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Tony Hopps

Other Florida Exonerations with Mistaken Witness Identification
On January 25, 1990, Dunbar and Ruby Dyches had just returned to their room at the Tahitian Inn motel in Tampa, Florida, when a man knocked on their door at about 3:15 p.m.

Dunbar Dyches opened the door, and the man pushed a gun into Dyches’s stomach. Dyches, who was 70 years old, tried to close the door, but the man pulled him outside, and then a second man hit Dyches in the head, causing him to become dazed and to collapse on the concrete floor.

The first man entered the motel room and pointed his gun at 68-year-old Ruby Dyches, grabbed her purse and a blue leather bag, and left. Dunbar Dyches saw the two men jump into a maroon-colored car and drive off. He returned to the motel room and discovered his wife’s purse, handbag, and other items were missing. The handbag contained her personal belongings, a vial of Demerol, and nearly $1,800 in cash.

Two witnesses told officers with the Tampa Police Department that they also saw the men fleeing in a maroon-colored Pontiac or Buick. One of the men said he was able to get a partial plate number, either DWV070 or DVS70C.

Dunbar Dyches described the assailant with the gun as a Black man with a mustache but no beard. Dyches was farsighted and was not wearing his glasses at the time of the crime. Although Dyches said he was “eyeball to eyeball” with this first man, he did not notice any other identifying facial features. But he described the man as “stacked,” “muscular and overweight” but not skinny. He and his wife both agreed that the man wore a camouflage cap and pants. They could not recall his shirt.

Dunbar Dyches could not give a description of the second man. A few hours later, at around 5:45 p.m., police found a maroon Pontiac abandoned with the motor running in a neighborhood about a mile away from the motel. It had a tag number of 0SV70C and had been reported stolen from the location where it was found.

A day later, just before midnight, Tampa police chased a different maroon Pontiac with four men inside. The men abandoned the car and ran. An officer thought he recognized one of the occupants as a man named Calvin Fisher. But he couldn’t be sure, and Fisher denied being in the car.

Police searched the car and found two ski masks, two guns and ammunition, as well as several items belonging to the Dycheses. The money was not recovered. The police were unable to lift fingerprints from either vehicle or the motel room.

Separately, at 3:49 p.m. on January 25, about a half hour after the Tahitian Inn robbery, Officer Mark Scott stopped and detained 24-year-old Tony Hopps near his home so that Detective Gene Strickland could question Hopps about a robbery that occurred on January 23. Strickland arrived, questioned Hopps, took several photographs, and left. Hopps was arrested for this robbery at 11:30 p.m. on January 25. (The charge was dismissed February 19, 1990.)

Hopps did not fit Dunbar Dyches’s description; he was skinny and had a beard. But he knew Fisher, and the two men lived a block apart in a neighborhood about five miles northeast from the motel.

On February 1, 1990, Detective James O’Nolan assembled a list of six men as possible suspects in the Tahitian Inn robbery. The group was comprised of Fisher, Hopps, and four other men, including Hopps’s younger brother, Willie Hopps. In his report, O’Nolan said he assembled the group from “subjects who are known to have committed and/or are suspects in similar offenses.”

He mailed the photos to the Dycheses, who lived in Augusta, Georgia, telling them to look at the photos separately and see whether any of the men looked familiar. Both Dunbar and Ruby looked at the array and each selected Tony Hopps as the man with a gun who had stolen Ruby’s purse and other items from the room. Afterwards, they discussed their selection. The couple completed the forms O’Nolan sent and mailed the information back. O’Nolan received the package in the middle of February 1990.

Police interviewed Hopps on February 20, 1990. He denied any part of the motel robbery and said that on January 25, in the nearly eight-hour interval between when the police questioned him and when they arrested him on the unrelated robbery, he had been at Tampa General Hospital with his girlfriend, who thought she was having a miscarriage.

Police arrested Hopps on February 26, 1990, and charged him with two counts of robbery and one count of burglary. Hopps’s trial in Hillsborough County Circuit Court began on June 25, 1990. Both Dunbar and Ruby Dyches made in-court identifications. O’Nolan testified about the investigation, but as a later filing noted, “the State did not present any evidence to explain how Mr. Hopps became a suspect in the first instance or what independent evidence suggested that law enforcement should have included him in the photo lineup.”

Hopps did not testify, but his attorney, Roy Gerard, presented three witnesses. Ella Mae Fisher testified that she had fed Hopps earlier on January 25, and she later saw him sometime between 3-4 p.m. talking to two police officers at the corner of Central and Frances avenues.

