A man in a white shirt and jeans, wearing sunglasses and a white baseball cap, walked into a Killeen 7-Eleven on June 9, 2008. He placed a handgun on the counter and ordered the terrified cashier to hand over all the cash in the register and a carton of cigarettes.
A Bell County jury in 2009 decided that George Powell, a 6-foot-3 musician with broad shoulders who had for years been a thorn in the side of local police, was the man captured in the store’s surveillance footage. An expert for the prosecutor told jurors the man in the video was at least 6-1. A jailhouse snitch told them that Powell had confessed to the crime while they both were in the local lockup. The jury sentenced Powell to 28 years in prison.
Eight years later, thanks to a pen pal-turned-girlfriend, Powell is back in court with new evidence that he says proves his innocence.
In a Bell County courtroom Thursday, Grant Fredericks, a certified forensic video analyst, will tell a judge that the very video that helped send Powell to prison shows he couldn’t have committed the crime. The robber in the footage is much smaller than Powell, Fredericks says.
What’s more, the snitch has recanted his trial testimony, saying he lied about Powell’s confession in a bid for leniency in his own case.
“I would never rob anybody,” Powell said in an interview at the Bell County Jail. “I didn’t do these crimes.”
Assistant Bell County District Attorney Sean Proctor insists the expert at Powell’s original trial is correct about the robber’s height. And he dismisses the snitch’s recantation as unreliable. Powell and his lawyers, Proctor argues, have simply latched on to a bogus claim in their effort to get him out of prison.
“The most that has been done is to muddy the waters,” Proctor said.
Powell’s case will not only determine whether he stays behind bars, though. It could have a lasting impact on how scientific video evidence, now ubiquitous in criminal trials, is used in Texas courtrooms.
Powell was no stranger to Killeen police. He had moved to the area from North Carolina in 2002 and spent much of his time hawking his rap CDs in parking lots to make cash and fuel his music dreams. Annoyed store owners often called police to have him removed.
“I guess I made some enemies,” he said.
When police showed up, guns drawn, to arrest him for the robbery, Powell said, he was stunned.
Someone had called Crime Stoppers after watching surveillance footage of the 7-Eleven robbery on television and identified the culprit as Powell. Police arrested Powell, even though he was more than a head taller than the robber whom the cashier described as about 5-6.
During Powell’s trial, prosecutors hired Michael Knox, a former detective in the Jacksonville, Fla., sheriff’s office. Knox had never testified in a case where he made a height determination based on video analysis, and he hadn’t been trained in the science of it.
He told the jury that the robber in the video footage was at least 6-1, but he was leaning as he walked, which explained why his head lined up with the 5-7 measurement strip on the door.
Despite her initial description of a shorter robber, the cashier told the jury that Powell was the man who pulled a gun on her.
To counter their testimony, defense lawyers presented witnesses from another robbery connected to the same man. They said the gunman was shorter than Powell, the CD salesman they knew as “GQ” who often sold his wares in their parking lot.
Michael Magana, one of Powell’s trial lawyers, said during a recent hearing that he thought jurors were leaning toward a not-guilty verdict until prosecutors brought Demetric Smith to the stand. Smith had been in jail with Powell awaiting trial on burglary charges. He said Powell showed him a photo of the robber and said he gained weight so the jury wouldn’t think it was him.
“It was pivotal,” Magana said of the snitch’s testimony.
“It turned the tide of the trial.”
In 2012, Tamara Parsons was working on her criminology degree in Canada. She had learned that inmates with pen pals often had a better chance of staying out of prison once they were released, so she logged on to writeaprisoner.com.
That’s how she met Powell. At first, they were just friends.
“He always asked about my day and wanted to see my homework,” she said. “He was really genuine.”
As she studied his case, Parsons became convinced Powell was innocent. She also fell in love. A year after meeting him, she packed up her daughter, drove to Huntsville and committed herself to getting him out of prison.
She hired forensic video and audio analyst Al Yonovitz to evaluate the surveillance footage. Yonovitz determined that the robber was only about 5-7.
