It was a frighteningly close call for Charles Tubbins. The 23-year-old Buffalo man was already charged with murder and indicted by a grand jury for a crime he did not commit.
All that was required for a wholesale miscarriage of justice was for the plea negotiations to begin, presenting Tubbins with the horrifying options of standing trial or admitting to a crime he didn’t commit in hopes of a lesser sentence.
It didn’t come to that because DNA evidence found at the crime scene exonerated Tubbins and implicated another man, Ahkeem R. Huffman. To his credit, Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita moved quickly to dismiss the charges, but the case raises the same issues that have led to lengthy prison sentences for other innocent people in Erie County – issues of which law enforcement and the State Legislature are fully aware, but haven’t seen fit to address.
Tubbins was ensnared by the same human error that put Anthony Capozzi in prison for rapes he did not commit: witness misidentification. Eyewitness testimony was the only evidence against Tubbins, who, his lawyer noted, has no prior criminal convictions, no history of violence, no prior felony or misdemeanor.
The Innocence Project of New York City, which uses DNA evidence to free wrongfully convicted prison inmates, calls witness misidentification the number one cause of wrongful conviction.
Given that, said lawyer John K. Jordan, why didn’t police wait a few more days until the DNA evidence was in hand? It’s a fair question, although there are fair responses to it, as well. If Tubbins had been responsible for the murder of Rashiene T. Carson of Lockport, he might have fled. And again assuming police had the right man, if they failed to arrest him and he committed another crime, they would be publicly flayed for it.
The answer is to improve the process of witness identification. There are ways to reduce the chances of misidentification, but New York hasn’t adopted them. Nor has it dealt with other causes of wrongful conviction, including false confessions. It needs to do that, and soon.
The State Legislature seemed to be closing in on an acceptable package of reforms in the just-ended session, but it never happened. It is unclear whether that was because of the normal crush of late-session issues or resistance from law enforcement – or both – but Tubbins’ arrest demonstrates again that the reforms are necessary.
What if no DNA had been found at the scene? Tubbins would still be in jail and facing the likelihood of life in prison. And Huffman, now charged with the crime based on the DNA evidence, would still be on the loose.
Sedita noted that his office has exonerated 194 people in the past three years, all but three before indictment and all but one before a trial. For that, he deserves credit, and it may represent some kind of improvement. But it’s not enough to trust to the diligence and honor of any particular district attorney. Systemic reforms are needed.