As lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee consider a bill to change how criminal lineups are conducted Friday, they may also want to consider the case of Hubert Thompson, who may be the latest Connecticut inmate to be exonerated by DNA evidence.
A judge allowed Thompson to walk out of prison Monday after serving five years for a rape that DNA evidence now suggests he didn’t commit.
Thompson was arrested after a victim picked his face out of a photo lineup, according to his lawyer William Koch Jr.
According to a petition for a new trial filed in Hartford Superior Court, Thompson was convicted in 1998 of a rape and kidnapping that occurred in 1994. He was sentenced to serve 12 years in prison. At the time there was no usable DNA evidence, but the victim identified Thompson as the perpetrator.
This past October, evidence from the case was sent back to the state crime lab. The lab issued a report on March 5, which matched DNA found on the victim’s underwear to another offender in the state’s DNA database.
This week a Superior Court judge granted a request from Thompson’s lawyer that he be released from prison on a promise to appear in court for a new trial.
The case stems from an incident in Sept. 1994, when according to an appellate court’s decision, the victim left her apartment to buy drugs. She found a dealer who she’d purchased drugs from a week before, and to whom she owed money. Instead of making an exchange through the window, the dealer got into her car, told her to pull over, and took her keys.
The offender then beat and raped the victim behind a building. After the incident, he ordered her back into the car and drove a few blocks. Eventually, she escaped at a traffic light about a block away from her apartment, the decision said.
Hartford police brought the victim to St. Francis Hospital for treatment and a rape kit was performed within hours of the incident, the lawsuit said. A few days later the victim’s car was located but no fingerprints were found to implicate Thompson, his lawyer said. Six months later, a warrant for Thompson’s arrest was issued.
He did not testify at his trial but, according to the lawsuit, his defense argued that he had been wrongly identified and the victim was not a credible witness. In October 1998 he was found guilty of first degree sexual assault and kidnapping. He was ordered to serve the sentence after he finished an unrelated 10-year sentence for a separate case involving federal gun charges
Thompson appealed the convictions and in 2009 appellate court judges overturned the kidnapping conviction. However, they upheld the sexual assault charge.
Five years ago, he began doing time on the rape charge. Koch said it’s been a long five years for his client.
“It’s tough going to jail on these charges, tougher than a simple assault because you’re looked at as a rapist,” he said.
Koch said Thompson’s case has been continued until April 26 to give prosecutors time to contact the victim as well as get in touch with the man implicated by the new DNA evidence.
Rep. Gerald Fox, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the Thompson case is timely because the committee is debating a bill that would take steps to decrease the likelihood someone is misidentified by a witness.
The committee will hear the recommendations of the Eye Witness Identification Taskforce. The group is headed by former Supreme Court Justice David Borden, who was one of the judges on Thompson’s appeals case. Over the last year they have heard from a series of experts on the science behind improving the accuracy of eye witnesses.
Fox said the group’s recommendations will consist of two major proposals. One will require that during a lineup, witnesses see potential offenders, or their pictures, one at a time instead of all at once. That reduces a witness’s ability to pick the face that looks most like the offender, rather than the actual offender.
They will also recommend that the officer conducting the lineup not know which person is believed to be the perpetrator. That keeps the police from indicating to the witness, either consciously or unconsciously, which person they believe is guilty.
Thompson’s release also comes at a time when the legislature is considering abolishing the death penalty. A similar case has been on the mind of a key lawmaker in the Senate, where the chamber is close to evenly split on the bill.
Sen. Edith Prague, who’s been on the fence over the death penalty bill, said she has met with James Tillman, a man who served more than 16 years in prison for rape and kidnapping before being exonerated by DNA evidence. On Thursday, Prague seemed shocked to hear of another case.
“Oh my God . . . Innocent people being accused and convicted is what is causing me a lot of angst,” she said.
Michael P. Lawlor, the governor’s undersecretary for criminal justice issues, noted that Thompson’s case was not one where the death penalty would have applied but said it could happen.
“Mistakes are made in serious cases, including cases that could be death penalty cases,” he said.
He said false convictions overturned by DNA evidence make a strong argument against calls to make the death penalty easier to impose.
“It makes it more likely you will execute the wrong guy, especially if you speed it up,” he said. “I’m sure everyone [in Thompson’s case] was 100 percent certain at the time.”
In her testimony at a public hearing on the bill Wednesday, Karen Goodrow, director of the Connecticut Innocence Project, said it was important the state get rid of the death penalty because sooner or later an innocent person will be sentenced to death.
“It is just a matter of time before we have someone on death row who is innocent,” she said.
However, Rep. Ernest Hewett, D- New London, said Thompson’s case lends support to a different proposal he’s pushed in the past. Hewett wants to allow the pre-conviction collection of DNA data at the time of a felony arrest.
“Can you imagine if we increased our database to arrestee DNA, how many people we’d get? They’re just walking the streets,” he said. “Those people that are running wild out there, continuing to commit crimes, their profile would be in our database.”