Questions in murder case shows need for eyewitness identification reform in Missouri.

Nathan Hawkins has never denied fatally shooting Eric Cooper in Monroe County nearly 25 years ago. The 42-year-old Missouri man was 19 when he was convicted of first-degree murder and armed criminal action. Thanks to the testimony of Donald “Uncle Mo” Smith, the only eyewitness to the shooting, a Monroe County jury rejected self-defense claims and found Hawkins guilty of his crimes. He has been in a Missouri prison since.

Hawkins’ attorney, in an appeal, argues that the testimony by the single witness that sent the teenager to prison for life was flawed. And in 2019, the witness signed a sworn affidavit providing new, potentially exonerating information.

Whether the testimony – plus a newly available blood-spatter analysis that also raises doubts about the prosecution’s case – means Hawkins was wrongly convicted is now for the courts to decide. But the flimsy nature of the testimony again shines light on the unreliability of eyewitness identification in criminal cases – a problem more and more states have moved to remedy. Missouri is not one of them.

Numerous studies have found eyewitness testimony error-prone. Perjury and false accusations were found in 57% of exoneration cases, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Missouri lawmakers need to consider proposals, like these from the American Psychological Association, that can help prevent the kind of miscarriages of justice that Hawkins and his attorney allege.

According to court records, Hawkins admitted to firing one shot from a front porch while Cooper was in the front passenger seat of a parked vehicle outside a Monroe City, Missouri trailer park home. Cooper died from a bullet wound to the head.

Hawkins’ attorney argues in legal documents recently filed with the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District that if the jury had heard the fuller testimony of the lone witness, as sworn to in the affidavit, it might have come to another conclusion in deciding to send the teenager to prison for life.

Our interest in the Hawkins case is not to determine guilt or innocence – we don’t know if Hawkins was justified in using deadly force to kill Cooper in 1998. Under ordinary circumstances, a jury’s verdict is entitled to respect. But we also know that prosecutors relied heavily on the single eyewitness testimony of Smith – since significantly expanded – to convict Hawkins.

At trial, Smith testified he was in the driver’s seat of the car, with Cooper sitting next to him in the passenger seat, when he heard a “boom,” according to court documents. Monroe County prosecutors argued that Cooper was not a threat to Hawkins, according to court documents.

In 2019, Smith signed a sworn affidavit making clear, however, that when Cooper was shot, he was in the middle of turning to his side, as if he might have been reaching for a weapon. Hawkins’ lawyer says that’s enough to give jurors a reasonable basis to believe Hawkins’ claim of self defense. Smith did not provide that information at the 1999 trial, Kevin Schriener wrote.

Twenty years later, he added to his story. “The victim Eric Cooper was turned around in the seat with his body angled towards the back seat when he was shot by Nathan Hawkins,” Smith wrote in the affidavit, a potentially important detail omitted during testimony. “When the victim was shot he slumped over leaning sideways.”

In addition, a forensic expert hired by Hawkins concluded it was possible that Cooper, the victim, was turned in a manner consistent with someone reaching for something, like a weapon, Schriener wrote in legal arguments.

In 2020, the American Psychological Association recommended several policies and procedures to reduce the rate of eyewitness misidentification. Missouri has been slow to move on any of them, including creating rules to prevent convictions based on a single witness who lacks credibility. After Cooper was shot, Smith hid a gun belonging to Cooper and later sold it, Schriener claimed in legal documents.

Hawkins’ case illustrates the complexity involved with eyewitness testimony. Prosecutors called the killing a hit or an execution, according to court records. A jury agreed. But was it?

“At trial, I had little evidence to support my claim of self-defense,” Hawkins said in an interview with the editorial board. But he said now he does have evidence to support his claim.

A jury’s rejection of self-defense claims is seldom reversed in court, although the two new pieces of evidence suggest Hawkins could have acted out of fear for his life. What happens when the state’s only eyewitness to a murder adds significant, and potentially exonerating information to his testimony and a forensic scientist concludes the state’s theory doesn’t match with evidence collected from the scene?

The appellate court should consider the new evidence and new testimony from the state’s main witness in the Hawkins conviction. But whether that’s grounds for a new trial or not, the case makes clear how flimsy eyewitness testimony can be, and how big a role it can play in deciding a case.

Twenty-five states have a model eyewitness identification policy on the books, according to the Innocence Project. Missouri needs to join them.