There’s a reason I am, like many people, against the death penalty.
Certainly, there are criminals who have done things heinous enough that they deserve to be put down, but the finality of it all makes the decision on whether or not someone should die something I just don’t trust the American justice system with. I just barely trust it with the task of locking people up at all.
Most of us know that wrongful convictions happen far more often than law enforcement officials will admit. We also know that, like in all things criminal justice system-related, black men are more vulnerable to wrongful convictions than our white counterparts.
Lydell Grant wasn’t sentenced to death for the 2010 murder of Aaron Scheerhoorn, who was stabbed to death outside of a Houston gay bar, but he was sentenced to life in prison for the crime; a crime he did not commit.
According to NBC, last November and nearly a decade into his sentence, Grant was freed on bail from a Texas prison after DNA was reexamined by a software program.
“The last nine years, man, I felt like an animal in a cage,” Grant told reporters awaiting him outside the courthouse while embracing his mother and brother. “Especially knowing that I didn’t do it.”
Grant is now 42 years old and, now that he’s spent the better part of nine years without his freedom, he appears to be on his way to exoneration after a judge recommended in December that Texas’ highest criminal court vacate his conviction. Grant’s attorneys are hopeful that a ruling to set him free physically and legally will be made in the coming weeks.
For Grant to get to here hinged on two prongs: the DNA evidence, which was reanalyzed through an emerging software that has also come under scrutiny, and an unprecedented decision to use the findings to conduct an FBI criminal database search that was initiated by a third party not part of the initial investigation. That led to the discovery of a new suspect, who has been charged after police said he confessed.
So now we have yet another instance, much like the Central Park 5, where a black male, according to police, confesses to a crime he is innocent of, which then raises an eyebrow as to what went on while he was being interrogated.
What we do know, according to the NBC report, is that Scheerhoorn, while bleeding profusely from the abdomen on that dreadful night, ran toward the bar’s entrance seeking help from terrified bar patrons and servers. Witnesses described the killer as a black man, about 25 to 30 years old and around 6 feet tall. Grant was 33 at the time. Police told local media that it may have been a “crime of passion.”
A tip came in about a car that might belong to the suspect. Five days later, an officer pulled over a vehicle matching its description. Grant was driving that car and had a suspended license. He was brought in for questioning.
Grant had a criminal record going back several years, which included aggravated robbery, marijuana use and theft. Some will argue that this information matters. More reasonable (and less racist) people will recognize that stealing and smoking weed does not a murderer make; otherwise many of us would be serving life right now.
Grant always maintained his innocence in the stabbing saying that he had never met Scheerhoorn and he produced an alibi for his defense.
But investigators interviewed seven witnesses and all but one picked Grant out of a photo lineup and eyewitness testimony is what prosecutors centered their case around when Grant was on trial in 2012, despite the fact that the Innocence Project argues that practice plays a major role in defendants’ being wrongfully accused.
The fact that eyewitness testimony alone convicted Grant becomes even more bewildering and infuriating once you know that, during the trial, jurors were allowed to hear about DNA collected from fingernail scrapings from Scheerhoorn’s right hand and that the DNA came from two people: the victim and a second male. Notice the words “second male” as opposed to “Lydell Grant.” This is because Houston’s police crime lab at the time was unable to conclude that the other genetic material was Grant’s. Still, the state’s expert’s testimony suggested to the jury that it “could not be excluded.”
Court documents also show that the jury wasn’t swayed by the testimony of Grant’s alibi witness who said he was with Grant the night of the killing.
Grant was found guilty of first-degree felony murder and sentenced to life in prison.
From his jail cell in Harris County, Grant did what anyone who was falsely imprisoned would do and began writing to anyone he thought could help.
Eventually, a letter of his was received by the Innocence Project of Texas, which receives hundreds of inmate letters every month. In 2018, it was referred to the Texas A&M School of Law, which partners with the Innocence Project of Texas.
“We knew at the very least the prosecutor put on inaccurate testimony at trial,” attorney and executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas Mike Ware said. “We didn’t know where the facts were going to lead to.”
The law students got to work, paying particular attention to the DNA report that described the mixture of genetic materials. In 2011, the Houston crime lab had analyzed it using a traditional method in which a forensic scientist studies the genetic makeup of the DNA sample, which is translated into a type of graph that can be reviewed manually, and determines the probability that a particular person’s DNA matches the sample. But when a sample includes a mixture of DNA from more than one person, it is increasingly difficult to separate and interpret the data. Flawed DNA readings by analysts have been known to ensnare innocent people.
After Ware and the students took a fresh look at the original DNA report, they were convinced that Grant’s DNA could not have been a part of the mixture. Last March, Ware began working with DNA expert Angie Ambers, an associate professor of forensic science at the University of New Haven in Connecticut.
Here’s what DNA expert Ambers, who is familiar with a type of DNA technology known as “probabilistic genotyping,” had to say:
“Years after Lydell Grant was convicted and sent to prison, there was a paradigm shift in how we interpreted DNA mixtures in criminal casework. Rather than having a human DNA analyst interpret a mixture of DNA, computer software programs were developed to reduce the subjectivity in interpretation.”
Ambers used a program called TrueAllele which was created by Cybergenetics, a Pittsburgh company that had analyzed DNA samples from unidentified victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The screening determined that Grant’s DNA did not match that of the unknown male profile.
But if the lack of a DNA match didn’t clear Grant the first time around, it was unlikely that this new test saying the DNA definitively did not belong to him would do the trick either. So the Innocence Project of Texas went a step further and got Cybergenetics to work with a partner crime lab in Beaufort County, South Carolina, which has access to a powerful FBI database known as the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.
The crime lab’s search resulted in a hit. The DNA profile belonged to a man in Atlanta named Jermarico Carter, who police say left Houston shortly after Scheerhoorn’s murder. Carter also has a lengthy criminal record, and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said in a statement in December that he confessed to the killing. Acevedo later apologized to Grant and his family.
“There’s probably 5,000 or 6,000 innocent people in Texas prisons alone,” said Ware. “How many of them could benefit from such a reanalysis of DNA that was used to convict them? I don’t really know, but this is a historic case that could open the door for those who thought it was shut forever.”