COLUMN: Innocent man narrowly escapes long time in prison

Geoffrey Goodwell is a lucky young man.

Not just lottery lucky. Not lucky in love.

But genuinely lucky to be walking around breathing free air. For without a little luck and some last-minute help, the 18-year-old Goodwell might be serving 20 or 30 years for armed robbery, a crime he just happened not to commit.

Not that the local criminal justice system is picky about such petty details. But his story should serve as a shuddering reminder of what young black males experience not only in Southern Nevada, but across the country when they encounter the system.

On Aug. 12, 1999, at the Polo Club Apartments, Kelley Ann Clark was getting into her '85 Mercedes when she was approached by a young black man. She reported to police being threatened with a pistol, then struck from behind. She also reported being robbed of $2,500 worth of jewelry, a payroll check and approximately $70 in cash.

The robber, she would later note, was a couple inches taller than her 5-foot-2. He wore an athletic sweat suit, white with a black leg stripe, a dark shirt and a ball cap.

Four hours after Clark's call to police, officers Dennis Devitte and Richard Sibelrud spotted Geoffrey Goodwell emerging from a nearby convenience store. Devitte is the same hero cop who was shot during a bar robbery before winning a gunfight against an armed assailant.

Although he wasn't wearing clothes that fit the description of

Clark's assailant, Goodwell was a young black male whose general body type matched the image the victim had conveyed.

Goodwell was stopped and questioned by the officers. At first he gave them a false last name, then admitted he was the same Geoffrey Goodwell who had had a minor drug conviction and was just off parole and was attending a narcotics anonymous-type class. He had 63 cents in his pocket after purchasing $1.37 worth of food. But his inconsistent story made the cops suspicious, and he was picked up and hauled to the Polo Club, where he was placed in a one-suspect lineup.

Although Geoffrey Goodwell is 6-foot tall, wasn't wearing a ball cap, wore jeans instead of a sweat suit with his dark shirt, he was positively identified as the pistol-packing robber. And although he consented to a search of his nearby residence, and no cash, jewelry or checks were found, he was booked on battery and armed robbery and spent four months in jail.

Four months was nothing compared to the time he faced if convicted. With the enhancement for using a weapon, Goodwell was looking at up to 30 years in the penitentiary. With a positive identification from the victim, conviction appeared a certainty.

But I said Geoffrey Goodwell was uncommonly lucky, and truer words were never spoken. The young man's plight led his mother to contact O.J. Simpson "Dream Team" attorney Johnnie Cochran, whose office reached out for Las Vegas lawyer Brent Bryson, who presented the problem to private investigator Tom Dillard. Dillard, you will recall, tied together the Ted Binion murder case.

Working without charge, Dillard and Bryson sifted through the facts and noticed a series of inconsistencies. Not only did the evidence not point to Goodwell, but the kid had a strong alibi for the time of the robbery. He was in rehab class with a roomful of witnesses.

After gaining Goodwell's release, the attorney began preparing for trial. Along the way, he pointed out the flaws in the identification, that Goodwell passed a polygraph test, and at last the doubt began to build.

The district attorney's office receives a mountain of concocted alibis each day, but this case was clearly different.

He was, however, guilty of being a young black male, a possible felony not only in Southern Nevada but in cities across the country.

"The woman ID'd him because she probably felt she had to," Dillard says. "The cops had him in custody."

One slip from the abyss of prison, last week the felony charges against Goodwell were dismissed.

So forget that lottery ticket and love of a lifetime.

Geoffrey Goodwell has his freedom, and that makes him the luckiest man in Las Vegas.

John L. Smith's column appears Wednesday in the Nevada Appeal. Reach him at (702) 383-0295 or Smith@lasvegas.com.

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