PUBLISHED:March 14, 2024

Wrongful Convictions Clinic secures 11th exoneration: Quincy Amerson is free after 23 years

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An accident reconstruction expert called the evidence used to convict Amerson "nothing more than speculation, aided by junk science." The state's own witness agreed.

James E. Coleman, Jr. James E. Coleman, Jr.

Quincy Marquies Amerson, a client of the Duke Law School Wrongful Convictions Clinic, walked free on March 13 for the first time in more than two decades after the clinic presented exculpatory evidence in his 2001 murder conviction and the state dismissed its case.

Amerson, now 49, spent nearly 23 years in prison after being convicted of first-degree murder in the 1999 death of a child in Harnett County and sentenced to life without parole. He was effectively exonerated of the crime on February 16, after a Superior Court judge found that prejudicial evidence and testimony had denied him a fair trial and vacated his conviction and sentence.

But he had to wait in jail for almost another month until District Attorney Suzanne Matthews signed and filed a dismissal ending the case.

Amerson was released from the Harnett County Detention Center in Lillington, North Carolina, late Wednesday afternoon. The state didn't give his family or counsel enough notice to witness Amerson's first moment of freedom, but he went home to his parents, who had supported their son throughout his ordeal. 

“We are very happy for Quincy and his family. However, there was never any doubt that he was innocent,” said James E. Coleman, Jr., the John S. Bradway Distinguished Professor of the Practice of Law and director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic, who has been working to exonerate Amerson since 2006.

“When the prosecutor finally had to address the irrefutable facts demonstrating his innocence, she was forced to concede that the evidence on which the State relied to convict Quincy of murder in 2001 was, in the words of her own expert, ‘invalid’ and did not support the conclusion Quincy had killed the young victim.”

Amerson spent his first full day of freedom enjoying time with his family, savoring simple pleasures like getting into a car with his father and driving around together to do errands. 

“It was overwhelming. To be in the house with my family was a wonderful feeling,” Amerson said of the reunion. “I have never felt anything as good.” 

While he missed seeing his children grow up and meeting his nieces, Amerson said he remained optimistic throughout his long ordeal, passing time by reading, writing, and reaching out to anyone who might be able to help.

"I never gave up hope,” he said. “I had loved ones who were along for the whole ride."

Now, he said, he hopes to use his case to shine a light on injustice in the criminal legal system.

Samuel de Sousa Dias Martins Bettini ’24, a member of the most recent team working on the case, noted that Amerson’s release is the culmination of years of effort by Duke Law faculty, students, and alumni.

“While it was extremely frustrating the way the State handled this case from beginning to end, from the initial investigation to the DA's overdue dismissal, we are immensely happy for Quincy and his family,” Bettini said.

“Working on this case has been the most rewarding experience I have had in all these years in law school —and perhaps in my life so far. My hope is that our system can progressively have more prosecutors who are more interested in delivering the truth than winning convictions, more interested in doing what is right than advancing their political agenda.”

Daniel Becker ’09, who was one of the first Duke Law students to work on Amerson’s innocence claim and has remained involved with the case since graduating, said he was pleased by the outcome, though it was long delayed. 

“It's great to see the tireless work of the clinic and its teams of students paid off, and I am honored to have been a small part of that larger effort. Most importantly, I'm incredibly happy for Quincy and his family,” said Becker.

“This case is a reminder that sometimes the system gets it wrong, creating a serious injustice that takes years to untangle. I’ve been amazed by the dedication of the clinic and its students over the years, and this favorable result is just the latest example of the incredible work the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic does.”

Amerson is the 11th North Carolina man to be exonerated by the clinic since its founding in 2008 by Coleman and Charles S. Rhyne Clinical Professor Emerita of Law Theresa Newman ’88.

The clinic's motto is "We never, never, never give up," and students who go through the clinic call themselves "lifers" for their ongoing commitment to its work after they graduate from Duke Law.

Convicted by "speculation, aided by junk science" 

Amerson was wrongfully convicted in April 2001 for the death of Sharita Rivera, a 7-year-old girl whose body was found lying on a country road in Johnsonville, North Carolina, in the early morning hours of August 7, 1999. By the time police arrived on the scene, the girl’s body had been struck by several vehicles, according to witness reports and court testimony. The girl’s mother, Patrice Rivera, was found stabbed to death at their home several miles away.

