Thursday, March 18, 2010

DNA exonerates Sterling Heights man when all evidence said guilty

On paper, Ricky Seggie looked guilty: He was chosen from a photo lineup as an attempted rapist. The victim identified him in court. His vehicle — a red Bronco — was awfully similar to the red Blazer spotted at the scene.

Seggie, 24, was headed to trial, charged with first- and second-degree criminal sexual conduct and unlawful imprisonment.

Problem was, he was innocent.

Today the Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office asked that charges against Seggie, of Sterling Heights be dropped after DNA testing excluded him as the assailant.

“I was scared and confused,” Seggie said today, just after Circuit Judge Diane Druzinski dismissed his case. “I’d never been in trouble before. I’d never even been inside the police department.”

One legal expert said the case highlights the potentially faulty nature of eyewitness identification — simultaneously the most valuable and dangerous evidence presented in trial.

“Memory is very fragile, very easy to contaminate,” said James Doyle, a consulting director with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and author of “True Witness: Cops, Courts, Science, and the Battle against Misidentification” (2005, Palgrave MacMillan).

“It’s dangerous evidence because it’s hard to tell when it’s correct and when it’s mistaken,” he said. “Once you have it, jurors tend to believe it over other kinds of evidence.”

According to The Innocence Project, which has helped overturn more than 250 convictions through DNA testing, eyewitness identification played a role in more than 75% of the cases.

Seggie’s case began July 16 when he heard a woman scream down the street from his home. He spotted the Blazer, which raced away, rear-ending a tree as it fled.

When police responded to investigate the 19-year-old woman’s claim she had fought off a man attempting to sexually assault her, Seggie stepped forward and described what he saw.

Two weeks later, he was arrested while working cutting some shrubs as a landscaper with his father. The room he kept in his parents’ house was searched, and underwear his mother kept in a dresser in his closet — overflow storage in the small house — were confiscated. Seggie said he was labeled a pervert.

His lawyer, Jerome Sabbota, said the victim was inappropriately shown six photographs at once in a lineup: Many experts, including Doyle, believe photographs should be placed in front of witnesses one at a time to prevent comparison.

“It’s suggestive because it promotes exclusion, process of elimination,” Sabbota said.

Seggie didn’t match the description the woman initially gave police — he has fair skin compared with the alleged assailant’s olive complexion and light hair to the assailant’s dark — but she still fingered him.

Seggie’s vehicle wasn’t an exact match, either, Sabbota said: The woman had described gray interior; Seggie’s was tan. Witnesses saw the Blazer hit a tree, but Seggie’s Bronco bore no damage. The assailant also had turned his lights off as he fled, but Seggie’s Bronco had daytime running lights that couldn’t be turned off.

Sabbota credited prosecutors and the Sterling Heights police for continuing the investigation even after Seggie was bound over to face trial. They moved to have hair tested from a hat the assailant left behind. The mitochondrial DNA pulled didn’t match Seggie, but pointed toward Christian Margosian, 22, who already faces similar charges in a subsequent case.

Seggie said he’s out more than $15,000 in legal fees and the cost he fronted to be released on GPS tether. But today that didn’t matter.

“The sun is shining,” said his father, August Seggie, smiling. “It’s a good day.”

No comments: