Just past 2 a.m. on July 26, after a night of drinking at Pitcher's Pub in the town of Madison, John "Roth" (by all accounts a decent guy, hence my use of a pseudonym to spare embarrassment) was robbed by two men he'd met at the bar.
Roth, his pants torn from where his wallet was taken, pounded on the tavern door. Staff called town of Madison police, who viewed grainy video surveillance photos of the three men seated side-by-side at the bar. Officer Jonathan Weaver "immediately recognized" the man sitting to Roth's right, wearing a black shirt. He knew the man, Lonell James, from previous contacts, including bar checks at Pitcher's, where James occasionally went to play pool.
The police did not take witness statements from bar staff. Roth told Weaver the man to his right was in his 30s and "good-looking." He didn't mention there being anything unusual about the man's appearance.
Weaver visited Lonell James at his home a few days later. According to the officer, James initially admitted being at Pitcher's Pub that night, then said he wasn't. He denied robbing anyone. Weaver placed James under arrest, for robbery with use of force. Getting in trouble violated the conditions of James' release on a prior drunk-driving conviction, so he was not let out of jail.
Afterward, when Roth was shown a photo array of middle-aged black men, he looked at James' photo for about a minute and said he thought it might be him. How sure was he, on a scale of one to 10? "Eight." But, he added, "I didn't think his eye was that fucked up."
The case of State of Wisconsin vs. Lonell James Jr. went to trial last week Wednesday, Sept. 23. It lasted all day, with a verdict rendered just past 9 p.m. I saw most of it. No other media were present.
Witnesses explained that James suffered an injury to his left eye as a young boy. They said he's never been able to open it, calling it a "child's eye," one that's never developed. As his mug shot shows, it's pretty noticeable. But no one seems to have noticed it until police fingered Lonell James as the culprit.
At the trial, before Dane County Judge William Hanrahan, an excellent jurist, the bum eye was now the thing James' accusers were most sure about.
Roth, who said he had "three or four" half-pitchers of beer that night, now testified that his assailant was in his "late 40s" and had a damaged right eye. James is 44 and it's his left eye - the one that would have been closest to Roth at the bar - that doesn't open.
A hired security guard was certain James was in the bar that night; he was also "pretty sure" he was in his "late 20s, early 30s." One bartender was positive James was the man seated to Roth's right, because of "the eye." The only thing she couldn't remember was whether he had a mustache, a beard, sideburns, jewelry or tattoos.
Weaver and town of Madison Det. Bill Searls were certain that James was the man in the video. Weaver, viewing a still photo from the video in court, clearly saw that the man's left eye "looks disfigured." But he couldn't see the man's baseball cap, as did most other witnesses.
James' defense attorney, Dan Stein, noted that the man in the photo appeared to have tattoos on his forearm, which he at one point showed to Roth. But the prosecution's expert on video technology, Scott Kuntz of the Dane County Sheriff's Office, said the quality was too poor to tell if the man had tattoos or, for that matter, a deformed eye.
James purportedly told police, before amending his story, that he went to Pitcher's that night with his nephew. Not so, testified the nephew, who was beyond a doubt not the second man in the video. That means James' initial recollection, if rendered correctly, was wrong at least in part.
James' wife and two daughters said he was home, sleeping, when the robbery occurred. The prosecution, led by Assistant District Attorney Brian Asmus, urged the jury to discount this, saying the inconsistencies in their accounts proved they were lying - as did the things about which they were remarkably consistent. Asmus dismissed his own witnesses' inconsistencies as inconsequential.
Stein, in his closing argument, lambasted the prosecution's case, especially the eyewitness accounts. "Strangers get things wrong - all the time!" he fairly shouted. But when he tried to tell the jury that mistaken eyewitness testimony is the number-one cause of wrongful convictions in the U.S., the prosecution objected and Judge Hanrahan agreed, saying afterward this was an improper attempt to "inflame the passions" of the jury.
It's true that the defense probably should have hired an expert witness to establish the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, if it intended to make this point.
But expert witnesses cost money, which the defense was not awash in, and the interest of justice demands that this point be made, in this case and others. In fact, given what is known about this subject - see this excellent Newsweek piece it's reasonable to question why the Dane County DA's office even took this case to trial.
The jury (which included not a single African American) deliberated for about three hours before returning a verdict: not guilty. As of this Wednesday, a week later, James was still in jail, but slated for release. Of course, no one will apologize for the two months he spent there, away from his family and job.
Something truly remarkable happened during Lonell James' trial - and sadly, it wasn't that the DA's office did its best to convict a possibly innocent man. It was when Judge Hanrahan admitted he'd made a mistake in one of his rulings.
"I made a bad call," he said. "My apologies."
If only other players in the justice system had that kind of humility.
Bill Lueders (email@example.com) is news editor of Isthmus.