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Stolen youth 

How Durham's criminal justice system sent Erick Daniels to prison for 10 years based on the shape of his eyebrows

Fifteen-year-old Erick Daniels, an undersized Durham delinquent accused of robbing a Durham Police Department employee, sat quietly at the defendant's table, his body abuzz with nervous energy. Dressed in a plaid shirt, slacks and new Timberland boots, he wanted more than anything to walk out of the courtroom a free man, but somehow he knew in his heart that would not happen. When the clerk read the jury's verdict on the first charge—guilty of first-degree burglary—Daniels leapt from his seat and hopped the bar with his eyes set on the courtroom's back doors, hoping to throw them open and run down five flights of stairs, out into the warm winter morning. But there was little chance of escape. The bailiffs briskly slammed down the boy, handcuffed him, and brought the courtroom back to order. "I'm so scared, man," Daniels screamed, tears rolling down his cheeks. "I can't do no time for nothing I didn't do."

The bailiffs plopped him back in his chair to hear the verdict on the second charge: guilty of robbery with a firearm. The judge, W. Osmond Smith III, sentenced Daniels to 10 to 14 years in prison. Daniels screamed "mommy" as three deputies escorted him out a side door and up to a temporary holding cell on the top floor of the courthouse. He would not be able to contact his mother or attorney until several days later, when he had reached a prison more than 180 miles from home.

In Daniels' two-day, December 2001 trial, Freda Black, the notoriously fierce assistant district attorney, built a case around victim Ruth Brown's photo lineup identification and eyewitness testimony. Brown had picked Daniels' mug from 105 photos in a seventh-grade yearbook based on, she said, the shape of his eyebrows.

Her certainty had helped convince a juvenile court judge to try Daniels as an adult in Superior Court. There Brown testified that Daniels was one of two masked gunmen who walked into her home and stole a purse containing thousands of dollars in cash as her 7-year-old daughter watched in terror.

In the five-and-a-half years since his conviction, Daniels has always maintained his innocence. With a checkered history that includes a marijuana possession charge, missed curfews, school absences and run-ins with the juvenile justice system, he has never pretended to be an angel. But he has argued that investigators and a prosecutor rushed to close the case at the cost of justice and wrongfully convicted a kid who spent too much time around the old Few Gardens projects, once the axis of Durham's underworld.

In a case without a shred of incriminating physical or forensic evidence to be tested or examined, it's nearly impossible to conclusively prove Daniels' innocence. But an Independent investigation shows that there is abundant evidence to support Daniels' claims, and more than enough questions, contradictions and problems to constitute reasonable doubt.

click to enlarge Erick Daniels in a visitor's room at Foothills Correctional Institution, where he's serving a 10- to 14-year sentence. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • Erick Daniels in a visitor's room at Foothills Correctional Institution, where he's serving a 10- to 14-year sentence.
Fingerprints from the front door of the house did not match Daniels, so the case hinged on the victim's identification. Ruth Brown described the first gunman to walk into her home—the gunman who she swore was Daniels—as a short, light-skinned black male who wore his hair in cornrow braids. Only 14 at the time of the robbery, Daniels was indeed short. But Daniels is dark-skinned and has never had even enough hair to braid.

Moreover, the lead detective in the case, Delois West, wrote two chronologies of her investigation—one original, handwritten log and a subsequent typed report—and there are key discrepancies between the two that cast doubt on the legitimacy of Brown's identification. On top of that, police reports that should have been written and filed are either missing or were never made.

In separate interviews, the other suspects identified in police reports—all former denizens of Few Gardens—say they know who robbed police property room technician Brown—and that it wasn't Daniels. "I didn't do it, but I know who did," says Khalid Abdallah, whom the state charged with being the second gunman but was acquitted in a jury trial. "I'm not a snitch, so I won't say who did it. But Erick Daniels didn't do it."

