Incident Date: October 21, 1989
Jurisdiction: Thirteenth Judicial Circuit
Charge: Robbery with a Firearm
Conviction: Robbery with a Firearm
Year of Conviction: 1990
Exoneration Date: February 6, 2023
Sentence Served: 33 Years
Real perpetrator found? No
Contributing Causes: Eyewitness Misidentification
Cornelius Marion was convicted in 1990 of an armed robbery in Tampa based solely on the victim’s identification of him from a photo lineup. He was sentenced to life in prison. On February 6, 2023, Marion was released from prison after 33 years when an agreement was reached to resentence him to time served
The Crime & Investigation
At approximately 8:30 p.m. on October 21, 1989, Salvatore Casico parked his car in his driveway and exited his car. A maroon car then headed slowly down his street and stopped at the end of his driveway. Casico noticed three people in the car. One of the passengers rolled down their window and asked Casico for directions; Casico responded.
Casico then turned his back and walked up his driveway when one of the passengers exited the car, ran to Casico, and held a gun to Casico’s head. While the passenger searched Casico at gunpoint, the driver of the car exited the car, walked to Casico, and pointed a shotgun at Casico. The two men robbed Casico of what he had on him: his wallet, wristwatch, and five lottery tickets. The perpetrators then drove away from the scene and Casico called 911.
Detective Coleman of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office responded to the scene and interviewed Casico. 51 days later, Detective Coleman returned and showed Casico 32 photos of black men. Casico selected Marion’s photo (one of the 32) as the perpetrator who first held him at gunpoint. Casico never identified the other armed perpetrator or the third person who remained in the maroon car.
There was no physical evidence connecting Marion to the crime, he had never previously been convicted or charged with robbery, and he had witnesses to his whereabouts at the time of the crime. Also, Marion’s physical characteristics at the time of the crime (6’2” and 170 lbs.) were inconsistent with Casico’s description of the perpetrator purported to be Marion (5’10” and 190 lbs. with a full stomach and round face). Casico, who was 5’10”, said the perpetrator was eye-to-eye with him while the perpetrator was standing on a two-inch railroad tie and Casico was on level ground.
Only two witnesses – Casico and Detective Coleman – testified at Marion’s trial. Casico described the crime and made an in-court identification of Marion as the perpetrator who first held him at gunpoint. The witnesses also described Casico’s identification of Marion from the 32-person photo lineup 51 days after the crime.
The defense’s theory at trial was that Casico misidentified Marion. The defense highlighted the discrepancies between Casico’s description of the perpetrator purported to be Marion and Marion’s physical characteristics at the time of the crime.
After deliberating for an hour and a half, the jury found Marion guilty of robbery with a firearm. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Marion filed several post-conviction motions during his incarceration, all of which were denied. IPF began representing Marion in 2021and engaged in a joint reinvestigation of his case with the Conviction Review Unit of the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit’s State Attorney’s Office (“CRU”), to whom Marion also wrote claiming his innocence.
Because Casico’s identification was the sole evidence implicating Marion, IPR retained Dr. Lora Levett, a University of Florida professor and expert on eyewitness identification research, to review the relevant materials in this case. Dr. Levett identified 14 issues related to Casico’s identification of Marion that, according to eyewitness identification research, show an increase in the probability of an unreliable identification. Dr. Levett identified issues pertaining to the circumstances under which the crime occurred and the characteristics of the identification procedure.
Most significantly, Detective Coleman did not have any evidence-based suspicion to believe that Marion was guilty of the armed robbery before putting him in the lineup. Detective Coleman had not developed any suspects before showing the victim the 32 photographs, so all 32 of the people were suspects. This procedure violated best practices in conducting lineup tasks, which indicate that police should create a lineup with one suspect and five known innocent filer photographs in order to test whether the eyewitness selects police’s suspect, and that police should have evidence-based suspicion that the suspect committed the crime in question before putting a photograph of them in the lineup. Also, there was a significant time period (51 days) between the crime and when Casico selected Marion from the lineup, considering that eyewitness identification accuracy significantly decreases as the time between the crime and the identification increases.
Based on the facts of the case and Dr. Levett’s expert opinion, the CRU ultimately rejected the eyewitness identification evidence presented by the State at Marion’s trial and, therefore, concluded that it no longer had confidence in the integrity of his conviction. IPF filed a Motion to Modify Sentence in the circuit court, which the State did not object to, for Marion to be resentenced to time served. The Court granted the motion on February 6, 2023, and Marion was released from prison that same day.