An emotional Uriah Courtney, 33, became the eleventh person to be exonerated through the efforts of the California Innocence Project (CIP), with assistance from students at the California Western School of Law, yesterday. Courtney had served eight years of a life sentence in prison for a 2004 rape and kidnapping of a sixteen-year old girl in Lemon Grove, California.
The exoneration was possible because evidence from the crime was retained and could be retested with more advanced DNA technology. The results not only eliminated Courtney but linked to another man, who closely resembled Courtney, and lived within three miles of the crime.
Courtney and his family endured an eight-year nightmare, but Justin Brooks, Director of the CIP, indicated that he was among the more fortunate of those wrongfully convicted. According to KPBS news (here), Brooks said, “…he was lucky the evidence wasn’t thrown out, his case caught our eye, we got cooperation from the DA and he was lucky ultimately to be exonerated.”
In fact, the case provides an example of how the system should work and of how officials should respond in worthy cases of claimed wrongful conviction. First, the crime scene evidence was retained until more advanced technology was able to provide results. This testing was then conducted with the cooperation of the San Diego District Attorney’s Office. The results prompted District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis to drop the charges against Courtney and upon the DA’s motion, San Diego Superior Court Judge Timothy R. Walsh dismissed the kidnapping and sexual assault charges.
Courtney was convicted on the mistaken identification of the victim and a witness who had seen a truck near the scene that resembled Courtney’s truck. As is often the case in mistaken identification, an initial tentative identification nevertheless became confident testimony in court. The victim was initially unable to provide enough detail for a police sketch but at trial was confident in her identification of Courtney and his truck. This common phenomenon is thought by some researchers to be the result of subtle and often unintentional influences that can contaminate or “strengthen” a memory.
Even with the cooperation of the District Attorney, Justin Brooks said, “It takes a village to obtain an exoneration.” He thanked CIP staff attorney Alissa Bjerkhoel who served as lead counsel on the case, CIP attorneys Alex Simpson, Raquel Cohen, and Sarah Bear, former CIP students Alex McDonald, Paul Spencer, Sonia Salazar, and Amber Moody, and CIP program manager Kim Hernandez.
The KPBS report indicated that about one in 1,000 cases reviewed by the Innocence Projects results in exoneration. “You know, for every client we get out, there’s another one in there that we really believe in that we have not been able to get out,” said Bjerkhoel.