SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Newly-obtained documents show an anonymous phone call and a photo lineup landed the wrong man in jail for more than three weeks. Last week, Savannah police officers dropped armed robbery charges on James McGill III – initially accused of robbing an elderly man near downtown, last December.
The case for James McGill Jr. has long turned from proving his son’s innocence to now finding out why and how it happened. He said he already knew his son couldn’t have committed the crime.
“He’s not a morning person. He wouldn’t get up in the morning to do anything, let alone rob somebody,” McGill Jr said. “Based on the time he was called in, there was no way, no way.”
The robbery happened on East Huntingdon Lane on Dec. 18 around 10 a.m. James said his son was called into work at 9:45 that morning from his Georgetown apartment.
The next day, police sent out a release with a red truck possibly tied to the suspect. According to the search warrant, on Dec. 20, an anonymous caller gave McGill’s name to police and said McGill drove a red truck and nothing more.
On Dec. 21, another man called police. He said he wanted to clear his name because his truck was on the news.
Police confirmed his truck, the one they sent out in the release, was not involved in the crime and cleared it from the crime.
Despite the tip about McGill driving a red truck being his only connection to the crime at this point, officers placed his picture in a six-picture lineup for the victim that same day, only hours after clearing the red truck. The 71-year-old man picked out McGill.
On Dec. 24, McGill came to the police department. According to the detective, he did not want to talk without a lawyer and was taken to jail.
“I was bewildered. I sat in the parking lot of the police station for about an hour-and-a-half, trying to wake up from this nightmare,” McGill’s father said.
Officers checked his initial alibi – that he was working that morning at Carey Hilliard’s. A picture from surveillance video shows him clocking in about 10 minutes after the crime occurred. In departmental emails though, the detectives threw this out and said McGill wasn’t working at the time of the robbery. There is no mention of the fact that McGill did in fact clock into work a short time later in different clothes than the suspect.
According to documents WTOC got in an open records request, the main thing tying McGill to the crime is the fact that the victim identified him in a photo lineup. Police have said the victim picking out McGill and the anonymous tip gave them probable cause to arrest him.
Maxine Bryant, a criminal justice and criminology expert and professor at Georgia Southern, said moving forward in the case with just the photo ID would have been difficult.
“Photo lineups [are a] great starting place. Don’t go into the courtroom without additional evidence,” said Bryant. “It may not work in your favor.”
She said factors like victim memory and the trauma they faced make a lineup harder to trust than DNA or eyewitness evidence. In this case, a victim picked out a suspect who was on the other side of town buying gas.
“That’s a good example of why we cannot rely totally on photo lineups,” Bryant said.
The family feels police and the DA’s office sat on the evidence that cleared McGill. The DA disputes this idea.
On Jan. 9, she said the defense attorney gave her office a receipt showing McGill’s purchase at the gas station around the time of the crime. The DA argued that’s not enough, because anyone could use the card.
“We only had one snippet,” said Chatham District Attorney Meg Heap. “We need all of it together to put it all in context to verify that in fact he could not have been there at the time of the armed robbery.”
In emails shown to WTOC, the defense attorney sent some more information to prosecutors over the weekend.
On the morning of Jan. 15, the prosecutor sent an email to police and told them about the alibi. That day, officers got video of him at this gas station around the time of the robbery. He was out of jail a little more than 24 hours later.
“Nobody wants to put somebody that’s not guilty in jail. Once we received it all, we turned it over to the police. As soon as they verified that, after they investigated it, we agreed to release the individual on their own recognizance,” Heap said.
In emails sent among investigators after WTOC’s initial request for an interview several weeks ago, the investigative division’s lieutenant and sergeant said the incident was unfortunate. One even called it a case of ‘victim misidentification.’ The department would not elaborate on these comments.
Police refused to answer specific questions. We asked them why they didn’t throw out McGill as a suspect when the red truck was cleared from the crime. We asked them why McGill had to work so hard to prove his innocence. We got no answers. They referred us to a prior statement that said they had probable cause to arrest McGill and released him when they got enough evidence to support his alibi.
As for prosecutors, the DA said one week from the time they first got alibi information to McGill’s release is a fair and quick time.