9 investigates: Wrongfully locked up for 15 months for murder

9 investigates: Wrongfully locked up for 15 months for murder

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Witt Alexander was arrested, locked up and lost more than a year of his life because an eyewitness picked the wrong man.

Alexander's dream is to make it big in the music business. It's a love he acquired from his father, who passed away when he was just 7 years old.

"He played in a band for a group from New York. I was into music a lot," Alexander said.

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<p>Witt Alexander</p>

Witt Alexander

(Witt Alexander)

But on June 24, 2018, Alexander’s life was turned upside down. Mariah Turner, 25, was shot and killed at her home on Long Street in East Spencer.

Deputies believe Turner was the victim of a home invasion. She was pregnant at the time and the baby died, meaning whoever shot her would be looking at a possible death sentence.

Detectives didn't have much to go on, but they caught what seemed to be a lucky break in Alphonso Ross.

"When I seen that (expletive) with that pistol in his hand, I seen his face," Ross said in an interview with investigators.

He was an eyewitness to the crime and claimed he had been threatened by the gunman.

"I wish I knew more about this (expletive) man, I just know his face," Ross told investigators.

(Ross being interviewed by investigators)

From the police lineup, Ross picked Alexander, who was on probation for common law robbery and a few other charges.

"I really didn't take it serious at first,” Alexander said. “I took it like this is a dream. I was like yeah, this is a mistake."

Within hours of the shooting, Alexander was charged with first-degree murder. But he didn't think he'd be in jail for long because surely, investigators would realize their mistake.

Hours turned into days, though, and days turned into weeks and months.

"Did you get to the point where you kind of gave up hope?” Channel 9 reporter Glenn Counts asked.

“Yeah, I did,” Alexander said. “It was hard."

Into the picture walked Sam Russell, a retired detective with the Salisbury Police Department. He's now a private investigator and worked with Alexander's defense team -- and discovered some significant holes in the prosecution's case.

Alexander claimed he was in Charlotte when Turner was killed, and there were photos to prove it, showing him and a friend walking around the Epicentre in uptown.

Deputies said Turner was shot around 2:15 a.m. A surveillance camera captured an image of the car Alexander and his friend were in at 2:39 a.m. at Brevard and Fourth streets.

That's 24 minutes after the murder.

Channel 9 decided to drive the distance from the victim's home to the corner of Brevard and Fourth to see how long it would take.

Averaging about 68 mph, it took 49 minutes and 29 seconds to arrive – meaning the earliest Alexander and his friend could have gotten to Charlotte was roughly 3:28 a.m.

The other hole in the case involves that eyewitness, Ross.

"The thing that stood out in my mind is the weakness of the prosecution's case," said Alexander’s civil attorney, Charles Everage.

Officers spoke with Ross for close to an hour the morning of the murder, but he could never remember the name of the man he reported seeing.

Then at 4:50 a.m., deputies brought in some help -- the brother of Mariah Turner and his girlfriend. They used their cellphones to show Ross some pictures.

(Ross being shown images on cell phones of Turner's brother and his girlfriend)

“I can't even tell you how many basic investigation rules that violates," said USC law school associate professor Dr. Seth Stoughton. "You separate witnesses, you don't allow them to contaminate each other’s stories. You certainly don't want to provide suggestive imagery to an eyewitness before having him look at a photo array."

An hour after Ross was shown Alexander's picture, he was taken into another room and shown a photo lineup.

He picked out Alexander.

"That's him,” Ross told investigators. “That's two of them that look just alike, but I think that's him.”

"Then he picks my client, who he has just seen minutes before on someone’s cellphone,” said Everage. “They knew it was wrong."

Everage said that move violated North Carolina's Eyewitness Identification Reform Act.

"Those procedures were violated in every way," he said.

"Although he thought he was comparing the photo array to his memory of the shooter, what he was actually doing without even realizing it is comparing the photo array to his memory of the phone," Stoughton said.

Fifteen months after Alexander was booked into jail, the charges against him were finally dropped.

His legal team believes prosecutors had this evidence and could have dismissed the case much earlier.

"I'm just appalled by the prosecutor’s actions,” Everage said. “I'm appalled by the sheriff's department's actions in Rowan County and they have to be held accountable."

Alexander has returned to his music and to his 4-year-old son, Jeremiah, but he lost a year of his life.

"In Salisbury, there is a person that for over a year now hasn't been prosecuted, hasn't been pursued, hasn't been investigated because the sheriff's department didn't do its job," said Everage.

"That image they made me out to be, that's not who I am, and it hurt me because that's my hometown,” Alexander told Channel 9. “That's where I was born and raised.”