Duke Law celebrates release of Shawn Massey

May 7, 2010Duke Law News

May 7, 2010 — The Duke Law community is celebrating the release of Shawn Giovanni Massey after 12 years of incarceration for crimes he didn’t commit.

Massey, a client of the Law School’s Wrongful Conviction Clinic, was released from the Maury Correctional Institution in Maury, N.C., on Thursday, after Mecklenburg County District Attorney Peter Gilchrist ’65 secured a Superior Court order vacating his conviction on multiple counts of second-degree kidnapping, as well as one count each of felonious breaking and entering and robbery with a dangerous weapon. Incarcerated since his May 1998 arrest for the crimes against a Charlotte woman and her two young children, Massey, 37, had two years left to serve on his sentence.

Clinic co-directors James Coleman and Theresa Newman picked Massey up from prison and took him to Charlotte where he was reunited with his jubilant family. Coleman, Newman, and Kim Kisabeth ’07, a fellow with Duke’s Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility, have worked with numerous other students, alumni, and friends for more than four years to build their argument that Massey was a victim of erroneous eyewitness identification.

Their case turned on the perpetrator’s hair style and weight, two key issues at Massey’s trial. On noting his resemblance to her attacker in a series of photos, the victim told the police that he lacked her attacker’s cornrow braids. She made the same observation on seeing him in person for the first time prior to the start of his trial, and also observed that he had a lighter complexion and weighed less than her attacker. These observations, and photo notations uncovered years later by investigating Duke students, were not passed on to Massey’s trial lawyer.

“We believe the evidence is clear that Shawn is innocent and this was an erroneous eyewitness identification,” said Coleman, the John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law. “We think when the victim identified him at trial she did so in good faith, but we think she made a mistake. She confirmed to us that the person who committed the crime had cornrows. We are certain that Shawn did not have cornrows at the time — he couldn’t have had cornrows. And we presented evidence to the district attorney that supports that.” Coleman credits the victim for her willingness to meet with Kisabeth and others to discuss her identification of Massey during their investigation of the case.

For Kisabeth, who first worked on Massey’s case as a student enrolled in the Wrongful Convictions Clinic, it was a joy to call Massey in prison to tell him he would be released within hours. “He was thrilled,” she said. “This has been a long time coming and I think he was speechless. His initial reaction was excitement at getting to reunite with his grandmother and with his aunts and especially to be able to see his son, Dantrez, who is now a junior in high school.” It was equally thrilling to tell his aunt and grandmother to expect him home, she said.

“Both of them just started crying as soon as I gave them the news. [His aunt] started praying and thanking God for making this happen — and thanking Duke for making this happen.”

Three teams of Wrongful Convictions Clinic students worked on Massey’s case: Kisabeth and Aleksandra Kopec ’07; Susan Pourciau ’09 and Emily Sauter ’09; and Jennifer Neiterman ’09 and Toby Coleman ’10. Last fall, Pourciau joined Kisabeth in Georgia to interview the victim about her identification of Massey as her attacker. As the case neared a resolution, the clinic also enlisted the assistance of Tommy Holderness and Adam Doerr ’06, a partner and associate, respectively, at Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson in Charlotte.

“These cases really do take a village,” said Jim Coleman. “This is an effort that a lot of people worked on. And I think all of them contributed something that was important to the result.”

Kisabeth recalled her first meeting with Massey, during her student days, as being her first lawyer-client interaction — and her first ever visit to a prison. “It was a great learning experience. And having that experience under Jim and Theresa’s leadership was wonderful,” she said. “Having been so invested in this case as a student, I was excited for the opportunity to come back as a fellow and build on the work that the other students had done. They did amazing work on this case.”

Taking in the reaction of Massey’s aunt and grandmother to news of his release offered another lesson, she added.

“I think it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the legal system impacts people, and this is really about people.”