About a year ago, a lawyer in Missouri filed a last-ditch appeal for a man who'd been sentenced at age 14 to life in prison for a crime many believe he didn't commit.
In that appeal was research by UTC psychology professor David Ross that attorney Jennifer Bukowsky believed showed that witnesses gave impossible accounts of seeing her client, Anthony Williams, shoot and kill 14-year-old Cortez Adams during a "post-dance brawl" on Dec. 31, 1993.
Shortly after filing those documents Bukowsky got in touch with Ross and asked if he would look over the case.
"It was the worst I've seen in 30 years," Ross said in a phone interview Friday.
He asked University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate students Joseph Jones, 24, and Dominick Atkinson, 24, to help.
After nearly 600 hours of combing through court documents, building diagrams and scrutinizing eyewitness lineups, the team wrote its report. In February, Ross and Jones traveled to Jefferson City, Mo., in a blizzard to testify in a hearing for Williams.
On Wednesday, after 20 years in prison, Williams learned that a Missouri judge had vacated his sentence and ordered him released by July 3.
A text message from Bukowsky hit Ross' phone soon after and he immediately contacted Jones and Atkinson.
"It was incredibly humbling," Ross said of the result. He credited his students for their "relentless, phenomenal" work.
The attorney had some comments of her own.
"Dr. Ross was so critical to this," Bukowsky said. She noted that his more than three decades of research helped the court see that the way police conducted the four-person lineup for eyewitnesses in Williams' case gave false information to police.
Also, alibi witnesses who were standing next to Williams at the time of the shooting did not testify, further prejudicing the case against the teenager.
Ross said that problems with how lineups are conducted have been known since 1930. Academic research in the 1970s and 1980s further showed flaws in the system. A U.S. Department of Justice study in 1996 resulted in recommended changes in 1999 by the federal agency.
But errors remain. Two states, New Jersey and North Carolina, have a comprehensive system to conduct accurate lineups. Only in recent years have Tennessee courts begun to allow eyewitness experts to testify in court. Ross has presented his research to the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference and is pushing for adoption of best practices statewide.
Changes would help everyone, Ross said. It's not that eyewitness testimony isn't accurate, it's extremely accurate and helpful -- when conducted correctly.
There are many ways police officers can taint the sample. Even the officer knowing whether the suspect is in the lineup can influence how witnesses respond to questioning, Ross said.
The problem isn't a small one. The Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions, often with DNA evidence, notes that the No. 1 factor in wrongful convictions is errors by eyewitnesses.
In nearly 75 percent of convictions overturned through DNA testing, eyewitness misidentification played a role, according to the nonprofit group.
The core of Williams' case was what's known as "unconscious transfer." That's when a person who may have seen the suspect in another setting then places that person's face in the location of the crime under questioning because it's the one face he recognizes in the lineup.
Ross pointed out that witnesses in Williams' case said that he went to their school; he stayed in a certain apartment complex. But Williams neither attended the school mentioned nor ever visited the complex.
It's as though the brain takes disparate pieces of information and tries to construct its own narrative when questioned, Ross said.
Ross has been invited to a welcome-home party when Williams, now 34, leaves prison next month. The professor and his students know Williams only through documents and recordings. The entire time they've worked with Bukowsky on his case, Williams has been escorted in chains and a prison jumpsuit, unable to talk with anyone but his lawyer at hearings.
On Thursday, Bukowsky, tired but elated, relayed the next, simple step of a long journey.
"We're trying to figure out what size clothes he wears," she said, "because he doesn't know."
Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6347.
Follow him on Twitter@tsouthCTFP