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Cleveland Heights settles lawsuit with DNA exoneree for $4 million

Police agencies water down photo lineup rules that help prevent wrongful convictions
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Posted at 6:40 PM, Mar 02, 2023

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio — The City of Cleveland Heights will pay $4 million to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by a man wrongfully convicted of rape, according to his attorney, Sarah Gelsomino, partner, FG&G.

Christopher Miller, 46, served nearly 17 years behind bars before he was exonerated by DNA in 2017.

Miller was convicted of the 2001 sexual assault and robbery of a Cleveland Heights woman.

Cleveland Heights will pay Christopher Miller $4 million to settle his civil rights lawsuit. Miller was wrongfully convicted of rape.

Miller always maintained his innocence.

"I had to keep fighting," he said.

The attack

On the night of April 28, 2001, the victim was attacked as she returned home to her apartment, according to Miller's complaint.

Two men, one armed, forced her inside. Then, both men raped her.

Before they left, they robbed her. of her car, purse, wallet and cell phone.

The cell phone

The complaint said Cleveland Heights police immediately focused on the cell phone.

The next morning, the phone began being used, including several calls to the same number.

The number belonged to Miller's girlfriend.

He admitted he bought the phone and suspected it was stolen. He denied involvement in the attack.

DNA tests performed on the rape kit identified only one profile.

It was not Miller's DNA.

So why was he convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison in 2002?

The flawed lineup

Miller said Cleveland Heights Det. Mark Schmitt asked him to put on the clothing he was wearing the night of the attack and took a photo of him.

He said Schmitt used the photo in a lineup he administered.

The victim then picked Miller's picture from the six-pack of suspects.

Both Schmitt and the victim testified her attacker was wearing a black jean jacket and what looked like a Toronto Raptors basketball team jersey, the same clothing Miller was wearing that night.

The real attackers

Just two years later, in 2004, DNA from the victim's sexual assault kit matched to Richard Stadmire.

Stadmire was convicted in 2002 of committing a similar crime to the attack on the Cleveland Heights victim with Charles Boyd, who testified against Stadmire for a reduced sentence.

Boyd admitted to police that he was involved in the Cleveland Heights attack, but said he acted as a lookout while Miller and Stadmire raped and robbed the victim.

Schmitt then said the victim told him there was a third man, but acknowledged he never mentioned a third man in any notes or any official reports.

"What he did to me was ugly. Nasty," Miller said. "He destroyed my life."

READ MORE: https://codes.ohio.gov/ohio-revised-code/section-2933.83

News 5 Investigators made multiple phone calls to a number connected to Schmitt's address. He did not return our calls.

The Ohio Innocence Project

In March 2017, Brian Howe, an attorney with the Ohio Innocence Project, filed a motion to re-test DNA evidence.

The new DNA test exonerated Miller.

"The DNA testing results showed definitely not only that Mr. Miller was excluded from the sexual assault kit, but DNA testing was able to identify both actual perpetrators in this case," Howe said.

The DNA profiles matched Stadmire and Boyd.

"It actually proved who committed the crime in the first place," Howe said.

But that wasn't the only surprise.

The hidden evidence

Howe had also obtained reports from the Cleveland Heights Police Department.

"At some point, police decided that Mr. Miller was responsible for this crime," Howe said. "At that point, the evidence was marshaled to support that conclusion."

It showed the victim. initially described one attacker as wearing a white t-shirt with a black circle and a green coat. There was no mention of a black jacket or a shirt resembling a Toronto Raptors jersey.

The information was never shared with Miller's defense attorney.

In 2018, Miller was released.

In August 2021, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Kelly Ann Gallagher officially declared Miller a wrongfully convicted person.

Cleveland Heights response

Cleveland Heights did not respond to our requests for on-camera interviews.

Instead, the city's communication director sent News 5 the following statement:

"As a rule, the City of Cleveland Heights does not comment on pending litigation. In this case, the federal court docket indicates that after three days of federal court mediation over the past year, the City and the Plaintiffs have reached a negotiated settlement, and an agreement is being prepared. While the City and the individual police officer defendants steadfastly deny wrongdoing and liability, proceeding to try a lawsuit over events nearly 22 years ago poses a substantial risk for both sides in these circumstances. The City anticipates that the settlement agreement will be executed soon and the lawsuit will be dismissed accordingly."

The memory myths

So how did the victim make such a critical mistake?

"Memory fades very quickly. Memory is subject to suggestion. It's very malleable," said Mark Godsey, co-founder and director of the Ohio Innocence Project.

Godsey said mistaken witness identification is one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions.

Out of 99 DNA exonerees in Ohio, 33 cases involved mistaken eyewitness or victim identification.

"People think of it (memory) like a tape recorder, but it's actually like quicksand," he said.

Godsey also said victims and witnesses are inevitably unduly influenced by the police officer administering a lineup.

"It's really hard for the officer not to even subliminally, or subconsciously, or changing his breathing rate, or something like that, to signal to those witnesses which ones he wants them to pick, even if he's not trying to do that," Godsey said.

The Ohio law

To help prevent mistakes, like the one that helped wrongfully convict Miller, Godsey helped write a 2010 law to require law enforcement agencies to adopt best practices.

It says, "unless impracticable," lineups should be conducted by a blind or blinded administrator, which is a person who doesn't know who the suspect is.

It also says if a blind administrator is unavailable, the person conducting the lineup should document why in writing.

"There's never going to be a system that's perfect, but we can do better," he said. "And we should do our best."

The disappointing survey

When Godsey surveyed Ohio law enforcement agencies in 2017, he found "very few" following the law.

News 5 surveyed the 12 largest cities in Cuyahoga County; we found each city had adopted a lineup policy. However, most watered down its intent, including Cleveland Heights.

"The fact that they're watering it down shows that they don't want to follow it," Godsey said.

Cleveland Heights, whose flawed practices contributed to Miller's conviction, is one of seven cities surveyed whose policy does not require officers to document when they do not have a blind administrator for a lineup.

The other cities are East Cleveland, Garfield Heights, Lakewood, Maple Heights, North Olmsted, and Strongsville.

"This one doesn't require accountability. It doesn't require them to write down the reasons why they couldn't do it," Godsey said.

The policy was produced by Lexipol, a company that develops policies for public safety agencies. A spokesperson said 450 Ohio law enforcement agencies subscribe to its policy management solution.

In a statement to News 5, a spokesperson wrote Lexipol "engaged with The Innocence Project for review and input into the policy."

When asked about not requiring documentation, the spokesperson responded:

"Lexipol’s policy guidance recommends a 'blind' process (one in which the administrator of the line-up does not know who the suspect is), but provides that a 'blinded' administrator (one who may know who the suspect is but does not know the suspect’s position in the lineup) should always be used.

In other words, Lexipol’s policy goes beyond the requirements of the Ohio state statute and provides that all eyewitness identifications lineups will at the very least be blinded, if not blind."

The next chapter

Miller said it is critical for police to use best practices when conducting lineups.

"You're tearing families and lives if you’re not doing it right," Miller said.

"I went from a 20-year-old kid with babies to a 40-year-old man with grown kids," he said. "It’s hard seeing the transition."

"I didn't a get chance to hear my kids call me or say 'Dad, come get me from the basketball game'," he said. "None of that."

In fact, his kids now have children of their own.

"I was seeing them in there," he said. "Being back into their presence. You know, going to their house. It’s amazing though. It’s one of the best things in the world."

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