Shawn Oliver Jr., 21, was mistakenly identified as the suspect in a home invasion when he was actually with his family on a trip to Disney World.
Shawn Oliver Jr., 21, was mistakenly identified as the suspect in a home invasion when he was actually with his family on a trip to Disney World. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Shawn Oliver Jr. closed 2014 with a family trip to Walt Disney World, but the New Year was not so magical for the 21-year-old Baltimore man.

Shortly after returning from Florida, Oliver found himself locked up at the Baltimore City Detention Center. It was a case of mistaken identity that took police and prosecutors five days to sort out while Oliver was stuck behind bars.

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"I was hurt. You're guilty until proven innocent," said Oliver, after returning to his parents' Cockeysville apartment last week.

He was charged with a home invasion that occurred in Baltimore on Dec. 30, while he was in Florida. He was arrested on Jan. 2 after a witness mistakenly identified him as the suspect during a photo array, a method that the family's lawyer said is often unreliable.

A police spokeswoman, Lt. Sarah Connolly, said police began vetting Oliver's alibi after his attorney told them he was in Florida at the time of the crime. After checking with multiple sources, she said, a detective "went the extra mile" to go to the state's attorney's office to have the 16 charges related to the home invasion dropped.

But Oliver and his father, Michael Harrod, said the process took too long. Harrod said police wouldn't listen to his son, and that it was only after attorney Ivan J. Bates urged prosecutors to check out the alibi that he was released.

Prosecutors received the information at Oliver's first bail review hearing on Jan. 5, "and immediately began to investigate to authenticate the evidence," said Tammy Brown, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office.

Bates showed a judge and prosecutor the itinerary of the family's trip, and a surveillance video that showed Oliver outside the hotel where the family stayed. Bates also brought a souvenir photo of Oliver standing with his parents after his first helicopter ride, with a date stamp of "Dec. 30, 2014 11:41 a.m.," two hours after the home invasion in Baltimore.

The judge postponed the hearing until Jan. 9, to allow prosecutors to investigate, but Oliver was released the day before, after prosecutors dropped the charges.

Bates applauded the prosecutor and detective who called different agencies in Florida to verify Oliver's story.

But Bates expressed concern that a single witness identification could be used to make an arrest because often, a witness can be wrong. Under the previous state's attorney, he said, additional evidence, such as cellphone GPS data linking a suspect to the scene of a crime, would be provided to corroborate a witness identification.

"That's very scary, especially when you look and see how many people are misidentified," Bates said. "Unless that person [the witness] knows them [the suspect] very, very well, they could have made a mistake."

Connolly said the officers followed proper policies and procedures during the photo array.

In 2013, Baltimore police implemented new procedures in which they conduct photo arrays, adopting a "double-blind sequential" method, which studies have shown has reduced cases of mistaken identity by showing witnesses pictures one at a time. The test is also conducted by a person who does not know which picture is of the suspect.

Before his family trip, Oliver had been arrested on Dec. 23 and charged with drug possession with intent to distribute and related charges. A hearing on that case is scheduled for the end of this month.

According to charging documents in that case, the same officer who responded to the home invasion arrested Oliver on Dec. 23 after he allegedly saw Oliver sell drugs in an alley near Carey Street and Riggs Avenue. The officer said he saw Oliver run into a nearby house where police later found several hundred gel caps with suspected heroin, divided into plastic bags stuffed into a pair of socks, and marijuana stuffed into the wall of an upstairs bedroom. A second man was also arrested in that case.

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Oliver was released on Christmas Eve, after his father bailed him out on $250,000 by using a friend's property to come up with the 10 percent needed. That allowed Oliver to make the trip to Florida.

The family took a chartered bus and arrived in Orlando on Dec. 27, enjoying two days at Disney World.

Meanwhile, back in Baltimore, a man walking to his Stricker Street home noticed he was being followed by two men wearing masks. One pointed a handgun at the victim, according to court documents.

The man ran, getting inside his home. He tried to close the door but his dogs were in the way, the document said, so the victim continued to the back of the house and the suspects followed.

At this point, the suspect who was yelling was no longer wearing a mask, another victim inside the house later told police. She was asked during an interview with a detective to look at a double-blind photo array, and matched Oliver's mug shot to the armed man who appeared in her home, the document said.

Two days after Oliver returned to Baltimore, he went to the police station to retrieve his driver's license, which he said was taken after his Dec. 23 arrest. The officer who arrested him 10 days earlier on the drug charges, and who also responded to the home invasion, placed him under arrest.

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