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In 1987, James Neal was sent to prison for purse stealing. He says it was a case of mistaken identity.

It was as if the robber were waiting for the holiday shopping season. From mid-November to mid-December 1986, the four-week purse-snatching spree usually involved a parking lot, an old lady with failing eyesight, and a stolen getaway car. Starting in the late morning and continuing until night, the thief would commit up to six hits a day. Sometimes he’d start out by asking for directions, such as: “Where’s 22nd Street?” Other times, he got straight to the point: “Give up the pocketbook.” But most times, it was a silent struggle.

The crimes were consistent. Wearing a hat and long coat, the thief would approach his victim from behind, startling her with a forceful thump on the neck and holding onto her shoulder bag until he could pry it free. After grabbing it, he would dash or walk to an idling silver 1979 Buick LeSabre and drive away, then shuffle through wallets and personal papers until he found cash.

Victims reported similar descriptions of the vehicle and some variations of the Maryland GXP 154 license plate number. Police believed that the 13 purse snatchings, which took place in the District, had to be the act of a single individual. But the robberies remained unsolved into the early part of the new year. The police had a description—a stocky, medium-complexioned black male, with facial hair, between 5-foot-4 and 6-feet, about 200 pounds—but they had yet to find their man.

Enter 27-year-old James Neal. Out one February 1987 night with a partner, he was accused of stealing four Oriental vases from an antique store in Georgetown. Metropolitan Police Department officers carrying out surveillance on a nearby ATM heard the commotion and captured the two. They charged them with burglary.

Neal had no idea that someone had pointed out that he fit the description of the purse snatcher. Or that his picture had been placed in a police photographic array of possible suspects for those crimes. Nor did he know that his fate would become irrevocably intertwined with that of another of the crime spree’s suspects, convicted purse snatcher and crack addict Ricardo Carlton Ebron, who bore more than a passing resemblance to Neal.

On a cold, snowy morning soon after the Georgetown arrest, police officers came to the row house where Neal lived, on Rhode Island Avenue NW, bearing a warrant for his arrest in the purse-snatching case. The landlord hollered; Neal’s pregnant wife went to open the door. Next thing he knew, “I looked up and a handful of guns were drawn around me,” Neal says. Stunned, he was ordered to put on some clothes, handcuffed, and marched to the 2nd District police station.

When Neal heard the charges against him, he says, he almost laughed, except that the joke was on him. And on Friday, March 13, when he was taken to a lineup, things got even unluckier. Neal remembers being the only one in the lineup who fit the description of the robber. “There was no one my height, my size, and my complexion at the lineup,” he recalls.

Four eyewitnesses, who had chosen a different suspect in a previous photo array, which didn’t include Neal, now fingered him. The two other suspects in the case, and another man, were not made to stand in the lineup. Witnesses were allowed to chat with each other during the procedure. And the police returned their stolen belongings afterward, giving them the impression that the culprit had been caught. (Purses and belongings stolen from all 13 victims had been retrieved from the stolen LeSabre, which police had found abandoned in Hyattsville, Md.)

As a result of the eyewitness identifications, Neal’s case was tried in D.C. Superior Court. Assistant U.S. Attorney Debra Long-Doyle was advised by the U.S. attorney against pursuing the case after it was revealed, in a motion-to-suppress hearing, that two different police districts were showing two separate photo arrays with different suspects for the same robberies. But Long-Doyle decided to prosecute the case anyway. No physical or forensic evidence linked Neal to the crimes. But four or five eyewitnesses who had fingered someone else in the lineup switched their stories in the courtroom to identify Neal, further damning him. Neal was convicted of the 13 robberies and unauthorized use of a vehicle, and Judge Robert A. Shuker sentenced him to serve 49 to 147 years in prison. In 1987, he went to prison, where he remains to this day.

Yellowing photocopies of Neal’s ATM receipts suggest that he was not in the same area as one of the thefts when it occurred. A receipt for a friendship ring he put on layaway for his child’s mother at a jewelry store in Alexandria placed him somewhere else at the time of another robbery. But his court-appointed attorney didn’t produce witnesses to testify to Neal’s alibis. (A polygraph test, conducted three years after the incidents, showed that Neal had “no deceptive reaction” to questions about whether he’d committed the robberies.)

In 1988 and 1994, similar robbery sprees occurred in Maryland and D.C. The person eventually found responsible for those thefts was former suspect Ebron.

Television reports from late December 1994 flashed Ebron’s mug shot. He had just been arrested for carjacking one woman’s vehicle, then allegedly using the automobile to snatch 15 purses during a one-month period. His resemblance to Neal was striking; he had the same complexion and mustache shape.

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There was also an uncanny similarity to the crimes for which Neal had been convicted. Ebron had even been arrested, in 1987, for cashing money orders worth $465 from a purse that he had allegedly stolen on Nov. 28, 1986—the same day as two of the other purse snatchings for which Neal was convicted. And the stolen LeSabre used in the 1986 robberies was located two blocks away from Ebron’s residence by a police surveillance team hoping to catch the thief. Police records showed that Ebron had been convicted of several such robberies in the past. Ebron admitted, in police reports, that his purse-snatching habit was a way to support his crack addiction and that he robbed elderly women because he thought they would not be able to identify him.

