Wednesday, August 31, 2016 · by Tamara Aparton
San Francisco, CA — A homeless man who was arrested for stealing a city maintenance truck was acquitted of all charges after a jury determined he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced today.
Jurors on Monday found Darwin Romero, 28, not guilty of auto theft and receiving stolen property. If convicted, he faced up to three years in state prison, said his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Kimberly Lutes-Koths.
The charges stemmed from an Oct. 5, 2015 incident involving the theft of a Department of Public Works truck. The DPW employee parked the vehicle near a job site on 8th and Harrison streets, leaving the door unlocked with his keys on the bench seat under some papers and a cell phone. As he worked with another man 60 feet away, a passing motorist honked and pointed at the DPW truck. The workers then spotted a strange man driving off in the truck.
DPW officials tracked the truck by GPS to the sprawling John McLaren Park. When police responded, the truck had been abandoned in a parking. Romero sat 15 feet away on a bench, intoxicated. Officers conducted a cursory walk through the park, but did not find anyone else.
The truck’s driver identified Romero in a “cold show” as the man who stole the vehicle, saying he recognized him by his blemishes.
During the trial, however, it became clear he had misidentified Romero, Lutes-Koths said. Responding officers testified that both workers initially described the thief as a 5’8” to 5’9” white man with reddish facial hair. Romero is a 5’ 2” Latino man with a black mustache.
An identification expert who took the stand testified that police conducted the cold show in an improper manner. By handing the driver his stolen belongings back seconds before asking him to identify Romero as the suspect, police planted the suggestion that the stolen belongings were found in Romero’s possession, the expert testified.
After identifying Romero, both workers began to add details to their initial suspect description that matched Romero.
“The expert testified how the brain doesn’t work like a camera. Instead, it gathers information from other sources and fills in gaps in memory,” Lutes-Koths said.
Jurors were also troubled by the lack of evidence gathered, such as fingerprints or DNA.
“Ultimately, there were lots of reasonable doubts. If the police had taken the time to investigate instead of assuming, they might have figured out who committed this crime,” Lutes-Koths said.
Eyewitness misidentification is one of the main causes of wrongful conviction, Adachi said.
“Some studies have shown up to 25 percent of all stranger eyewitness identifications are wrong. When you add in suggestive eyewitness identification procedures by police, that number rises,” Adachi said. “Mr. Romero had the misfortune of being in the park at the wrong time. Fortunately, he had a public defender who fought to clear his name.”