County of Conviction: Los Angeles
Convicted of: Robbery
Sentence: 15 Years
Year of Conviction: 2013
Cost of Wrongful Incarceration: $350,000
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Years Served: 7
Derrick Harris was wrongly convicted of armed robbery in 2013 at age 22. Harris was charged and convicted with a co-defendant. Over the next few years, the co-defendant and another individual admitted they, not Derrick Harris, had actually committed the crime. As is common in wrongful conviction cases, the victim in the case had misidentified Derrick Harris.
On July 1, 2013, Curtis Blackwell drove his motorcycle to Hawkins House of Hamburgers. There, Blackwell started a conversation with two individuals, Desmen Mixon, and another man, while waiting outside for his food. Blackwell noticed a “B” and an “H” tattooed on Mixon’s chest and Blackwell inquired about the meaning of the tattoos. Mixon told Blackwell the tattoos were his girlfriend’s initials. Blackwell asked Mixon his age to which Mixon responded that he was 33.
Moments later, the second individual standing with Mixon pulled out a silver revolver and placed it against Blackwell’s neck. The man demanded Blackwell’s chain. Mixon broke the chain off of Blackwell’s neck and the robbers fled across the street into Nickerson Gardens. Blackwell chased after the robbers but turned back when the second man pointed the gun at Blackwell.
Blackwell told police the gunman was bearded, with short hair and a receding hairline. Blackwell also described the tattoos to the police. Detective Dennis Parker used computer databases to search for a black male with “B” and “H” tattoos and discovered a possible suspect. Detective Parker put the suspect in a 6-pack photo lineup. Blackwell did not identify the potential suspect as the perpetrator.
LAPD Officer Sharon Kim was the community police officer for Nickerson Gardens for two years and was the officer at the time of the robbery. After reading Detective Parker’s initial report, Officer Kim believed she knew the identity of the robbers based on Blackwell’s descriptions. Based on Officer Kim’s advice, a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Investigator placed photos of Derrick Harris and Mixon in separate 6-pack photo lineups and presented them to Blackwell. Harris’s lineup was highly suggestive. While all six men in the lineup were black, two of the six were bald. Of the remaining four photos, Harris was the only one with the type of beard that Blackwell later described who also had a receding hairline. Blackwell picked Harris and Mixon out of the lineups without hesitation.
Upon arrest, Mixon admitted being at the scene and admitted his affiliation with the Bounty Hunters, but denied involvement. He claimed he saw two black males run into Nickerson Gardens after the robbery. Mixon denied speaking with Blackwell. Derrick Harris admitted his affiliation with the Bounty Hunters but denied involvement in the crime.
Detective Leonard Felix examined both Harris’s and Mixon’s cell phones following their arrest. Mixon’s phone showed incoming and outgoing text messages to and from another cell phone. Mixon sent a text at 7:20 p.m. on July 1, 2013: “I just chase a [racial slur] worn a gun.” At 8:00 p.m., he sent another text message: “I just hit a lick. Yeah. Yeah, babe.” A minute later he sent another text: “I need you ASAP.” The only information recovered from Harris’s phone was another phone number (not Mixon’s).
The only piece of evidence connecting Harris to the crime was Blackwell’s identification.
Derrick Harris testified at trial that on June 30, 2013, Harris and his then-girlfriend, Keisha Brown, went out drinking to celebrate their anniversary. Harris spent all of July 1, 2013, sick in bed at Brown’s home in the Nickerson Gardens. Brown left for 10 minutes to a nearby store to get Harris soda water and Alka-Seltzer. Later, Harris went to the store for more soda, returned to the apartment, and did not leave for the rest of the day. Brown took the stand and corroborated Harris’s alibi.
On cross-examination, Officer Kim actually became a character witness for Derrick Harris when she testified Harris was not a violent person and it was out of the ordinary for Harris to commit a robbery.
Following the trial, Harris’s trial attorney, Deputy Public Defender (DPD) Elizabeth Warner-Sterkenburg, asked Officer Kim to continue to ask around the neighborhood to see if any new information came to light. On November 11, 2014, Officer Kim learned the true perpetrators of the robbery were Mixon and a Bounty Hunter known as “Little Rock.” Officer Kim confirmed this information from a second source shortly thereafter. She communicated this information to DPD Warner-Sterkenburg, who forwarded the information on to the trial prosecutor.
On February 4, 2015, Keisha Brown told DPD Warner-Sterkenburg she had received a letter from Mixon apologizing and saying, “Derrick is innocent, and he is the victim of mistaken identity.” A few days later, the trial prosecutor informed Harris’s attorney that Little Rock is a man named Corey Duplessis. Duplessis was in state prison serving a 6-year residential burglary sentence but was out of custody on July 1, 2013. When confronted in prison by DPD Warner-Sterkenburg and Public Defender Investigator Steve Lewis (who had been investigating the case since the beginning), Duplessis told the pair, “I want to help, I have something to say, if I tell you I’ll end up doing more time, I’ll be back in court.”
On July 2, 2018, Mixon signed a declaration under penalty of perjury stating, in part, “Derrick Harris is not the man that committed the robbery with me. Derrick Harris is innocent and was in no way involved in the robbery of Curtis Blackwell.” Mixon mailed the declaration to DPD Warner-Sterkenburg.
In April of 2020, the California Innocence Project presented Derrick Harris’ case to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit (CRU). Shortly thereafter, the CRU agreed to investigate the case and assigned both attorneys and investigators to look into Harris’ conviction. The investigation is ongoing.
There is little to no doubt Derrick Harris is the victim of a mistaken eyewitness identification.