent legal resident, had played for a high school championship rugby team in 2009 and was preparing to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. He told police that he had spent the day of the crime with friends and had been posting to his Facebook account at a friend’s house at the time of the robbery, then signed off and was riding his bike back to the apartment he shared with his guardian, Russ Sullivan, staff director for the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, when he was arrested.
He went on trial on June 16, 2010 before Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows, who heard the case without a jury.
Cardona-Lopez identified Conteh as one of the robbers.
Conteh testified in his own defense and denied committing the crime. He said that at the time of the robbery, he was posting information on his Facebook account about a speech he gave a day earlier.
Sullivan testified that he was a mentor in the Capital Area REACH Program, a nonprofit organization that helps young people succeed in school and find jobs, when he met Conteh. After Conteh’s father died, Sullivan said that he became Conteh’s guardian and Conteh moved into his apartment.
Sullivan said that on the day before the crime, at a REACH fund-raising luncheon, Conteh had given a speech about what the program meant to him, and this was the speech that Conteh was posting about on Facebook.
Despite that testimony, Judge Bellows convicted Conteh of robbery and sentenced him to seven years in prison, but suspended all but one year and 11 months.
Conteh lost his appeals and was released from prison after serving 16 months.
Conteh’s case was then investigated further by the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law and Anand Ramana, an attorney at the Washington, D.C. law firm of McGuire Woods. In 2012, attorneys filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus seeking a new trial.
The petition claimed that the prosecution had failed to disclose that Cardona-Lopez had been convicted of possession of a false Social Security card—an offense that could have been used to impeach his credibility. The petition also included an affidavit from Conteh’s trial attorney, who admitted that he had not sought any records from Facebook to verify Conteh’s claim and that he had failed to try to obtain telephone records after Conteh said he had called a friend while he was posting to Facebook.
Prior to Conteh’s trial, the prosecution told the defense—based on a records check done by a police officer—that Cardona-Lopez did not have a criminal record.
In September 2012, Judge Bellows set aside Conteh’s conviction and ordered a new trial.
Armed with the new evidence, Conteh went on trial again in April 2013. Ramana argued that it would have been impossible for Conteh to commit the robbery, run more than a mile to the friend’s house, dispose of the knife and cash (which were never found), change his clothes and ride bike back to the crime scene where Cardona-Lopez spotted him.
On April 18, 2013, after a two-day trial, a jury deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of acquittal and a mistrial was declared. On April 22, 2013, the prosecution dismissed the case.
– Maurice Possley