A South Florida man who served almost 35 years in prison has been acquitted of the robbery he always maintained he did not commit.
A jury convicted Sidney Holmes, 57, based on a botched lineup, a misidentified car, and his criminal record.
Holmes is now a free man after Circuit Judge Edward Merrigan ordered his wrongful conviction for a 1988-armed robbery in Broward County was overturned on Monday, March 13, according to reports.
The Innocence Project of Florida and the Broward State Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Review Unit played a major role in proving his innocence. They presented evidence to persuade a judge to dismiss his 400-year sentence.
In 2019, Holmes approached the Innocence Project to take up his case. After reviewing his file, Seth Miller, the organization’s executive director, reached out to the Broward State Attorney’s Office and spent the next two and a half years working on Holmes’ behalf, according to the Miami Herald.
“When someone’s been in prison for three decades telling everyone ‘I’m innocent,’ ‘I’m innocent,’ — for many of these men and women, no one’s listened to them the entire time,” Miller said.
On June 19, 1988, Holmes was accused of being the getaway driver in the robbery, even though he did not match the description of the driver seen in the car by a witness, reports show
Police pursued the then-23-year-old Holmes because four years prior, he was convicted for his role as the driver in two other armed robberies. Detectives clung to this theory that Holmes was involved, despite his car and the one used for the robbery being different, according to reports.
The investigators also ignored the testimony of six people who located Holmes on the day of the crime, including at the time of the robbery, with his parents.
Officers placed Holmes in a lineup and asked the victim to identify who they believed was the driver. After multiple lineups, the victim finally identified him as a suspect. The woman who accompanied the victim on the day of the robbery was never able to identify Holmes, reports show.
This was enough for the prosecution to secure a conviction after a one-month trial, lasting from April 1989 to May 1989.
No other person was arrested, tried, or convicted for the crime. The two robbers reportedly remain at large.
The prosecution asked a judge to sentence the young man to 825 years in prison, citing his previous armed-robber conviction and his inability to cooperate with law enforcement to nab the two men that actually did the robbery as just cause, according to the Daily Mail.
Prosecutor Peter Magrino said, “The reason for my recommendation and an exceedingly high number of years is to ensure that he won’t be released from prison while he’s breathing.”
Magrino also did not push for a life sentence because he aimed to remove any chance for Holmes to get parole after 25 years.
Three decades later, Arielle Demby Berger, assistant state attorney for the 17th Judicial Circuit, said, “There is no evidence tying Mr. Holmes to the robbery other than a flawed identification,” the Miami Herald reports.
“No fingerprints, no physical evidence. Nothing but one witness ID that we, your honor, believe was a bad ID,” Berger maintained.
Miller said one reason why Holmes’ case was attractive was that it had significant “indicators of actual innocence,” like the fact the cars did not match up. He was not identified in the majority of the photo lineups.
“In a lot of places, we need to fight tooth and nail just to even get to this point,” He said. “It sometimes takes 5 or 10 or 15 years just to vindicate someone.”
When Holmes was brought to the courtroom, he had no idea what his fate would be.
“When he was brought out, he didn’t know that his conviction had been vacated already and that the state was going to drop charges.”
Miller said his client was wrought with emotion because finally, someone believed him — and he would finally be going home.
Broward State Attorney Harold F. Pryor and an Independent Review Panel also reviewed the evidence and agreed with the CRU and Innocence Project that Holmes should be set free.
A few people directly connected to the original case, such as the victims of the robbery, have spoken up, saying they believed Holmes should be freed. Deputies who worked the case were shocked to find out not only that he had spent 34 years behind bars but that he was sentenced to 400 years.
According to CBS News, Pryor also stated the brother of the victim of the robbery launched his own independent investigation into the case and discovered Holmes’ car was most likely misidentified in 1988. The brother said there were important differences between Holmes’ Oldsmobile and the car used in the robbery.
“Prosecutors do not believe there was any intentional misconduct by witnesses or law enforcement as the identification practices and technology have vastly improved since 1988 and deputies followed the accepted standards at the time,” the state attorney said in a statement.
He further claimed methods used to convict Holmes would not be considered an “acceptable” practice in 2023. Despite being locked away for so long, Holmes said, he “never gave up.”
“My family was always by me the whole time, so (losing) hope wasn’t going to be an issue,” he continued.
Holmes said that with this new freedom, he is looking forward to working on prison reform.