In 2003, a polygraph examiner reached the same conclusion, when at the request of Daniels' trial attorney, he examined Daniels in prison—but the test results are not admissible in court. Still, after Daniels denied robbing Brown, pointing a gun at her and being present when the robbery happened, polygraph examiner Steve Davenport concluded in his report, "It is my opinion there were no reactions indicative of deception to those relevant questions."

Court records indicate that it may have been Brown who was doing the deceiving. She maintained at trial that she was sitting on her couch and braiding her daughter's hair when the two gunmen intruded. But Shannon Tucker, the public defender who represented Khalid Abdallah in his trial two years after Daniels' conviction, wrote in a motion, "Investigation by the defense has revealed that the complaining witness in this matter was running an illegal gambling house on the date in question, and that the money was taken from the 'table' that night."

The other suspects in the case also say that Brown, whose family used to live in Few Gardens, ran a card house from her home—information that dramatically broadens the list of potential suspects and calls into question Brown's credibility. "Everyone knew she carried a lot of cash," says Doreal Henderson, once the suspected getaway driver. "A week before it even happened, everybody had been talking."

Still, the system has hardly accommodated Daniels' post-conviction claims. In January 2003, newly appointed police Chief Steve Chalmers reopened the case at the urging of Daniels' mother—and to the chagrin of prosecutor Black—with plans to follow up on new leads that "could possibly free a person who may have been wrongly convicted." But the investigation went nowhere. The state Court of Appeals denied Daniels' case in January of this year. In the coming weeks, Daniels' appellate defender, Carlos Mahoney, plans to file a motion introducing new evidence and arguing that the attorney who represented Daniels in Superior Court was incompetent for not picking apart the state's case. But Mahoney's chances of overturning the conviction or winning a new trial are slim.

Daniels' case has disturbing similarities to the infamous Duke lacrosse case, in which charges of sexual assault and kidnapping were dropped against three students after police and prosecutors were found to have run roughshod over proper practices and procedures in a rush to convict. As in the lacrosse case, Daniels was identified using a questionable lineup procedure, investigators' notes changed over time, the victim changed her story, and prosecutors did not act on evidence that would tend to exonerate Daniels. Unlike the lacrosse case, however, Daniels did not have a high-priced defense team to uncover the problems—Daniels' family hired Robert Harris, who Mahoney argues mishandled the case and even impeached his own client on the stand. The biggest difference is that the three Duke students are free, and Erick Daniels is serving time at the Foothills Correctional Institution in Morganton.

Daniels has lost hope that he will be released before his sentence is up. "One, I'm already incarcerated," he says. "Two, you got so many people that are lying. And three, I'm black. It's hard, man."

Kam Russell says he hung out in Few Gardens with Erick Daniels. He was the first person police suspected in Ruth Brown's robbery. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • Kam Russell says he hung out in Few Gardens with Erick Daniels. He was the first person police suspected in Ruth Brown's robbery.

The robbery investigation that led to Daniels' conviction revolved around the victim's murky connections to both the suspects and police and the effect those connections had on the quest to find a man with a common nickname.

Ruth Brown called 911 at 8:25 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2000, about half an hour after sunset. "Gloria, send the police to 628 N. Hoover Road," Brown said, according to the transcript. "Somebody just came in my house and robbed me."

"They just came in your house?" the dispatcher asked.

"Yes," Brown said. "This is Ruth Brown. I work down there. They came in my house, put a gun to my head. There was two of them."

Brown had been a police property room technician for two years when she made the call. In her time at the department, she had become acquainted with many of the officers who would work her case, including lead investigator Delois West. The dispatcher sent three cars to the scene.

Officer Daryl Macaluso, then a two-year veteran of the force, interviewed Brown. "She stated that two black males wearing dark clothing and blue bandanas over their faces entered her home through the front door (which was unlocked) displayed handguns and pushed her onto a couch," Macaluso's incident report reads. He noted that the suspects demanded and eventually took Brown's purse containing more than $6,000 in cash. They did not take any other valuables.

Macaluso also interviewed Brown's neighbor, Bruce Chase, who said he had seen three men approaching Brown's home while sitting on his front porch. Chase said one of the men stopped and waited near a telephone pole for several minutes and then suddenly fled. Seconds later, the other two followed.

