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Jervon Tillman

Other Virginia Exonerations with Mistaken Witness Identification
On March 29, 2009, a man wearing a bandana to cover the lower part of his face robbed and attacked a pizza deliverer in Henrico County, Virginia, a suburb of Richmond.

The delivery man was hit in the head and suffered a concussion. But he gave police a description of his assailant: a Black man about 5 foot 8 inches to 5 foot 10 inches tall and having a muscular build.

The police investigated but made no arrests.

Several months earlier, on December 29, 2008, a home invasion had taken place in Henrico County. Two men were said to have forced their way into an apartment and robbed the people inside. The victims identified the men as 26-year-old Jervon Tillman and Dimitri Washington, and their photos were distributed to the media and placed on a website of the county’s “Most Wanted” suspects.

About six weeks after the pizza robbery, the victim in that case went online and browsed the photos on the Most Wanted page. The victim would later say he was frustrated that the police hadn’t made any arrests. He saw a photo of Tillman, then called the police and said he had found the man who robbed him.

Tillman and Washington were arrested in the home invasion case on July 14, 2009. Tillman pled guilty to two counts of robbery on August 26, 2009, and was sentenced to five years in prison.

Tillman was arrested in the pizza case on September 15, 2009, and charged with robbery, wearing a mask while committing a robbery, and use of a firearm in a felony.

Tillman’s bench trial took place on December 9, 2009, in Henrico County Circuit Court. The victim identified Tillman as the man who robbed him. Tillman’s attorney put on no defense. Judge Daniel Balfour convicted Tillman on the three charges that same day, and he later sentenced Tillman to 25 years in prison.

Tillman’s initial appellate attorney failed to file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in a timely fashion. Tillman's subsequent motions for relief also stalled, including an effort by Shannon Taylor, who recused herself after she was elected Commonwealth’s Attorney for Henrico County in 2011.

In 2021, the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law began representing Tillman and filed a request on November 23, 2021, for a conditional pardon from Gov. Ralph Northam. The request acknowledged Tillman’s guilt in the home invasion but said he was wrongfully convicted in the pizza robbery due to mistaken witness identification.

According to the pardon request, a prosecutor in Taylor’s office reviewed the case at some point after her election and said that it appeared that the trial prosecutor didn’t turn over exculpatory evidence to Tillman’s trial attorney. The prosecutor who reviewed the case said that he would not have tried the case; the evidence against Tillman was too flimsy.

At issue was the victim’s initial statement to police, which described the assailant but was physically dissimilar to Tillman, who was several inches taller and had a much skinnier build. The pardon request noted that while there appeared to have been a problem with disclosure, “it’s difficult to know for sure because the prosecutor claimed to have an ‘open file’ policy and put little in writing regarding discovery.”

The request said that Tillman’s attorney didn’t present an alibi for Tillman, who said he was with family members at the time of the robbery. It also said that the attorney didn’t cross-examine the victim about the discrepancies between his description and Tillman’s appearance. The request didn’t say whether this was because the attorney was ineffective or because he didn’t have the exculpatory material from the commonwealth’s attorney’s office.

As part of its investigation, the University of Virginia Innocence Project met with the victim. He stood behind his identification of Tillman.

The pardon request noted that mistaken witness identifications are a leading cause of wrongful convictions. It said, “Under the circumstances – the suggestiveness of the identification, the victim’s head injury, the crime having taken place at night and at gunpoint, the perpetrator’s face having been largely obscured by the bandana, the brevity of the interaction, the fact that the identification was cross-racial, the fact that the victim’s initial description does not match Tillman, and the passage of time between the crime and the identification – we believe this eyewitness identification (the only evidence connecting Tillman to the crime) to be of no value.”

Northam granted Tillman an absolute pardon on January 13, 2022. He noted that “a post-conviction investigation revealed prosecutors from various jurisdictions have called the trial proceedings troubling, with ‘glaring red flags,’ and one went further to say that ‘no office that reasonably attempts to observe best prosecution practices would take this case to trial.’”

Tillman was released from prison the next day, greeted by his mother and grandmother.

The Virginia General Assembly enacted legislation on April 11, 2022, paying Tillman $408,205 in compensation for his wrongful conviction.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 1/31/2022
Last Updated: 4/22/2022
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon, Other
Reported Crime Date:2009
Sentence:25 years
Age at the date of reported crime:26
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No