At about 9:30 a.m. on August 17, 2009, an African-American man with a gun walked into a convenience store in Conyers, Georgia and demanded money. After ordering a male employee out of the store, the gunman, who was wearing dark glasses, a white T-shirt, dark pants, and a Jamaican-styled knit hat with fake dreadlocks, demanded cash from a female employee.
When the store owner came to the front, the robber demanded money from the “black box.” After herding the owner and employee to the rear of the store, the robber searched through several cabinets behind the cash register area and escaped with $1,100 in cash.
One of the store workers managed to write down the license plate number of the car the robber was driving. Police soon discovered that a man with a gun had stolen the car from its owner, a pregnant woman heading to a doctor’s appointment, about an hour earlier in DeKalb County, which is adjacent to Rockdale County where the store was robbed.
On August 27, police arrested 21-year-old Nathan Christopher Dwight after the stolen car was found parked near his Conyers residence. The woman who owned the car as well as the store owner and one of his employees identified Dwight in photographic lineups as the man who carjacked the vehicle and robbed the store.
Dwight was charged with armed robbery, aggravated assault and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony for the Rockdale County robbery. DeKalb County authorities separately charged Dwight with armed robbery, aggravated assault and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony for the carjacking.
Dwight went on trial in Rockdale County Superior Court on the robbery charges in June 2010. The store owner, his employee, and the woman whose car was stolen all identified Dwight in court. The store owner and his employee said they recognized Dwight because he came into the store on several occasions after the robbery. The woman who was carjacked said she recognized Dwight because he had a small scar under his eye—although in fact he had no such scar.
None of the fingerprints recovered at the store and from the stolen car matched Dwight. Prosecutors, however, argued that a white T-shirt found in the car was worn by the robber.
A defense witness – the wife of a retired police officer – testified that the evening before the crimes, she and her husband had invited Dwight to spend the night at their home and that he was still in bed at the time the two robberies occurred.
On June 24, 2010, the Rockdale County jury convicted Dwight of all charges. He was sentenced to life in prison plus five years for the robbery of the convenience store and the related charges.
While the case was pending appeal, Dwight’s attorney filed a motion seeking DNA testing of the T-shirt found in the car used by the robber. When those tests failed to find any of Dwight’s DNA, a motion for a new trial was filed.
In October 2011, the motion was granted and a new trial was ordered. On October 7, 2011, Rockdale County prosecutors dismissed the charges in that county. On November 19, 2011, Dwight was released on bond on the DeKalb County charges.
In the meantime, a local television station obtained a copy of the video recording of the interrogation of Dwight, during which he repeatedly denied being involved in the robbery or the carjacking. At one point, Detective Michael Hellerman, who is white, told Dwight that he had better come clean because the all-white jury he would probably face would see him as a “straight-up nigger.” The disclosure of the video sparked outrage from the NAACP and other members of the community and demands for an investigation of the detective.
In September 2013, DeKalb County prosecutors dismissed the carjacking charges against Dwight. By that time, Hellerman had resigned.
– Maurice Possley