Ten years ago this week,
was finally cleared in Texas after 16 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit.
Butler’s wrongful conviction rested mainly on a single eyewitness misidentification. His photo was in a book of mug shots that police asked the victim to look through after she was attacked. She made a tentative identification from this photo and later identified Butler in a lineup. However, though she described her attacker as an African American, she never mentioned that he had a prominent missing front tooth– which Butler had since childhood. At trial, Butler presented multiple alibi witnesses in his defense, but the jury believed the victim’s identification, and he was convicted of aggravated kidnapping and sentenced to 99 years in prison. Faulty eyewitness identification is the single most common factor in wrongful convictions, playing a role in 75% of the 254 injustices overturned through DNA testing. For over a century, lawyers and scientists have recognized the inherent weakness in eyewitness identification, but still today people are convicted in American courtrooms based on a single identification – often made in a lineup procedure that suggests, intentionally or not, that the witness choose the suspect.
Moreover, the chances of misidentification increase when the attacker is a different race than the victim, since cross racial identifications are generally less accurate. Butler is African-American and the victim in the case was white. The effects of stress and trauma can also affect a witness’s perception of an event. Yet, these problems are far more difficult to explain to a jury than common variables affecting identifications, such as the time of day and the distance from which the witness saw the perpetrator. Unfortunately for Butler, it was a dangerous combination of these factors that nearly sent him to prison for the rest of his life.
Butler first sought DNA testing in 1987, but he was denied. Luckily for him, the denial meant that his first chance at DNA testing would be conducted at a lab in New York City that had begun using Y-STR testing, which isolates male DNA by testing the Y chromosome. Had his initial request been granted, the results, using older methods, may have been inconclusive – and may have consumed the biological evidence available. Testing on the rape kit was finally performed in 1999 by Medical Examiner’s Office in New York. The results, which were reviewed and confirmed, excluded Butler as the source of semen in the kit.
With compelling evidence of his innocence in hand, prosecutors joined with Butler and his attorney in filing for clemency. He was released in January 2000, after serving over 16 years in prison, and officially pardoned 10 years ago this week.