Police quickly formed a belief that the girl had been hit and killed intentionally, based on their assessment of elements of the scene including blood spray around the child’s body, tire imprints near the road, and the remains of a wheel well liner found a quarter of a mile away.

Quincy Amerson
Quincy Amerson after his release, at home with his mother

They arrested Amerson, then 24, who lived two houses from the Riveras, after he told police he had driven the same route that evening in his girlfriend’s car. That vehicle was found to have blood and tissue on the underside and was missing a wheel well liner like the one found. No other physical evidence connecting Amerson to the crime was found in either the Riveras’ home or his, and debris from other cars was found at the site.

But Amerson was convicted by a Harnett County jury of first-degree murder for the child's death, based in part on the testimony of a state trooper who conducted an initial accident reconstruction that appeared to be focused solely on Amerson. Neither he nor anyone else has ever been arrested in Patrice Rivera's death.

During his investigation, Coleman learned that the jury was never provided with significant evidence showing that the child was accidentally hit on the road after fleeing her home during or after her mother’s murder. Evidence suggested that at least five different vehicles, two of them the same model as the car Amerson was driving, struck the child’s body over the course of the night.

On December 15, 2016, Coleman sent the first of three letters to then-district attorney Vernon K. Stewart and North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein asking the state to hire its own credible expert to review the original accident reconstruction report, even offering to share the cost. He never received a reply.

In January 2020 Coleman hired accident reconstruction expert Shawn Harrington to examine the collision site and the evidence presented at trial. Harrington concluded that the state trooper whose initial reconstruction helped convict Amerson had reached erroneous and far-fetched conclusions unsupported by any legitimate methodology.

“His opinions and conclusions are nothing more than speculation aided by junk science,” Harrington said in his report. It is far more likely that the child died after multiple drivers inadvertently struck her on the unlit back road and left the scene, Harrington told Popular Mechanics in a story about the case, calling the trooper’s 1999 reconstruction work “embarrassing.”

Matthews replaced Stewart as Harnett County DA on January 1, 2001. The state eventually did hire its own accident reconstruction expert who essentially reiterated Harrington's findings, testifying in Superior Court on January 17 of this year that the trooper’s conclusions were unsupported and his 1999 reconstruction was invalid. The court found the expert's testimony credible. With that, the state lost evidence “absolutely necessary” to establish probable cause in Amerson's conviction and did not offer any additional evidence to support it.

In late January, Superior Court Judge C. Winston Gilchrist notified both parties that he would overturn Amerson's conviction. On February 16, he granted Coleman’s Motion for Appropriate Relief, officially vacating Amerson’s conviction and sentence in Sharita Rivera’s death. But Amerson’s freedom was delayed nearly a month longer until the state's dismissal was finally signed by Matthews, district attorney for the 12th prosecutorial district that includes Harnett and Lee counties.

“This case illustrates the troubling indifference of prosecutors, including the North Carolina Attorney General, who refuse to address the facts of these cases while blindly defending indefensible conduct by state actors, sometimes for decades, as in Quincy’s case,” Coleman said.

“Until the public demands more from these elected officials, innocent people will continue to languish in North Carolina prisons solely because the men and women who have the power to free them are indifferent to miscarriages of justice. That is what urgently needs to change.”

Luke Mears '24 called the outcome "25 years too long" to achieve.

"To steal so much of someone’s life purposelessly and without evidence is just heartbreaking, but we are, of course, happy and relieved with the result," Mears said.

"We are incredibly grateful to Quincy, his family, and his friends for their patience and support as we navigated the frustrations of this case. I will keep this entire experience with me throughout my legal career — both the realities of the legal field and the indifference some people have, but also the lessons learned from having such an incredible mentor in Professor Coleman and working with such incredible people."

Testimonial

"The outcome is, of course, 25 years too long. To steal so much of someone’s life purposelessly and without evidence is just heartbreaking."

Author
Luke Mears '24