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Beniah Alton Dandridge

Other Montgomery, TX Exonerations
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On December 18, 1994, 71-year-old Riley Manning, Sr., was found beaten and strangled in his apartment in Montgomery, Alabama. The apartment had been ransacked and his truck, checkbook and several hundred dollars in cash were missing.

The victim was found by his son, Riley Manning, Jr., who checked for a pulse and then called police. Riley Jr., later told Montgomery police that he got blood on three of the fingers on his left hand when he checked his father’s pulse. Police found bloody fingerprints at the scene, but never compared them to Riley, Jr.’s fingerprints.

Riley, Jr. told police that his father recently had allowed a transient named David Suddeth to live with him. Police identified Suddeth’s girlfriend and the FBI surreptitiously placed a wiretap on her telephone. Suddeth soon called his girlfriend and admitted that he had beaten and robbed Manning, acting alone.

Before police located Suddeth, they also zeroed in on 29-year-old Beniah Alton Dandridge, who had worked for Manning and who allegedly was seen in a bar with a large amount of cash after the murder. Police requested that the Alabama Bureau of Investigation (“ABI”) compare Dandridge’s fingerprints to the prints found at the scene.

On December 20, 1994, after the ABI said the prints at the scene belonged to Dandridge, he was brought in for questioning. Dandridge was upset by Manning’s death but denied any knowledge of the crime. Dandridge said that he worked as painter for Manning. and visited Manning’s home often. Dandridge said that he was allowed to store his boat on Manning’s property. Based solely on the fingerprint comparison, Dandridge was charged with capital murder, murder during a robbery and murder during a burglary.

By that time, police had arrested Suddeth in Florida where he admitted to the crime and said he acted alone. When both men were brought to court for their initial appearance, Montgomery County District Court Judge Lynn Bright asked Suddeth if he understood why he was there. Suddeth said he did understand, but pointed to Dandridge and said, “I do not understand what he’s doing here. He did not have anything to do with it.”

By happenstance, not long after that, Dandridge’s defense attorney ran into Suddeth in the jail and told Suddeth that Dandridge was going to be released because police believed that Suddeth acted alone. Apparently out of pique, Suddeth then reached out to police and said, for the first time, that he and Dandridge committed the crime together.

Dandridge went to trial in Montgomery County District Court in March 1996. Carol Curlee, a latent print examiner with the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, testified that she compared two fingerprints from the crime scene to Dandridge’s fingerprints and found 14 points of similarity in one print and nine points of similarity in the other—nine being the minimum standard required by ABI to make an identification.

The prosecutor asked Curlee, “In your research that you’ve done, of all people on earth, does (sic) any two people have the same fingerprint?”

Dandridge’s attorney objected on the ground that Curlee could not have researched everyone on earth, but the trial judge overruled the objection.

Curlee replied, “I’ve been in the field of fingerprints for 25 years and I’ve looked at millions and millions of prints. We also have training, which a lot of it does come from the FBI and there’s probably two hundred million fingerprints on file with them. I think we’re housing possibly about a million and a half and to date, no one has ever found two fingerprints of any individual to be the same.”

The prosecution also called a jail inmate, Jimmy Hill, who testified that Dandridge confessed to being involved in the crime. Hill told the jury he had not been promised any leniency by the prosecution or police.

On cross-examination, Hill admitted that he had prior convictions for 23 different felony crimes and that he was facing a life sentence on a pending charge of first-degree theft, but denied he had any deal. In fact, his case file—which Dandridge’s attorney failed to examine—showed that Hill’s attorney had spoken to the prosecution and Hill already pled guilty to the theft charge and was placed on probation.

Mervin Smith, a retired FBI fingerprint examiner testified for the defense that he examined the fingerprints found at the scene and said that the prints were not made by Dandridge.

Dandridge testified in his own defense and denied involvement in the crime. He said he was on a date with Debbie Williams at the time and that afterward he went home where he lived with his sister, Catherine. Both women testified and corroborated Dandridge.

During closing arguments, the prosecutor referred to the defense fingerprint expert as a “prostitute” and made more than 100 references to fingerprints, ending his argument saying, “If you believe those are his fingerprints, then this case is over, and your verdict should be guilty.”

On March 13, 1996, the jury convicted Dandridge of all counts and he was sentenced to life in prison. Suddeth pled guilty to capital murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In 1998, Suddeth and Hill recanted their prior statements. Suddeth told Dandridge’s attorney that he acted alone and that Dandridge was not involved. Hill admitted that he had lied about Dandridge confessing and had also lied when he said there was no deal with the prosecution.

A motion for new trial based on the recantations was denied. For more than a decade, Dandridge’s attempts to overturn his conviction—both in state and federal courts—were denied. Eventually, he sought the help from the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization that provides help to indigent defendants.

In May 2014, two fingerprint experts who had been asked to re-examine the fingerprint evidence at the request of the Equal Justice Initiative reported that the prints found at the crime scene were left by Riley Manning, Jr., and not by Dandridge.

In November 2014, Equal Justice Initiative lawyers filed a petition seeking to vacate Dandridge’s conviction and sentence, noting that “it appears that the ABI examiners ignored obvious differences during the comparison process.”

The petition noted that at the time of the crime ABI examiners used procedures that were later shown to produce errors, including relying on the nine-points-of-similarity standard, failing to make comparisons to others who might have left the prints, and assigning substantial weight to similarities found in certain areas of a fingerprint where prints from different individuals can appear similar when examined in isolation.

In September 2015, the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, after conducting their own re-examination of the fingerprint evidence, concurred with the defense experts and concluded that the prints were left by Riley Manning, Jr., not Dandridge.

On September 30, 2015, the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office filed a motion asking that the Equal Justice Initiative’s petition to vacate the conviction and sentence be granted. The motion was granted and the charges were dismissed and Dandridge was released.

In 2017, Dandridge died in a traffic accident.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/12/2015
State:Alabama
County:Montgomery
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1994
Convicted:1996
Exonerated:2015
Sentence:Life
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:29
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No