Eyewitness testimony is one of the most compelling kinds of evidence in criminal court proceedings. Every year, 75,000 people in this country are convicted based upon someone's claim that they saw them commit a crime.

But what happens when eyewitnesses are mistaken, influenced by police and others or flat-out lie? Innocent people end up going to prison, robbed of precious years. Time that they can never get back.

People like Ronald Ross.

Ross wasn't anyone's choir boy. He had a drug record. But he swore he didn't knock on Renardo Williams' door in June 2007 and shoot him.

It didn't matter.

Ronald Ross laughs as he talks about the first meal he had after being released from prison during a press conference at the law offices of Keker & Van
Ronald Ross laughs as he talks about the first meal he had after being released from prison during a press conference at the law offices of Keker & Van Nest in San Francisco on Monday, Feb. 25, 2013. (Laura A. Oda/Staff)

Williams identified Ross from an Oakland police photo lineup as his attacker. The victim was in his hospital bed on a morphine drip when Detective Steve Lovell showed him the photos of suspects -- hardly the ideal situation to yield a reliable identification. Williams chose another man at first. But when the detective told him to look again, he fingered Ross. The only "evidence" connecting Ross to the shooting was the fact that his mother had lived near Williams 10 years earlier.

Ross was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 25 years to life.

For six years, he languished in a cell at California State Prison, Solano for a crime he didn't commit.


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Who knows how long he would have remained there had the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law not thrown him a lifeline? The law school students and project attorneys teamed up with the San Francisco law firm Keker & Van Nest -- which worked pro bono -- to reinvestigate Ross' case.

They found evidence that OPD's investigation was so sloppy it bordered on criminal negligence. They took their findings to the Alameda County District Attorney's Office, which agreed to drop the charges. In February, an Alameda County Superior Court judge overturned Ross' conviction and set the 51-year-old man free.

"The entire criminal justice system -- including myself on behalf of our Police Department -- owes an apology to Mr. Ronald Ross," Chief Howard Jordan said in a letter to the community earlier this month after Ross' release.

I should say so.

Two weeks later, an Alameda County judge overturned the conviction of Johnny Williams, which had also been based in large part on a misidentification by an eyewitness.

But not before Williams had served 14 years in prison -- falsely accused of sexually assaulting a 9-year-old girl in Oakland in 1998. The victim identified Williams as her attacker after her mother suggested that it might have been him because his name is Johnny -- the same name as the man who the girl said had assaulted her. The California DNA Project -- the Innocence Project's sister organization -- sent a sample of the girl's T-shirt -- provided by the Alameda County district attorney -- for DNA testing. It did not match Williams' DNA profile. The testing would not have been possible without a federal grant that will run out in September.

California DNA Project lawyers and Oakland police say "nobody did anything wrong" in the criminal prosecution that led to Williams' conviction.

Small consolation for a man who has had to live with the stigma of being branded a child rapist all these years.

According to Linda Starr, legal director of the Innocence Project, of the 303 people nationwide who have been exonerated through DNA testing, 75 percent of the convictions were based on witness misidentification. Which is why, Starr says, more law enforcement agencies should follow lineup best practices. Making sure that those administering the lineups do not know the identity of the suspects reduces the likelihood of witness coaching -- one major cause of wrong suspect identifications.

On Thursday, the Innocence Project held a fundraiser in Redwood City. Ross and Williams were among the exonerated who attended. Francisco "Franky" Carrillo Jr., an Innocence Project client who spent 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit -- also based on a mistaken witness identification -- accepted the Freedom Award on behalf of all those who were exonerated.

Since 2001, the Northern California Innocence Project has gotten 16 convictions overturned.

Yet the nonprofit can only investigate a fraction of the convictions that merit review.

What happens to innocent people in prison who don't have anyone to fight for justice for them?

Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Her column runs Tuesday and Sunday. Contact her at tdrummond@bayareanewsgroup.com, or follow her at Twitter.com/Tammerlin.