Parsons submitted his report to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, and pleaded with them to review the evidence. The commission hired Fredericks, an analyst who works with the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice, among others, to review the work of Knox and Yonovitz and weigh in on how forensic video analysis ought to be conducted.
Fredericks concluded that neither Knox nor Yonovitz had used industry-approved methods to determine the robber’s height. He conducted his own analysis, visiting Powell in prison to measure his height and measuring the store doorway and the angle of the camera that recorded the robbery.
The robber was likely about 5-7, Fredericks concluded, but could have been no taller than 5-9.4.
“Mr. Powell should be released immediately,” he said in a phone interview.
Following Fredericks’ report to the commission, Knox prepared new measurements. Now, he said that the robber’s height was at least 5-10 — not the 6-1 he told jurors in 2008 — and that Powell couldn’t be excluded.
The commission didn’t opine about Powell’s guilt or innocence, but in its final report, it said that there were “concerns about the integrity and reliability of the forensic analysis” that jurors heard at his trial.
The report doesn’t have any weight in Powell’s court case. But it did give his lawyers with the Innocence Project of Texas new evidence to point to as they attempt to prove he was wrongfully convicted.
And it bolstered Parsons’ hopes that she might one day be able to share a life with the man she loves.
“It’s not a question of if we get through it, it’s when we get through it,” she said.
In April 2016, just as the commission issued its report, another break came Powell’s way. Smith, the snitch who said Powell confessed, sent an affidavit to the Bell County prosecutor’s office saying he had lied in an effort to get a favorable deal in his own case.
After he agreed to testify against Powell, Smith’s bond was reduced from $75,000 to $35, and prosecutors accepted a plea deal that included a two-year sentence.
“I know that they’d give you less time if you was to provide testimony against someone,” Smith told a private investigator the Innocence Project hired to interview him last year in a Washington state lockup. “I was a really messed-up guy. Doing that. It’s not honorable. I’m sorry.”
Proctor, the prosecutor who is defending Powell’s conviction, said the inmate’s lawyers haven’t presented enough evidence to prove his innocence.
He said the commission’s report was designed to justify the conclusions of Fredericks, which he doesn’t consider “all that awe-inspiring.” Knox, he said, simply used a different method than Fredericks, but his conclusion is legitimate.
“I don’t like the Forensic Science Commission being involved in these cases,” Proctor said.
He also questioned the credibility of Smith’s recantation. The Killeen police regularly used Smith as an informant, and information he provided in other instances was reliable.
“They didn’t have any reason to disbelieve what he was saying, because in the past his information was totally correct,” Proctor said.
Proctor said he’s confident the judge will agree that Powell hasn’t done enough to prove his innocence. The lawyers’ arguments about his height, he said, aren’t legitimate.
Mike Ware, executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas and the lead lawyer in Powell’s case, said the new evidence proves his innocence.
“George is excluded from having committed this robbery just like someone whose DNA is excluded from matching that of the perpetrator,” he said.
It will be some time before Powell will learn whether a court agrees. After Bell County state District Judge John Gauntt rules on the case, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals must decide whether new developments in the field of forensic video analysis are enough to prove Powell’s innocence.
His case could still have widespread ramifications for the use of surveillance camera footage in criminal courts statewide.
Video is one of the most prolific sources of evidence in criminal cases, Fredericks said. But if it’s not analyzed correctly, it can lead jurors to wrong conclusions that have devastating consequences.
“It should frighten the public,” Fredericks said. “There should be minimum standards for anybody giving testimony.”
The Forensic Science Commission report in Powell’s case makes clear that video evidence should be used carefully because it can highly influence jurors’ opinions.
“The importance of reliable and valid forensic analysis in this context cannot be overstated,” the report says.
The commission stopped short of dismissing the validity of using video analysis to determine height, but it cautioned that such evidence should be used only if it’s based on “clear and comprehensive scientific methods.” Among other recommendations, the commission said that in future cases, video analysis ought to be peer reviewed. And it urged the Bell County prosecutor to reach out to the FBI or another law enforcement agency if questions remain about the evidence in Powell’s case.
George Powell, convicted in 2008 of a Killeen aggravated robbery, will be brought back to Bell County for a new trial after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Wednesday that he gets a second chance to prove his innocence.