The Virginia Court of Appeals on May 22 officially cleared Gary L. Bush, a client of the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law, who was wrongly convicted of two Virginia bank robberies perpetrated in 2006.
Bush, 68, was already out of prison when he received the two writs of actual innocence. He was released on geriatric parole in 2016 after another man, Christian Amos, 63, confessed to the crimes earlier that year.
Bush had previously served 10 years of a 12-year sentence for the robberies in Petersburg and Prince George.
The case was one of mistaken identity. Despite having an alibi for where he was during at least one of the robberies, four eyewitnesses – two from each of the banks – said Bush was the robber. Both men were white, about the same age and had gray hair. Forensic evidence could not confirm a match to Bush.
“This should serve as a warning to all of us about the dangers of relying on – especially exclusively relying on – eyewitness identifications,” said Jennifer Givens, the legal director of the Innocence Project. “Four people got it wrong.”
Deirdre Enright, the Innocence Project’s director of investigations, said juries and judges alike can give disproportionate weight to eyewitness statements.
“We should also consider the fact that one of the robberies was a jury trial, and one of them was a bench trial, with only a judge. They both got it wrong, too,” Enright said. “Apparently, neither believed [Bush’s] alibi, nor doubted the eyewitnesses. Science tells us that eyewitnesses are terribly unreliable, but juries and judges appear to still believe them. Our commitment to the presumption of innocence needs to be stronger.”
Givens added that writs of actual innocence are rare, especially in cases for which there is no DNA evidence. Virginia appellate courts require that a high bar be cleared.
Amos reportedly confessed to the crimes after an attack of conscience. His grandson had first denied, then confessed to, breaking house windows in a neighborhood, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Amos felt compelled to admit his own guilt because of the child’s honesty. He agreed to a plea deal, was found guilty of one of the robberies and is serving time.
“This confession established a high probability of Bush’s acquittal, and considered together with [Amos’] guilty plea and conviction for the Prince George robbery, allows this Court to conclude with reasonable certainty that no rational fact finder would have found Bush guilty,” the judges wrote in their 11-page ruling.
George Brandley – a 2014 Law school graduate, an associate in the law firm Davis Polk’s litigation department and a former student in the for-credit Innocence Project clinic – did the primary work on the case last year, working with the clinic during several months of pro bono service.
Students in the yearlong clinic investigate and litigate wrongful convictions of inmates throughout Virginia.
With his name cleared, Bush can now lobby for statutory compensation, or waive his right to the amount ascribed by law, which is calculated per year of time served, and instead sue the state for damages.