With three suspects to pursue—two gunmen and a lookout—Brown told Macaluso that the suspects were likely "friends of the family" because they knew about the money in her purse. She blurted out the name of one family friend in particular: a Durham man named Kam Russell. Brown would later specify that Russell and her brother Christopher Lynch, a friend of Russell's, had walked in on her as she was counting the cash a few days before the robbery. Brown said Russell had not been one of the gunmen, but she suspected he was the "set up man."

Russell, 22 years old at the time, had a long history of legal trouble—he had previously been convicted of breaking and entering, larceny, assault by pointing a gun, first-degree burglary, common law robbery, car theft, shoplifting, possession of stolen goods and trespassing. And cops had gone after him for much more. He was acquitted of robbery with a dangerous weapon, first-degree kidnapping, possession with intent to distribute cocaine, resisting an officer, breaking into a coin machine and other crimes. "He's someone that we've dealt with frequently in the police department," investigator West would later say at Daniels' trial.

Macaluso and another cop tracked down Russell that night and found him outside the old Few Gardens housing project, where he was living with his then-girlfriend.

Russell, who retreated from the streets when a gun battle left him a paraplegic and another man wounded, remembers the encounter. He says Christopher Lynch, Brown's brother and a friend of his, approached him on the Few Gardens basketball court. "Her brother came on the basketball court," he says, referring to Lynch. "He acted like something was wrong and asked me did I have my gun."

Russell says he went into his apartment to find his weapon, but feeling suspicious, he returned outside empty-handed. "When I went back to the parking lot, sure as shit stinks, the police were out there," Russell says. "[Lynch] was trying to get me back to his sister's house with a gun in my possession."

Russell says Lynch then asked him to name the men he had been playing basketball with before police arrived, and he replied that he had been with a man named "E" and a few others. Like that, Russell's unknown associate "E" became a suspect, he says.

Russell says that over the next couple of days, police returned to his girlfriend's apartment and pressured him to identify "E." During one of those encounters, he says Few Gardens housing officer Darrell Brown (no relation to the victim) connected the alias "E" with Erick Daniels, a kid who was known to the officer from previous scrapes with trouble. "After Officer Brown heard Erick's name, he had so many negative things to say about him," Russell says. "Officer Brown used to try to arrest him for trespassing."

Darrell Brown says the connection was simple. "The name came up and it made me think of him," Brown says.

Russell says he told the officer he had been with a different "E" that night—not Erick Daniels—but police did not believe him. Brown says he does not remember whether that is true.

The morning after the robbery, Macaluso submitted his completed report to Delois West, an investigator in the violent crimes division. Judging from the court and police records, the crime scene technician submitted the only other report, despite department procedures that say "any officer, regardless of rank, entering the perimeter of a crime scene, is required to submit a supplementary investigation report recording their observations." Three other officers responded that night. There is no explanation for the three missing reports. Those problems reflect other weaknesses in the investigation.

West maintained in her trial testimony that she interviewed Ruth Brown the day after the robbery and began her investigation with one suspect—Kam Russell. Her typed "supplementary investigation report" outlines an easy but delayed jump from suspicions about Russell to the identification of Erick Daniels as one of the gunmen. West wrote that two weeks after the robbery, she got a tip from an "unidentified source" that a possible suspect was an "Eric" who hung out in Few Gardens. She wrote that later that day, housing officer Darryl Brown identified the suspect as Erick Daniels, a friend of Kam Russell's, and that she immediately assembled a photo lineup.

But West's original, handwritten log of the investigation established an entirely different chain of events. Just four days after the robbery, West noted that housing officer Darrell Brown informed her that "E," a juvenile who lived behind the Wellons Village shopping center, was a possible suspect. Erick Daniels lived behind Wellons Village, but West noted her suspect's name as "Eric Davis," a mistake West acknowledged at trial. The record is not clear about how or when she realized the error. The handwritten notes make no mention of the "unidentified source."

