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Broward County man exonerated after serving 34 years for armed robbery

Sidney Holmes, 57 is hugged by his aunt Georgia Adams and his mother, Mary Holmes, after being released from the Main Jail Bureau, a maximum security facility adjacent to the Broward County Courthouse on Monday, March 13, 2023.
Al Diaz (adiaz@miamiherald.com)
/
The Miami Herald
Sidney Holmes, 57 is hugged by his aunt Georgia Adams and his mother, Mary Holmes, after being released from the Main Jail Bureau, a maximum security facility adjacent to the Broward County Courthouse on Monday, March 13, 2023.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Sidney Holmes went to prison when he was 23 years old based on one faulty eyewitness identification.

Now, at 57 years old, Holmes is free. After more than 34 years in prison, his orange inmate jumpsuit and shackles came off.

“It’s surreal,” Holmes said. “I never would give up hope. I knew this day was going to come sooner or later, and today is the day.”

His mother, Mary Holmes, said neither the family nor her son’s faith wavered over the decades.

“I wouldn’t allow him to lose hope,” Holmes’ sister Nicole Mitchell said. “It was never an option to give up.”

The Broward State Attorney’s Office Conviction Review Unit, in conjunction with the Innocence Project of Florida, re-investigated the 1988 armed robbery case against Holmes after he contacted the review unit in November 2020. The review determined there was reasonable doubt of Holmes’ guilt and that he would not be charged if his case were presented today, the State Attorney’s Office said.

An Independent Review Panel of six Broward County residents, five of who are attorneys, met last month to review the case and unanimously decided there was a reasonable doubt as to Holmes’ guilt, the Conviction Review Unit’s memo said. All but one voted that Holmes is innocent and should be exonerated.

Judge Edward Merrigan signed an order last week vacating the judgment and sentence.

“I can’t apologize for the past wrongs,” State Attorney Harold Pryor said after the hearing. “All I can do is what I can control going forward, and that is to right a wrong.”

‘Civilian investigation’ No one was hurt in the armed robbery at a convenience store on Father’s Day 1988.

Holmes was at a celebration for the holiday with his family that day, and his family consistently backed up his alibi, Innocence Project of Florida Executive Director Seth Miller told reporters. Yet Holmes became the only suspect in the case.

“Unfortunately, no one believed him,” Miller said.

Vincent Wright and Anissia Johnson stopped at a convenience store west of Fort Lauderdale about 6:30 p.m. to fill up a tire when two men approached and demanded money. A third person in a brown car pulled up behind Johnson’s car. That was purportedly Holmes.

Wright’s brother, Milton Wright, who was not at the scene of the crime that day, launched a “civilian investigation” that led deputies to Holmes, the memo said.

Milton Wright said four people tried to rob him earlier that same day about five minutes away from the convenience store, according to the memo, and described that car as a brown or beige 1970 to 1979 Oldsmobile with a hole in the trunk. He believed the same people who tried to rob him were the ones who robbed his brother.

The brown car the perpetrator in the robbery arrived in had some similarities to Holmes’ Oldsmobile, but there were discrepancies in the two cars’ descriptions, the memo said.

The brown car used in the convenience store robbery had a hole in the trunk from a broken lock. Holmes’ car did not, the memo said.

Johnson in her deposition described the car as a rust or beige Oldsmobile Cutlass or Regal, according to the memo. Then at trial she said she couldn’t remember the type of car, only that it was beige, brown and rust colored.

Wright in a taped, sworn statement in July 1988 described it only as brown and then later said it was a 1978 or 1979 light brown Oldsmobile with a cream-colored hard top, the memo said.

Innocence Project of Florida Investigator Amy Carr interviewed a historian and archivist for a museum dedicated to the founder of the Oldsmobile, the memo said. The historian said the Oldsmobile Cutlass was the best-selling car in the country between 1976 to 1983. In 1988, there were nearly 400,000 cars that were variations of the Cutlass model.

The description of the color of the car in the robbery also differed from Holmes’ car, Miller said. Still, Wright’s brother saw Holmes’ car around town and reported the license plate to law enforcement. It wasn’t the first tag that Milton Wright gave to police: He had reported another tag before that authorities ruled out.

