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Supreme Court grants writs on eyewitness ID, wrongful attachment

Although faulty eyewitness identification has been the basis for most of the convictions overturned by DNA evidence, it’s tough to get an appellate writ granted, much less have a conviction reversed, when the judge or jury believes the witness.

So it was no surprise that Maurice James Ward’s challenge to a robbery victim’s identification of him as the culprit met a familiar fate in the Virginia Court of Appeals’ two-step screening process. One judge initially looked at the case, found it wanting, and a three-judge panel then decided the case didn’t merit full review. The conviction was affirmed without even an unpublished opinion.

But the Supreme Court of Virginia granted Ward a writ yesterday. According to the petition for appeal, the witness said a man she had never seen before came to her Portsmouth home, asked for a man who sometimes stayed there and then pulled a gun and robbed her and her husband.

A month later, the woman saw Ward outside a Walmart, and her sister called police when she said he was the gunman. At a bench trial, Ward said he was at his girlfriend’s home at the time of the robbery, but the woman stood by the identification even though she said she had identified Ward two days after the robbery and gave inconsistent testimony about the type of gun the robber wielded.

The trial judge convicted Ward of two counts each of robbery and using a firearm in a felony and sentenced him to eight years in prison.

The assignment of error is that the inconsistencies in the woman’s testimony made her testimony insufficient for conviction. The case is Ward v. Commonwealth, Record No. 100539.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court granted a writ on an issue in a civil case that started in 1994, when a British company that sold construction materials for horse stalls and its American agent had a disagreement.

That disagreement led to the attachment of materials for construction of the stalls by the agent in 1996. That attachment was determined in 2004 to have been wrongful, and the issue before the court is the amount of damages caused by the wrongful attachment.

The two sides appeared to agree on the measure of damages – the value of the property when it was attached minus its value when the attachment was lifted. The trial judge put the figure at about $83,000, but the agent contends that the evidence of value was speculative while the company argues that the award was much too low. The court agreed to hear both the appeal and the cross-appeal. The case is Pittkin v. Loddon (U.S.) Ltd., Record No. 100486.
By Alan Cooper

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