The contradictions between the two reports—especially the two different dates "E" was noted as a suspect—call into question the legitimacy of Brown's photo lineup identification. West and Brown testified at trial that Brown did not know Erick Daniels' name when she picked him out of a lineup. And West's typed notes would lead one to that conclusion. But the handwritten log indicates that there was a two-week window for Brown to learn about the suspect. And interviews suggest that may not have been hard to do.

Kam Russell, the first suspect in the case, says that Ruth Brown's brothers were present on more than one occasion when police searched his girlfriend's Few Gardens apartment, including when housing officer Darrell Brown connected the nickname "E" with Erick Daniels. "Before it was a real investigation, it was [Ruth Brown's] family doing it with the help of a couple police officers," Russell says. "At the time they didn't have a warrant. They would just come."

Housing Officer Brown says he does not recall Ruth Brown's brothers being present. Still, the victim could have accessed information about Daniels in other ways. Daniels' best friend and "cousin," Brandon Green, was a friend of Ruth Brown's younger sister, Rosetta Lynch, and a suspect for a short time. "Ruth told Rosetta they were looking for somebody named 'E' and Rosetta told Ruth that 'E' was my little cousin," Green says. Ruth Brown could have been the "unidentified source" in West's typed report.

"If she knew Erick Daniels' name, and she had seen him beforehand, that would be highly significant," says Carlos Mahoney, Daniels' appellate defender.

Attorney Carlos Mahoney, who took over Erick Daniels' appeals in 2004 - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

On Oct. 9, 2000, Ruth Brown met with West and viewed copies of three pages from the Chewning Middle School yearbook. West used the yearbook because she could find no other pictures of the young Daniels. The lineup introduced into trial evidence had the names of the students redacted.

While permissible then, the yearbook lineup violates the state's current practices. It is now accepted that the investigator who administers the lineup should show one photograph at a time so the witness cannot choose by comparison. And the lineup administrator should not know who is a suspect, eliminating the possibility of offering clues to the witness.

Daniels' school picture shows his hair shaved close, not long and braided. But Brown said she recognized the boy's eyebrows as the ones she saw above the first gunman's blue bandana, and she picked him out of the group of children. She then signed a photograph identification affidavit certifying her choice. Brown would testify at Daniels' juvenile hearing that she was only 80 to 90 percent confident when she signed the affidavit that day because she remembered her assailant having lighter skin. By the trial, she said she was 100 percent certain Erick Daniels had robbed her.

West, now a homicide detective, won't answer questions about the discrepancies in her reports or her administration of the lineup. Her supervisor referred calls to Kammie Michael, the Durham Police Department's public information officer. Michael responded to phone messages with an e-mail: "The case has been adjudicated and the Police Department has no further comment." But West's and Michael's silence stands in contrast to the willingness of Darrell Brown to share his view of the investigation.

Like West, Ruth Brown also refuses to talk about the case. This is not the first time: In 2004, Brown filed a warrant to have News & Observer reporter Demorris Lee arrested on harassment charges for asking questions about Daniels' possible innocence; the charge was eventually dropped.

On Oct. 11, 2000, two patrolmen went to Chewning Middle School to pick up Daniels. "I think I was in third period when my principal came and got me," says Daniels, now 20, from a visitor's room at Foothills Correctional Institution. "She was like, 'You been staying out of trouble?'"

The officers took Daniels to the Broad Street Youth Home, a detention center for children not old enough to enter county lockup. Detectives West and David Addison arrived to interrogate Daniels a few days later. Daniels' mother was not present. "They were telling me things I didn't even know," Daniels says. "That's how I became aware of the robbery."

The officers pressured Daniels to incriminate Kam Russell and Khalid Abdallah, then the other suspects in the case, he says. "They were trying to trick me and make me think Kam and Khalid wrote statements on me, but in all actuality they were just trying to see if I had any part to play in it," Daniels says. "I was just 14 years old. I started crying and stuff."

"They were using Erick to get him to tell them what he knew," says Kam Russell. "But he didn't know nothing."

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