Hair traits proved innocence

Staff WriterMay 28, 2010 

— If a team of white Charlotte police officers and prosecutors had understood more about African-American hairstyles in 1999, Shawn Massey would likely have spent the past 12 years watching his son grow up and listening to his grandmother preach in church on Sundays.

But it took a cadre of Duke University law students and black barber instructors to prove that Massey wasn't - and couldn't have been - the robber who held a Charlotte mother and her two children captive in 1998.

Massey joins a host of North Carolinians wrongly sent to prison when victims cross racial lines to identify the men who hurt them. Often, these identifications prove unreliable because victims must describe features unfamiliar to them. Making identification across racial lines has become a red flag for lawyers who examine claims of innocence.

A Mecklenburg County jury convicted Massey of kidnapping and armed robbery in 1999. The robbery victim, Samantha Wood, told police her attacker had braids. When shown a photo of Massey, his hair cut short, Wood, who is white, hesitated before telling police that he looked like her robber except for his lack of braids. Moments before trial began, Wood expressed doubts again, this time to the prosecutor.

Wood's word was the only evidence against Massey.

Mecklenburg County District Attorney Peter Gilchrist said this month that Massey should have been told of the victim's doubts. Gilchrist, a veteran prosecutor who has announced plans to retire, asked a judge this month to vacate charges against Massey. Gilchrist then dismissed the charges, conceding that a new trial would likely result in Massey's acquittal.

Cornrow constraints

Hair was central to Massey's journey - both into prison and now back home.

Police and prosecutors incorrectly assumed that Wood was describing braids that began at the nape and extended down the back of the robber's neck. When police arrested Massey, he had short hair. Police assumed he had snipped the braids.

Last fall, Duke students and staff tracked Wood down in Florida and asked her to explain the braids she saw. They mailed her photos of men with cornrows for confirmation. They also had collected photos of Massey from those years with the same close-croppedhairstyle he sports today.

Students interviewed barbers about the intricacies of growing cornrows. They explained that a man's hair must first grow to some length before they can style cornrows.

"My hair won't even grow like that. It will get nappy, but it won't grow like that," Massey told a crowd of reporters and law students Thursday, not three weeks after his release from prison.

Students used this and photos of Massey's hair in the late 1990s to make their case to Gilchrist that Massey wasn't their man.

'It's madness'

Jim Coleman, a Duke law professor who helps supervise Duke's Wrongful Convictions program, praised Gilchrist for opening his files to students.

Coleman said police and prosecutors ought to welcome those examining wrongful convictions and to view innocence investigators as a natural part of the criminal justice system.

Duke's team expressed a level of graciousness toward prosecutors at a news conference Thursday that Massey didn't share. He rattled through a list of people from whom he wants an apology, though he said he hasn't yet decided whether he will accept any apologies.

Massey criticized North Carolina for it's willingness to "put crimes on innocent people."

"I'd like Obama to keep an eye on this state. It's madness, real madness," Massey said.

He will apply for a pardon from the governor which, if granted, would clear the way for him to be compensated for the years he spent in prison. Gov. Bev Perdue issued her first pardon a week ago to Greg Taylor, who was declared innocent by a three-judge panel this year after an examination by the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission. Former Gov. Mike Easley granted pardons to inmates when DNA evidence pointed to another suspect.

For now, Massey said he will try to tackle simpler things. He's getting to know his son, Dontrez Gillespie, who turned 18 in February. Massey said he will try to get as many people as possible to come hear his grandmother, Annie Mae Massey, preach.

And, Massey said he'll be sure to keep his hair short, like he always has.

mandy.locke@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8927

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