(From Press Release – SF Public Defender) – On November 25, 2019, a San Francisco man, Robert Thomas, was released from the county jail after being wrongfully identified as the perpetrator of an assault. Deputy Public Defender Ilona Solomon, who represented Mr. Thomas, directed the Deputy District Attorney handling the prosecution to compare the photos of the perpetrator with her client, which unequivocally showed Mr. Thomas was not the assailant. Other than being a black man and carrying a bag from a nearby Target store, Mr. Thomas did not resemble the perpetrator.
On November 11, a man used a bicycle helmet to assault a San Diego man while he and his family were waiting for an elevator at the Powell Street BART station. The assailant fled and was identified as: a black male, 30-40 years old with some facial hair, shiny squared glasses or sunglasses, a dark blue old-style bike helmet, and carrying a Target bag. No clothing description was given.
After the assault, while speaking to BART police, the victim’s wife saw Mr. Thomas carrying a bag from Target and identified him as the assailant to police. The identification was only corroborated by general agreement from other family members who saw her pointing out Mr. Thomas. Mr. Thomas was arrested though he did not understand why. Importantly, Mr. Thomas had no bike helmet, nor facial hair, nor any type of glasses, and had just entered the BART station.
Nearby surveillance footage from the Union Square area later showed the man presumed to be the actual assailant wearing a bike helmet, carrying a Target bag, and wearing square sunglasses and distinctive clothing (a teal jacket and a small child-size backpack being worn on the front of this body) walking in the area right outside the BART station immediately following the assault.
On November 16, BART Police Officer Ian Reid observed this same distinctive character at the Powell Street BART station wearing a teal jacket, square sunglasses, with a small child-size backpack worn on the front and a bike helmet. Officer Reid detained, questioned, and photographed him. Two days later, Officer Reid submitted a supplemental report to the District Attorney who was prosecuting the wrongful case against Mr. Thomas, alerting them to the possible misidentification.
Meanwhile, Deputy Public Defender Ilona Solomon had repeatedly requested evidence from the District Attorney, including surveillance footage of the attack itself, demonstrating that Mr. Thomas was wrongfully arrested. Charges were dismissed on November 25 and Mr. Thomas was released later that day.
“Robert Thomas spent two weeks in jail because of faulty eyewitness identification and racial profiling,” Solomon said. “The prosecution and its agencies, including BART police, should be required to turn over all evidence to the defense immediately, so that innocent persons are not jailed without cause.”
Mr. Thomas’s case adds to the growing momentum to reevaluate cases based solely on eyewitness identification. Danielle Harris, Director of Public Policy for the San Francisco Public Defender commented, “For over 100 years, social scientists have taught that uncorroborated eyewitness identification is not reliable, especially when stress is high and those involved are of different races.”
Interviewing witnesses together can also be problematic and lead to wrongful accusations with serious consequences for innocent people like Mr. Thomas. Although the eyewitness identification was corroborated by the family members in this case, it resulted in them accusing a person who did not even fit their own description of the assailant.