“He is identified in this case because not of a police investigation but a private citizen investigation,” Miller said.

Law enforcement continued pursuing Holmes as their suspect then, the memo said, “because he (a young black man) generally fit the description of the perpetrators and his car generally fit the description of the brown car.” Holmes also had prior convictions for armed robbery.

“From this point forward, the police had tunnel vision on Holmes as their only suspect,” the memo said.

Wright identified Holmes from a photo lineup the second time it was presented to him, the memo said. Holmes was the only one included in both the first and second lineups.

Dr. Lora Levett, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology and Law at the University of Florida, was consulted as an expert in the review. One of the biggest problems in Holmes’ case was the photo lineup identification process, Levett said.

“It is possible that Wright identified Holmes from the second photo lineup because he was familiar with Holmes from seeing him in the first photo lineup, rather than because Holmes committed the crime,” the memo said.

When Holmes was arrested on Oct. 6, 1988, he was 6 feet tall and weighed 183 pounds, the memo said. Before the trial, Wright said the suspect was about 5-foot-6 and heavyset.

“A 6′0″ and 183-pound man would not commonly be described as short and heavyset,” the memo said. “These inconsistencies point toward the likelihood of a misidentification.”

400 years A jury convicted Holmes in April 1989 of being the driver for two unidentified men who robbed the two victims at gunpoint.

Prosecutors were seeking 825 years those decades ago, Innocence Project of Florida Staff Attorney Brandon Scheck said.

“The reason for my recommendation and an exceedingly high number of years is to ensure that he won’t be released from prison while he’s breathing,” the original prosecutor, Peter Magrino, said at Holmes’ sentencing hearing.

“I think that 800 years is perhaps a little bit much,” the judge who presided over the case said at the time.

The judge sentenced him as a habitual offender to 400 years at Florida State Prison in Bradford County instead.

Magrino said in September 2022 he recalled the case and did not think there was anything wrong with it, according to the memo.

One of the Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies and a detective who were involved in the case said in interviews during the review process that they were shocked at Holmes’ sentence, according to the unit’s memo.

“In that neighborhood so much of this is going on,” Det. Robert Campbell said. “I’m blown away. I had cases so much worse, sorry to hear that.”

Both Johnson and Wright told prosecutors in 2022 that they felt Holmes should be released from prison, the memo said.

Prosecutors don’t believe “there was any intentional misconduct” on the witnesses’ or law enforcement’s parts, the State Attorney’s Office said in its news release.

“If the wrong person is incarcerated, the true perpetrator is free to commit more crimes,” Arielle Demby Berger, the assistant state attorney in charge of the Conviction Review Unit, said in the State Attorney’s Office news release. “These cases are rare and take a lot of time and diligence to reinvestigate. This is exactly why conviction review units and the opportunity for an exoneration are so crucial to ensuring justice.”

In the courtroom Monday afternoon, Holmes hung his head, overwhelmed with emotion, holding onto tissues in his cuffed hands as his tearful mother, sister, aunt and uncle, god sister and cousins watched the quick proceeding.

“I don’t have any thoughts. I just praise God,” Mary Holmes said after the hearing.

Holmes didn’t know Monday when he arrived in the courtroom that the judge had already signed the order exonerating him.

“It was very overwhelming for him ... It’s just going to be part of a long process toward taking in everything that he’s missed for the last 34 years,” said Miller.

Since the Conviction Review Unit’s inception in 2019, Demby Berger reviewed Leonard Cure’s case, and his conviction for a 2003 armed robbery was vacated and the charges were dropped. Cure’s exoneration in December 2020 was the first initiated by the unit.

Pryor has arranged for OIC of South Florida, a nonprofit, to help Holmes as he reintegrates into life outside of prison, the State Attorney’s Office said.

“This is the reason why I wanted to be State Attorney, to reform our criminal justice system, to give people a second chance who deserve a second chance,” Pryor said after the hearing.

Whether Holmes may receive any financial compensation after his release is not known.

Holmes always stood by the fact that he is innocent, the memo said, and that he does not know who the robbers were.

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