As prison looms, convicted robbers raise mistaken identity, racial issues

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MIAMI -- The two young men believed that the truth would somehow set them free.

The young waitress says she is certain of the truth; they attacked and stabbed another man in a parking-lot mugging.

A Broward County judge was surprised by what a jury believed was the truth -- but must follow their verdict and punish the men for a crime they say they didn't commit.

This much is certain: Leonard Williams and Marvin Shaw are soft-spoken, churchgoing men with solid backgrounds and little history of trouble. But that changed when police arrested them for a brutal mugging outside a Sunrise restaurant four years ago.

Since then, Shaw, 24, and Williams, 30, have been fighting to prove their innocence -- despite a jury's conviction. Their battle has cost thousands of dollars in legal fees -- and could cost them 4 1/2 years in prison.

The men say they are victims of mistaken identity and that race is an issu. Both are black. Stopped by an officer looking for two black suspects, Shaw and Williams cooperated with police, didn't have a weapon and couldn't be positively identified by the victim.

But the waitress, Aimee Bianchini, 26, said she saw the men stab Scott White in a dim parking lot at the Hooters Restaurant in September 1990. And an all-white Broward County jury believed her.

"I'll probably go to prison for something that I did not do," Shaw says. "What frustrates me is that I did all the things in life that people say are the right things to do -- go to school, work, go to college, get involved -- and it looks like I'm still going to go to prison."

Shaw had never been arrested before and Williams had only a misdemeanor conviction.

The prosecutor is sure that the case against them was solid.

"In this case, the jury had every piece of information that I had," says Al Guttman, assistant state attorney. "They came back with a verdict of guilty. Based on the evidence that I had, yea, I'm sure that they did it."

The attack against Mr. White happened Sept. 4, 1990. According to court records:

Mr. White and John Avakian were walking in the Hooters parking lot when two black men confronted them. One put Mr. White in a headlock while the other drew a knife.

Mr. Avakian bolted to the restaurant for help. Moments later, the armed mugger plunged the knife into Mr. White's abdomen and ran away with his accomplice.

Ms. Bianchini got to a window just in time to see the stabbing and immediately called police. Based on her description, police dispatchers issued a bulletin: Look out for two black men in dark clothing running north near an adjacent golf course. The warning didn't offer a more detailed description of the suspects.

Within minutes, officer Scott Hoffner saw Shaw and Williams walking on University Drive near the golf course. He stopped the men and questioned them.

The men weren't sweaty, bloody or soiled from a fight; Williams was wearing jeans and a red T-shirt while Shaw was dressed in a light-colored shirt and shorts.

Officer Hoffner ordered Shaw and Williams into his squad car and drove them to Hooters.

"I wasn't nervous. I had no reason to be nervous," Williams said. "I was just wondering what was going on. I was asking him what was going on. He just said, 'Be quiet.' "

At the restaurant, Mr. Avakian couldn't identify Williams and Shaw. Mr. White, who was undergoing emergency treatment for three stab wounds, also wasn't sure if they were the ones who stabbed him.

Anxious to leave, Shaw and Williams said they told detectives they had spent the day in a friend's apartment nearby and were walking to a convenience store for party supplies. (The friends later testified on their behalf.) But detectives told them to be patient; Ms. Bianchini would be the last one to look at them.

"I thought, 'Oh, well, when this woman gets back, this will clear up because she'll see that we weren't the ones that did it,'" Williams said.

After talking to police, Ms. Bianchini was allowed to make the identification from inside her boyfriend's Jeep. Shaw and Williams were leaning against a police car and flanked by several patrolmen.

Ms. Bianchini admitted she was frightened and nervous, but said she was sure that Shaw and Williams were the muggers. The men were arrested and handcuffed.

Shaw and Williams languished for months in the Broward County jail before being released on bail. By the December 1991 trial, defense lawyers hadn't found any new evidence, so they hammered away at Ms. Bianchini's testimony.

On the witness stand, Ms. Bianchini said she didn't get a clear look at the attackers' faces, but recognized them mostly by their clothing and builds. She said she saw the fight for less than a minute from about 50 feet away, didn't talk with police immediately after the stabbing and identified them after detectives told her suspects were in custody.

But Ms. Bianchini was certain: she saw Shaw and Williams stab Mr. White.

Both Shaw and Williams testified and offered evidence to support their alibis, but the jury didn't believe them. After four hours of deliberations, the panel found both men guilty of armed robbery and aggravated assault.

"When it went to trial, I said, 'They've got to find us innocent,' " Williams said. "But when they came back with a guilty verdict, I was in complete shock. I couldn't believe it."

Judge Robert Carney sentenced Shaw and Williams to 4 1/2 years in prison, the maximum allowed under state guidelines. While they appealed the case, Judge Carney let them remain free on $5,000 bail -- a relatively low bond for a violent crime.

Last year, the Fourth District Court of Appeal denied Shaw and Williams' request for a new trial, but the appellate court's actions also hinted at problems in the case. The appellate court did allow Shaw and Williams to question their lawyers' performance.

Earlier this year, Judge Howard M. Zeidwig reviewed the trial transcripts and said he was surprised that a jury convicted Williams and Shaw. But he was also convinced their trial was fair, and their lawyers did a competent job. The convictions and the prison sentences will stand.

As a last resort, Shaw urged Steven Wisotsky to take up his appeal. Mr. Wisotsky -- who helped free John Purvis in the murder of Susan Hamwi -- was reluctant at first but became convinced of Shaw and Williams' innocence after reviewing the case.

"Everyone -- Judge Zeidwig, the appeals court, Judge Carney and the prosecutor -- recognized that there's something here that's not quite right," Mr. Wisotsky said. "What that is is the doubt that they are not quite guilty -- that they're sending innocent people to prison."

But prosecutor Guttman is sure they're guilty -- and that Ms. Bianchini was telling the truth.

"She's a lady that had no ax to grind. She was standing there and had a view of them," Mr. Guttman says. "She was totally impartial. It would have been easy for her to say, 'I'm really not sure.' "

Several jurors, including foreman Dr. William H. Kirkley, declined to comment on the case.

Prosecutor Marcus says his office has reviewed the case thoroughly and interviewed Ms. Bianchini within the last few months for good measure. "She was still certain of her identification," Mr. Marcus says.

But "there's really very little to no evidence" to support her, Shaw says. "All the state has against me is the testimony of one eyewitness who was basically told, 'We have the correct people.' "

When asked why this is happening to him, Shaw offers a simple response: the color of his skin.

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