Missouri man released after wrongful conviction and 18 years in prison

David Robinson's conviction exposes a justice system marred by incompetence

Published May 15, 2018 8:52PM (EDT)

 (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
(AP Photo/Jim Cole)

David Robinson spent nearly 20 years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. Though his 2001 conviction collapsed over ten years ago, he was only able to walk free Monday night. Robinson was finally released from the Jefferson City Correctional Center when the Missouri Attorney General recommended that the charges against him be dismissed, 18 years after his original conviction.

Robinson was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the killing of Sheila Box, who was found dead in her car from a single gun shot wound in 2000. There was no physical evidence connecting Robinson to the crime and just one eyewitness, a paid police informant. Authorities believed Box was shot during a drug deal and pinned it on Robinson, who had some history of drug crimes. Robinson's attorneys exhausted decades of appeals before his release yesterday.

"That bothered me more than anything, to be wrongfully accused of killing a woman," Robinson told "48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty. "Been a living nightmare. It's been an up-and-down rollercoaster."

More than just scant physical evidence, the police informant eventually recanted — as did a person who posed as Robinson's cellmate, claiming Robinson confessed the crime to him; meanwhile, another person confessed to the Box murder in 2004, on tape.

"I told her to throw the money, throw the money out and I'm gonna throw her the dope," Romanze Mosby said to a defense investigator on August 9, 2004, saying that he was the one who sold drugs to Box. He told the investigator that he saw she had a gun, "And that's when I just shot her, because I'd seen a little flash," Mosby continued. "I was walking up to it and she just raised her arm and that's when I shot her." Five years later, Mosby committed suicide.

According to Robinson's attorney, the inmate who said Robinson confessed to him when they were cellmates never even shared a cell with him. "He was never in the same cell as David Robinson, and the prosecution put him on the stand even though they knew he had never shared the same cell," attorney Charlie Weiss told CBS.

Anthony Baker, the paid police informant said, "I gave false testimony against David Robinson," adding that he had been given $2,500 in cash for his testimony. Sam Gross, law professor at the University of Michigan and founder of the National Registry of Exonerations, said, "On the whole, judges are routinely suspicious of recantations," adding that judges worry about bribery or threats made to the witness, but have a tendency to dismiss the recantation rather than consider its full context.

Through all this and after repeated appeal denials, Robinson remained in prison. Even the victim's daughter, who was a teenager when her mother was murdered, believed in Robinson's innocence. "I believe in my heart that he is innocent and I stand by him," Crystal King told CBS. "I lend my support to him."

After an appeal was finally accepted by the Missouri Supreme Court, it ruled at the beginning of May that the state had a 30-day deadline to either retry Robinson or release him. The Attorney General announced the recommendation of dismissing of Robinson's charges Monday.

There have been 2,215 documented cases of exonerations after wrongful convictions in the U.S., said Vanessa Potkin, director of post-conviction litigation at the Innocence Project. But that number is a mere fraction. "There are so many more people who are prosecuted, convicted, even executed for crimes they didn’t commit than we are aware of," she said.

And there's no simple answer for why it's so hard to free an innocent person, but there is often a disparity in resources available to someone on death row versus someone sentenced to life in prison. A person sentenced to death can get appointed counsel and sometimes resources for forensic testing or investigation, giving precedence to the high stakes involved in a capital case. But both the death penalty and life in prison are still death sentences in prison, Gross argues. "You can’t take back an execution, but you also can’t take back 30 years somebody's spent in prison."

For Potkin, she believes, "There should be no difference in the ability to prove your innocence in a crime that you are convicted of. While there is some evidence for those wrongfully convicted for serious crimes like rape and murder, there is no sense of those wrongfully convicted for misdemeanors or other low-level offenses.

It is also clear that is extremely difficult for an innocent person to overturn one's conviction for whatever their convicted crime, and "courts in general are not very receptive to claims of innocence," Potkin says, adding that it takes the Innocence Project an average of seven years to litigate a case, not including the time it spends waiting to be evaluated.

There is also an alarming discrepancy when it comes to race. A study by the National Registry of Exonerations found that "innocent black people are about seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people." And while African-Americans comprise just 13 percent of the population in the U.S., they make up the majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted and later exonerated, the study says.

Gross charges prosecutors and courts to "take seriously," new evidence that arrives post-conviction. And this doesn't mean exonerate them immediately, he said, or that time won't be spending reviewing cases where the defendant is guilty, "but there are enough cases where people are innocent and spent unnecessary time in prison to seriously consider it."

By Rachel Leah

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