Time Lost: 5234 days 16 hours 48 minutes 5 seconds
Clayton County, GA | July 29, 2009
At 10:49 a.m. on July 29, 2009, a young woman (LP) in College Park, Georgia called 911 to report that two men had entered her home and shot her sister (SP). SP later died due to her gunshot wounds.
Officers from the Clayton County Police Department transported LP to the police station, where she reported that two unmasked Black men with guns entered her home demanding money. After receiving no money, “the Shooter” shot SP twice. The second man, “the Guard,” held LP at gunpoint during most of the attack. A sketch artist from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation composed sketches of the two suspects based on LP’s descriptions.
Based on LP's lack of confidence that the sketches resembled the men who committed the crime (she rated them between a 3 to 5 out of 10 for accuracy), the sketch artist said the sketches were not worth circulating. The detective circulated the sketches to local tv stations anyway. As a result, a woman called to report that the sketches looked like a man she knew (Erik Heard) and a friend of his, whose name she did not know. This woman had no reason to believe Erik had anything to do with the home invasion or shooting of SP.
Once Erik became a suspect, LP was shown a highly suggestive photo array (below). LP described the Shooter as a dark-skinned man with glasses who was 20-25 years old. Erik, who was 33-years-old, was one of only two dark-skinned men in the lineup and the other was not wearing glasses or a similar age. LP, using a process of elimination, thought that Erik “look[ed] more like'' the Shooter than the rest of the men in the lineup.
Despite her initial inability to positively identify the Shooter, by the time of the trial, LP claimed her identification was made “without a doubt in [her] mind.” It is not uncommon for witnesses to become more confident in what was initially a shaky eyewitness identification, but research shows that a witness’ initial confidence level is the most accurate. Her confidence was likely bolstered by the fact that her family had the completely false impression that there was DNA evidence and a gun linking Erik to the crime. Although it is unclear how the family came to believe this incorrect information, they communicated their belief to the DA’s office, who never corrected them or shared the family’s misimpressions with Erik’s attorneys.
The second component of the State’s case against Erik was a statement provided by jailhouse informant, Sterling Flint. Flint, whom you may recognize from another of GIP’s cases where he again accepted a benefit in exchange for false testimony, was being questioned while in jail for unrelated crimes after Erik’s arrest. He suggested to police that he knew about a case he saw on TV, but would only share if he got something in return. After the police agreed to give Flint a bond in exchange for information, Flint claimed he overheard Erik make incriminating statements about shooting someone. His claims contained no specific details of the crime–not even who, when, or where. Flint fully recanted his statements at trial. Another witness that Flint had included in his statement also confirmed that his story was completely false.
On March 12, 2012, Erik Heard was convicted of murder, despite the only evidence against him being an unreliable eyewitness ID and a recanted statement by an incentivized jailhouse informant. Notably, Erik’s friend and co-defendant, SF, was never tried. Before trial, SF’s legal team presented the LP with the photo of an alternate suspect who had committed similar crimes (with an accomplice who is not Erik). LP positively identified the alternate suspect, retracting her earlier identification of SF. The State then dropped the charges against SF but still proceeded against Erik.
GIP and co-counsel Alston & Bird and Meagan Hurley of the Mercer Habeas Project legal clinic have filed a habeas corpus petition raising numerous constitutional violations related to Erik’s wrongful conviction. For example, the State failed to disclose a variety of exculpatory and impeachment evidence at trial, including fingerprint examination results that did not match Erik or his co-defendant, SF. The State also presented and failed to correct false and misleading testimony. Erik's trial and appellate attorneys also did not raise viable issues related to the unreliable eyewitness, poor composite sketch, and viable alternate suspects in the case, among other things.
Erik has spent 14 years incarcerated, and counting. An evidentiary hearing related to his recent habeas petition is scheduled for the Fall of 2023. Check back soon for more updates on his case.
Alston & Bird
Mercer Law Habeas Project
Two consecutive life sentences