Similarly, Lashawn Galton testified that she had spoken with Hopps as she waited for her daughter to come home from school on the bus. She also remembered the interaction he had with the two police officers.

Strickland testified that he had spoken with Hopps near his house but did not say what day or what time the encounter took place. During a sidebar discussion, Gerard indicated the date and time of this meeting based on dispatch records, but the records were never introduced into evidence or presented to the jury in another fashion.

The jury convicted Hopps of all three counts on June 26, 1990. Because of previous convictions, Hopps was sentenced under Florida’s habitual violent felony offender law to three concurrent life sentences.

In 1992, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal reversed one of Hopps’s convictions for robbery based on insufficient evidence that he robbed Dunbar Dyches. The other convictions remained. Hopps later filed unsuccessful motions based on ineffective assistance of counsel and procedural errors at trial. They were all denied.

In 2020, Hopps filed a petition with the Conviction Review Unit (CRU) of the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office. In support of the petition, he argued that O’Nolan’s identification procedure was flawed and that there were new witnesses to support his alibi.

The CRU, led by Assistant State Attorney Teresa Hall, investigated these claims. On July 16, 2021, the CRU issued a report recommending that Hopps file a motion to vacate the conviction and said, “The state can no longer stand behind the conviction of Tony Hopps.”

The CRU investigation said O’Nolan’s identification method was non-standard police practice even in 1990 and would likely be suppressed at trial if used today. O’Nolan should have coordinated the identification with a local law-enforcement agency rather than mailing the photos. The selection process was further contaminated by having at least three suspects in the array and by allowing Ruby and Dunbar Dyches to discuss their selection.

The report said that cross-racial misidentification could have been a factor, but that there were other discrepancies that should have been a warning to police. The CRU was able to get the photo that Strickland took of Hopps on January 25, 1990. He was wearing different clothing than what the Dycheses reported the gunman wore. He also had different facial hair and a different build. Ruby and Dunbar Dyches both died in 1996.

Investigators interviewed Victoria Hopps, who was married to Willie Hopps. At the time of the robbery, Victoria Hopps was 16 years old, and she said that every afternoon, Galton waited for her daughter – who had special needs – to get off the bus, usually between 3:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. She remembered Tony Hopps waiting with Galton when the police came to pick him up on January 25, 1990.

Tony’s sister, Vickie Hopps, said that her brother had “worked” for a Tampa detective, providing the officer with information. But he had stopped cooperating with the officer, and Vickie Hopps speculated that this might have been a reason he became a suspect in the Tahitian Inn case.

The CRU report noted that Hopps was already in jail – and had been for a day – at the time police stopped the second maroon car that contained the stolen items. And it said the witness statements and officer logs supported Hopps’s claim that he was in and around his house at the time of the motel robbery.

The CRU interviewed Gerard. He said he didn’t use the computer records that showed Hopps was detained by the officers at 3:49 p.m. on January 25, 1990. He said he didn’t think the records would have been helpful because the robbery suspects sped off in a car.

An investigator drove between the motel and the intersection where officers detained Hopps. The trip took 21 minutes. The CRU report said that was not a “feasible amount of time” for Hopps to cover the distance in the period between when the robbery occurred and when the officer detained him.

After the issuance of this report, Hopps retained the Innocence Project of Florida to file a motion to vacate on his behalf. In the motion to vacate filed on August 15, 2021. Seth Miller, the executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, wrote: “The evidence in this case, as it stands today, provides no basis to connect Tony Hopps to this crime and strongly suggests that he is innocent and was wrongfully convicted … The totality of the evidence in this case stands as it does today because the State Attorney in this circuit created a Conviction Review Unit to resolve cases of wrongful conviction, Tony Hopps affirmatively sought the assistance of this unit, and the CRU performed a comprehensive reinvestigation that unraveled its office’s own prosecution.”

Judge Lyann Goudie of Hillsborough Circuit Court vacated Hopps’s conviction on August 23, 2021. Prosecutors then dismissed the charges. Hopps was released from prison that day.

“There is no valid evidence to suggest Hopps committed the crime, and there is substantial evidence to suggest he did not do it,” Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren told the Tampa Bay Times.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 9/8/2021
Last Updated: 9/8/2021
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Additional Convictions:Burglary/Unlawful Entry
Reported Crime Date:1990
Age at the date of reported crime:24
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No