In 1988, Ebron struck again and was convicted of eight purse snatchings from a car. He was sentenced to drug treatment for the thefts. While at the Denver treatment facility, Ebron violated his probation agreement and was sent to prison. But by 1994, he was back on the streets and back to his old ways. His last conviction, in Maryland in 1994, was for the string of 15 purse snatchings and the carjacking. For these crimes, he landed a 15-year jail term—a shorter sentence than Neal’s for similar crimes. Ebron denies committing the crimes he and Neal were convicted of. In any event, the statute of limitations has passed and Ebron can no longer be prosecuted for the 1986 robberies.

For almost 14 years, Neal says, he has been writing letters proclaiming his innocence to just about every person he thinks could help him. He started off sending Christmas cards to the judge who sentenced him, reading: “I’m innocent.” Mail to lawyers and investigators frequently brought no response. But by spending hours in federal prison libraries educating himself about the legal system and taking basic courses that teach laymen about their rights, Neal learned of more effective methods of pleading his case. Recently, people have seemed to be listening.

In October 2000, Neal sent a copy of his story to Justice Denied: The Magazine for the Wrongly Convicted, an Internet-based publication that prints the stories of prisoners who seem to have valid claims to innocence. Once a submission is made, Justice Denied’s volunteer activists check into it, and if they decide to accept a case, they send the story to pro bono attorneys and investigators who may be able to help.

The more she looked into Neal’s case, the more convinced Justice Denied editor Barbara Jean McAtlin was that he might be innocent: “This is a really, really strange story. And I could see where the wrongful conviction and the dubious eyewitness testimony might have happened.”

But McAtlin says what really got her attention was the timing. She reviewed Neal’s ATM receipts and the layaway receipt from Alexandria. “I know what traffic is like in this area, and there’s no way he could have made it [to commit the robberies] in that time,” she says.

Additionally, there were the mug shots. “I could see how someone under duress could think that Jimmy could have done it,” says McAtlin. “But eyewitness testimony is notoriously wrong.”

Neal also sent a copy of the Justice Denied story to Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who remembers that it was the first letter he had gotten from an inmate about being wrongfully imprisoned. Graham was moved by what he calls the “lingering issues” in Neal’s case.

Graham took it upon himself to write a letter to Barry Scheck at the Innocence Project at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law, in New York. Graham wrote: “This large number of inconsistencies, in my mind, does leave room for concern as to the full carriage of justice.”

The American University branch of the Innocence Project, which Scheck co-founded in 1992 to provide pro bono legal assistance and DNA testing to inmates to challenge their convictions, has recently assigned a lawyer and two investigators to help Neal’s current court-appointed lawyer, Brian Plitt, with his case.

Attorney Desmond Hogan, an associate at Hogan & Hartson, who has just started working on Neal’s case, says that the legal team is investigating to see if there is property not yet returned to owners from the 1986 robberies available for forensic testing.

Over the years, Neal, now 42 years old, has been shipped from Lorton Penitentiary, where he was stabbed in 1993, to federal penitentiaries in Missouri, Kansas, and Ohio. His five children have grown up without him. Some of his closest relatives have died. And his mother was just diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Now, having just been transferred to the D.C. Jail, he sounds a little weary.

Although he admits to having had run-ins with the law for shoplifting and drug charges, he says growing up in a predominantly female household taught him not to go after women’s purses.

“I’m not an angel, but I didn’t commit these robberies,” Neal says.

Neal’s claim of wrongful conviction based on eyewitness testimony is far from unique. Since the advent of extremely accurate forensic DNA tests, an increasing number of inmates are challenging convictions. And an increasing number are finding that DNA testing can be a prisoner’s best friend. The Innocence Project has attracted nationwide attention for its efforts to demand DNA testing for death-row inmates.

Since 1977, when the death penalty was reinstated, 696 inmates have been executed. During that same period, 95 death-row inmates have been exonerated.

“Faulty science, bad lawyers, or jailhouse snitches” are among the problems, says Paul Enzinna, vice president of the Innocence Project of the National Capital Region, adding that the process at lineups often makes witnesses feel pressured to pick someone. These flaws occur not only in high-profile death-penalty cases but in cases of less serious crimes, as well. Cases like Neal’s.

Although forensic or DNA testing might prove a case of mistaken identification in Neal’s case, he has an even bigger bureaucratic hurdle to climb to prove his innocence: D.C.’s status as a municipality.

Unlike Virginia and Maryland, D.C. has only one level of appelate review for convicted criminals: the D.C. Court of Appeals. Because Neal’s appeal to that court was denied last April, his final chance for review is to take his case before the U.S. Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court hears less than 1 percent of the cases it receives. Neal believes his chances of gaining a hearing there are slim to none.

As more wrongful convictions come to light—such as the cases of Kirk Bloodsworth and Earl Washington Jr., who were recently exonerated and spared the death penalty in Maryland and Virginia, respectively—it is still unclear just how many judicial errors are made, sending innocent people to jail.

“[Cases like Neal’s] show that we need to focus and be really careful and not just keep on going the way we’ve been going,” says Enzinna. “It’s a real serious indictment of the justice system.” CP