By Charlene Muhammad CHARLENEM
(FinalCall.com) – Rio Appling was 31-years-old, enjoying life as a music producer, recording artist, actor and real estate investor.
But a case of eyewitness misidentification and overzealous prosecution nearly ended it all, his attorney says.
Mr. Appling served 11 months in prison until his release earlier this year.
Although he was nowhere near the scene of a severe hit-and-run accident in 2009, he was convicted last March of assault with a deadly weapon, two counts of leaving the scene of an accident and battery.
“Going through it is one thing but actually losing to a jury is a whole other, new world. I felt robbed of my freedom and to actually see people sit on that stand and lie, Black and White, and I’ve never seen these people a day in my life. That shocked me and was a reality check for me,” Mr. Appling told The Final Call.
He maintained his innocence throughout his trial. Even the most severely injured of several victims, a Black male whose head was run over in the incident, had no recollection of Mr. Appling.
“His sister was there and she said she didn’t remember me at all, except for my pictures from Facebook,” Mr. Appling recalled.
Though police had little to go on during their investigation, a year later authorities found a Hispanic female who was a passenger in the car when the accident occurred, said Attorney Kiana Sloan-Hiller.
“When asked about her Black male friends, she advised police that she had several Black male friends, but could only recall the name of one of them, Rio Appling, but assured police that he did not drive a white BMW and that she did not know anything about a fight in the parking lot of Club Opera,” explained Atty. Sloan-Hillier, who Mr. Appling hired to seek a new trial.
A police background check revealed Mr. Appling had received a ticket four months after the incident in a white BMW later determined to be his girlfriend’s.
“They think they’ve got the guy. This is it! This is the guy! So they put his picture in a six pack line up and start showing it to everybody and he’s identified,” tried, and ultimately convicted, Atty. Sloan-Hillier said.
The case was hurt by weaknesses in the identification of Mr. Appling at trial, the amount of alcohol witnesses had to drink, and the contrasting descriptions given of the defendant, among other things, said the defense lawyer.
Police conducted forensics tests on Mr. Appling’s girlfriend’s car but never checked to see if it had damage to its driver side door. The driver’s door on the car used in the accident was damaged and the window had fallen out.
“By the way, this kid’s begging them to look at the car. He’s begging his lawyer. He’s telling the court, my lawyer won’t look at the car but if you look at the car you’ll see this car was never in this accident. It wasn’t me. I wasn’t there,” the attorney said.
It was only after experts examined the car six times that the district attorney agreed it wasn’t the car involved in the accident. Special tamper-proof stickers attached to all doors and windows had proven the car Mr. Appling drove had its original door.
Atty. Sloan-Hillier thought this ended the case but it was set for trial again until the district attorney said he didn’t have enough evidence to proceed at trial.
“It’s what’s been going on, which is really becoming a big problem in our justice system and we see it in so many Innocence Projects popping up. Mr. Appling would have been one of those people who would have been talked about as having spent 11 years in jail for a crime he didn’t do,” she said.
Claims of an “overzealous prosecution” is an absolute mischaracterization of the case, Deputy District Attorney Brad Harmon told The Final Call in a phone interview. Mr. Appling was identified by several eyewitnesses and identification made by the female eyewitness mentioned above was never used in court, he said. Though dismissed, the case is eligible for refiling.
Meanwhile, Mr. Appling is trying to piece his life back together since being released from one of California’s harshest prisons, the North County Correctional Facility. Better known as the Wayside Honor Ranch, it’s notorious for race riots and gang fights.
His plans to pursue real estate businesses out-of-state turned into a nightmare consisting of abuse by crooked police and frequent strip searches, he said. Now he’s just happy to be free, among family and friends, who’ve also suffered.
“It’s hard for them because they endure a lot of hardships with you not being around and them being in the real world … . Even visitations are another game they play with people. They have them wait in a two or three hour line just for a 30- minute visit and it turns people off not to visit you because it takes so much time but they’re playing a mind game,” Mr. Appling said.
Identification evidence plays a very critical role in criminal trials, yet 75 percent of 302 DNA exonerations were caught by misidentification, according to Paul Kates, director of communications for the Innocence Project. The group is working to help pass identification reform throughout the country.
“Essentially what we’re advocating for is improvements in the way that police conduct lineups. The reform is to try to eliminate any possibility of the witness getting clues or hints from the officer who’s conducting the line up,” Mr. Kates told The Final Call.
The process is called a double blind administration of the lineup, meaning the officer conducting the lineup doesn’t know who the suspect is.
“It’s important to look at evidence very carefully in any type of trial because most cases unfortunately don’t have DNA evidence where DNA could help prove innocence or guilty. So that’s why it’s important for people to give a critical look at evidence in any case,” Mr. Kates said.