Tamara Scherer never got a good look at her purse-snatcher’s face.
She sure got a piece of his shirt, she remembers 17 years later. “Ripped it right off his back,” she told The Star.
They wrestled, sprawled on the sidewalk in front of the Roeland Park Walmart on that hot May evening. She grabbed her purse back and “gave him a kick that sent him flying.”
But, she repeated — and she says she told investigators and prosecutors this all along — “I didn’t get a good look at his face.”
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She knows now that the Kansas City man, Richard Jones, whose face she fingered in a photo lineup and whom she pointed out in court, has been released after 17 years in prison and the charges against him dropped.
An investigation by the Midwest Innocence Project and the Paul E. Wilson Defender Project identified a doppelganger — a man with the same first name who looks like Jones — who was more likely to be the assailant who robbed Scherer that day.
A Johnson County judge vacated the charges and released Jones on bond last week, and on Monday, Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe chose to dismiss the charges and not seek a new trial.
Scherer cried when she recounted her role in what the court determined was a flawed photo-identification process with her and other eyewitnesses in the case.
“It’s just hard,” she said. “He lost 17 years of his life. His children never got to spend any good quality daddy time.”
There were many years when Scherer served as a foster parent for children in Kansas, she said, and she saw the broken hearts of children separated from parents under hard circumstances.
“They never get that time back,” she said.
What Scherer said she told the investigators after the attack was that her assailant appeared to be Hispanic, with dark hair that was pulled back as if in braids or tied.
Detectives tracked down the getaway car and one of its occupants who said he knew the robber only by the first name, Rick, said Tricia Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project. The investigators found Richard Jones’ picture in their files, and the person who had been in the car said that was the man. He was African-American but light-skinned.
Scherer was shown a photo lineup of six men. Richard Jones’ picture was the only one that showed a light-skinned man. She says she repeated that she did not recall the man’s face, but the investigator asked whether any of them looked “familiar,” she said.
“I pointed at the light-skinned one.”
She remained nervous about it. It haunted her after her day of testimony that a girlfriend of Jones’ followed her out of the courtroom, shouting that he was innocent, that he was a father.
Detectives and prosecutors in the case, Scherer said, reassured her when she expressed her fears, she said.
They assured her, she said, that they had the right man — that other witnesses had identified him. Defendants always say they are innocent, they told her. Their confidence won her over.
Then came the call earlier this spring. The Midwest Innocence Project wanted to meet with her. She agreed, and they began by showing her two photographs and asked whether she recognized them. Sure, she answered, those were pictures of Richard Jones convicted years ago.
“They said, ‘What if we told you they were two different people?’ ”
She was stunned. She recounted to them what had happened at the Walmart. As they explained the case, she realized the identification process had been flawed. What she thought had been the truth had come undone.
“All this time I just assumed the right person was in jail,” she said. “It’s a whole screwed-up ordeal.”
It’s frustrating, she said.