On Memorial Day 1999, Tamara Scherer was in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in the Kansas City, Kansas suburb of Roeland Park, when she was attacked by three young men. They tried unsuccessfully to snatch her purse, but managed to knock her down, causing some minor injuries, and then fled in a car after stealing her cell phone.
Scherer had tussled with one of them, ripping off part of his shirt and kicking him, but didn’t get a very good look at him, other than to note he seemed to be a light-skinned Hispanic who wore his hair pulled back.
A store security guard didn’t get a good look at Tamara’s assailants, either, but followed the getaway car and got its license number. Through the car, Johnson County police tracked down two suspects, who said they had picked up the third robber, whom they knew only as “Rick,” at a local drug house on the day of the crime.
Investigators soon turned their attention to Richard Anthony Jones, who resembled the description of the third robber and had faced charges five years earlier related to stealing and selling steroids. Jones vehemently maintained his innocence, saying at the time of the robbery he had been home with his family across the state line in Kansas City, Missouri.
Police had no physical evidence tying him to the crime, but showed the victim and the store guard booking photos. They picked out Jones as having the strongest resemblance to the third robber. Despite steadfastly insisting on his innocence to the charge, Jones was tried in 2000, largely on the evidence of the two eyewitnesses, and was convicted of aggravated robbery. With his earlier conviction, he drew a sentence of more than 19 years in state prison. His appeals went nowhere.
About 15 years into his term, Jones heard from other inmates that he looked amazingly like an inmate in the state prison at Lansing. He took that news to two prisoner-assistance groups — the Midwest Innocence Project and the University of Kansas’s Project for Innocence. Their investigators located Jones’s look-alike. They had the similar builds and skin tone, had virtually identical goatees and cornrows, and were so alike in appearance that researchers had difficulty telling them apart.
The near-duplicate inmate at Lansing also had a similar name, Rick Amos, lived not far from the Wal-Mart where the crime took place, and had ties to the area of the drug house where the other two robbers—who admitted they had been high on drugs at the time—picked up “Rick” before driving to the crime scene. Amos also had a long record of criminal offenses, including robbery, sexual assault and drug charges.
The groups took their information to prosecutors and police, and eventually, at a hearing, the eyewitnesses from Jones’s trial testified they no longer had confidence in their identification of Jones as the culprit. In June, a Johnson County judge ordered Jones released, saying that no reasonable juror would convict him on the evidence. The county prosecutor also dismissed all charges against Jones, who at this point had served nearly 17 years on what now seems a clear case of mistaken identity.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.