Mich. justices: Cellphone shot not enough to ID suspect

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

The Michigan Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of charges against a Detroit man Wednesday, agreeing with a trial court that showing a shooting victim a single cellphone photo of a suspect was not sufficient for identification.

The court announced its ruling, reversing a decision by the Michigan Court of Appeals, in the case of Elisah Kyle Thomas, who was charged with a robbery and shooting of a man in which $10 was taken by a gunman on Oct. 17, 2014.

The justices heard arguments in the case last week before a crowd of several hundred students at Cass Technical High School in Detroit.

After the robbery and shooting, police searched the area and saw Thomas, then 17, who allegedly matched the description the victim gave of the person who robbed and shot him in the leg.

Police stopped and questioned Thomas and let him go after discovering the teen had no outstanding warrants, according to court records.

Before letting Thomas go, an officer took a picture of Thomas with her cellphone. That officer went to the hospital and showed the victim the photo, asking “was this him?”

The victim allegedly cried and identified Thomas as the robber and shooter.

Thomas’ appellate attorney, Kathy H. Murphy, said her client has “maintained his innocence.” Thomas observed the proceedings at Cass Tech last week as his attorney argued his case.

At issue in the appeal was whether police are permitted to show a crime victim a single photo, such as a cellphone photo, of a suspect for purposes of identification.

In a ruling released Wednesday, the justices opined: “In this case, the police officer’s presentation of a single photograph to the victim accompanied by the question “was this the guy who shot you?” was highly suggestive.”

The justices added: “We agree with the trial court’s assessment of reliability based on the relevant totality of the circumstances. The description the victim gave to police officers was generic and could have described many young men in the area; moreover the victim’s description of the assailant changed between his first interview and his follow-up interview at the hospital. Accordingly, the trial court determined that the single photograph identification was sufficiently unreliable that it should be suppressed.”

Thomas was arrested and charged with armed robbery, assault with intent to murder, assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder, and weapons charges.

His attorney filed a motion to exclude the admission into court of the crime victim’s identification of Thomas as the perpetrator, arguing that it had not been independently verified and that the photo was too suggestive and created a chance of misidentifying Thomas as the culprit.

The Wayne County Circuit Court dismissed the charges and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office appealed the court’s ruling to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court’s ruling.

Murphy told the justices during the Oct. 25 session at Cass Tech that a photo is “very different from seeing a live human being.”

Jason Williams, the chief of appeals for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, told the justices that secondary or “suggestive” identification procedures “do not violate due process.”

Murphy said Wednesday she and Thomas’ trial attorney, Patrick Nyenhuis, were happy with the higher court’s ruling and “the quickness with which it was issued.”

She said Thomas is working in a restaurant and wants to go to college to become an entrepreneur.

Murphy added: “Mr. Thomas looks forward with moving on with his life.”


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