Life Inside is an ongoing collaboration between the Marshall Project and VICE that offers first-person perspectives from those who live and work in the criminal justice system.
As I virtually pass by each house on Google Maps Street View, I grow increasingly disheartened. Not that one, not that one, not that one. No, not that one either…
I’ve been in Orlando for almost two days now, and I’m worried that I’m not going to find this witness—and this witness is huge. She’s the only person who may have seen the 1989 murder that I’m working to solve. I’m an investigator with The New England Innocence Project, and we believe that our client, Jimmy, is innocent, even though he was convicted 23 years ago.
I’ve spent hours driving back and forth across the Florida city, trying dozens of addresses. Every so often, I run back to my hotel room, get on the computer, and use my locations program to find more options: I try old neighbors, old roommates, old friends—anyone I can find.But no matter who I talk to, no one can help me.
“Yeah, so-and-so lived here about a year ago, but I don’t know where she’s at now,” someone says. Another door closes in my face.
Jimmy was 16-years old when he was arrested for the murder of a young woman. He was convicted, primarily on the eyewitness testimony of a teenager. We’re pursuing DNA testing in the case, but it would be helpful to know whether or not that one eyewitness is sticking to her story.
That’s where I come in, working under the direction of the prisoner’s attorney. In post-conviction innocence cases, the options are narrowed, limited by what the court will even consider. That means my investigations are tailored to specific legal strategies.
I start by reviewing the original “discovery”—a.k.a. the evidence. Then, once I’ve put together a case, I read the trial transcripts. Was I right? What’d I miss? What did they miss? What evidence can we test? Where is this evidence now, 20-plus years later?
That’s why finding this witness is so important. I can’t control evidence that’s gone stale; I don’t have control over the amount of time it takes to run DNA testing; and I don’t have control over hearings and motions. But I can find people.
In 2016, the chances someone is living completely off the grid are pretty slim. I can find a person based on a cookie-recipe comments thread, records in a county assessor’s office, or from talking to your old acquaintances. It’s amazing what’s tied to an individuals’ Social Security number, including email addresses, and the information you put down on a lease agreement.
Finally, I catch a clue, and find someone who knows my witness. In fact, he just talked to her a few weeks ago—and she’s moved into a new house. “She lives on Orange Street, or was it drive…?” I quickly run back to my car and type “Orange Street” into the GPS, positive this is the big break I’ve been looking for. I’ll just knock on doors until I find her…
Bu there are at least seven variations of Orange Street there are in Orlando? I head back to my hotel room and spend the next two hours scouring my witness’s Facebook page, looking for anything that could point me in the right direction. I finally settle for a picture of a dog in front of a tree. I don’t even know if it’s her dog, or if the picture was taken in her yard, but it’s the best I’ve got.
In the background, across the street from the dog and the tree, I can see a bright pink house. How many pink houses can there be in Orlando on a street named Orange. I use Google Maps’ Street View to virtually drive down every street named Orange. I find five pink houses on five different Orange streets.
With each hurdle I encounter, I can see Jimmy’s face again. He’s almost 44 now, but still seems like the 17-year-old who was sent to prison more than two decades ago. His development almost completely halted when they locked that cell door behind him. After 26 years in prison, inmates get abandoned—a lot. People stop writing, friends stop visiting, and prison slowly becomes your home.
At each pink house I find on the computer, I turn the map to look across the street, searching for the tree. Nothing. I’m down to my last pink house. Suddenly, there it is.
Immediately, I grab my keys and hop in the car. Walking down the street upon arriving, I look at the pink house and then at the tree. It’s been trimmed, but still looks right. I jot down the license plate of a van in the driveway, to look up later, and continue up the walkway to the door. I hear a TV from inside. I ring the bell, and a dog starts barking.
A guy in his thirties with straggly hair answers the door, just a little, and squeezes out so the dog can’t come outside with him. I tell him who I’m looking for. There’s a pause, and he looks me over—before deciding he can tell me that he’s the witness’s cousin and she lives next door. More importantly, she’s home right now.
I thank him and quickly run next door to ring the bell before he can warn her I’m on my way. The door opens, revealing a little girl who’s about nine years old. I ask if her mom is home, and without an answer, the girl turns around and walks off, letting the door swing open widely behind her. Then I see a woman—her—sitting on the couch.
The woman comes outside. There’s always a frozen look when you explain to a witness that you want to talk to them about something that happened so long ago. I can almost see her processing the information, trying to take herself back 27 years. We talk for a long time, and even though what she tells me does not amount to a recantation of her testimony, it’s valuable.
For the first year after the murder, the witness says, she never mentioned Jimmy in any way to the homicide detectives. But the lead detective kept coming back to her, even when she was locked up in a juvenile detention center. Each time, she added more and more to her story.
Finally, the detective came back and wouldn’t accept no for an answer. That’s when she gave in and told him about Jimmy.
This new statement alone will not be enough to overturn Jimmy’s conviction, but I never expected her to be my golden ticket. There are no golden tickets in America’s criminal justice system. Post-conviction proceedings are weighted heavily against the defendant, with the courts strongly favoring the finality of the original judgment. These things take time, often years.
But I found her, and we’re closer than we were before.
Lorea Gillespie is an investigator for the New England Innocence Project. Life Inside is an ongoing collaboration between the Marshall Project and VICE that offers first-person perspectives from those who live and work in the criminal justice system.