San Francisco, CA — A borderline mentally disabled man charged with robbing an elderly woman in 2011 was acquitted after evidence showed he was confused and manipulated by police investigators’ leading questions, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced today.
Jurors deliberated one day before reaching their verdict Wednesday, finding German Woods, 56, not guilty of robbery. Woods, who had been jailed since his Aug. 31, 2011 arrest, was released Wednesday night, said his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Megan Burns.
On June 28, 2011, a 74-year-old woman reported that a man followed her into the elevator of her Tenderloin residential hotel, covered her mouth with his hand, and took $50 in cash from her pocket before fleeing.
Two months later, on Aug. 30, Woods showed up at the hotel with the woman’s identification card and Clipper card, telling the desk clerk he had found the items and was hoping he might get a reward from their rightful owner. The clerk took Woods’ name and asked him to return the next day. When Woods returned the following day, the clerk told him to wait.
Woods sat down and waited. He watched as police arrived and spoke with the desk clerk. The hotel manager emerged and pointed at Woods, who was then arrested.
“Mr. Woods was less than 20 feet from the front door but he never tried to run away. He just sat and sat and waited. Those are not the actions of someone who committed a robbery at the same building two months earlier,” Burns said. Additionally, evidence was introduced during trial that the woman’s identification cards were not taken in the robbery—only her cash.
At the police station, Woods denied robbing the woman. Investigators then showed him grainy surveillance footage of the man suspected of the crime, telling him the suspect looked like him. Woods, who believed police were showing him footage of his visit to the hotel 24 hours earlier, agreed it was him, noting that he was at the hotel the day before.
During the two week trial, a neuropsychologist testified that Woods has an IQ of 71. Woods’ intellectual functioning is on a third grade level, the expert testified, making him easily led by police into giving the responses he believes they desire.
The jury also had concerns regarding the photographic lineup shown to the victim. While the five other suspects wore similar, serious expressions, Woods was depicted with a broad smile. The woman, who is from rural China and speaks only Toisanese, testified through an interpreter that police gave her a “thumbs up” when she identified Woods.
The woman also appeared to have memory problems, giving testimony that was inconsistent with her previous statements, Burns said.
“Through no fault of the victim’s, her memory of what happened more than two years ago was very spotty,” Burns said. “It was hard to identify if a robbery happened at all and there was much reason to doubt that Mr. Woods was at fault.”
Adachi said the case highlights the problems with suggestive interrogations.
“There has been considerable research showing that suggestive questioning not only pressures people into giving the answer they believe will please police, but it distorts the memory, leading people to believe their first impressions of an event were wrong,” Adachi said. “Fortunately for Mr. Woods, his public defender was able to untangle fact from fiction.”