“It absolutely undermines my confidence in the outcome,” Bellows said.
Conteh, who served more than a year in prison, was facing possible deportation to his homeland of Sierra Leone because of the conviction. He has maintained all along that he was innocent and was using Facebook on a friend’s computer at the time of the crime. He had dreamed of joining the Marine Corps and was hoping to receive an acceptance letter the day he was arrested.
A group that included the staff director of the Senate Finance Committee, the Innocence Project of the University of Virginia and lawyers at the firm of McGuire Woods filed a petition asking the judge to vacate Conteh’s conviction.
They argued that the alleged victim’s crime was critical to the case because it could have undermined the truthfulness of his testimony. They also uncovered records showing that a photo and message had been posted on Conteh’s Facebook account about 10 minutes after the robbery, bolstering his alibi.
Dozens of friends and family members cheered and clapped outside the courtroom after the ruling, saying the judge had righted a wrong. Conteh is being held in an immigration detention facility in Hampton Roads and was not present for the hearing.
“Justice has been done,” said Humu Conteh, Conteh’s aunt.
Bellows said Fairfax County prosecutors had “unintentionally” withheld the evidence of the victim’s criminal background. Detectives had searched an arrest database but said they did not find anything. Prosecutors then told Conteh’s trial attorney that the accuser did not have a criminal record, and that angle was not explored at Conteh’s trial.
Conteh could be tried again, and the judge gave prosecutors until Sept. 28 to decide their next step. The judge did not rule on the defense’s other claim: that Conteh’s trial attorney failed to provide adequate representation because he did not seek Facebook records key to Conteh’s alibi.
Leah Darron, senior assistant attorney general, argued to have the conviction upheld, saying prosecutors did not have to disclose the criminal background information because it was readily available in a court database.
The incident at issue occurred Nov. 24, 2009, as Alfredo Cordona-Lopez was cutting through a parking garage at the Plaza at Landmark shopping center. He said he was approached by two African American men, one of whom had a knife, according to court records.
Cordona-Lopez said that one man demanded money and that the other reached into Cordona-Lopez’s jacket pocket and removed his wallet, which had $150 in it, court records show. He briefly chased the men and then called police at one second before 6 p.m., according to logs.
Police were interviewing Cordona-Lopez when Conteh rode by on a bike, according to court records. Cordona-Lopez said Conteh was one of the men who robbed him. Police detained Conteh, but they did not find the knife or money. There also were inconsistencies between Cordona-Lopez’s description of the suspects and what Conteh was wearing that night.
Conteh maintains that he was on his way from a friend’s house and had been on Facebook. Adama Fullah, the friend, said Thursday that Conteh had been on the computer at her house that night. She said she thought he left there after 6 p.m. but couldn’t be sure because she was not keeping track of time.
The Facebook records show a photo was posted to Conteh’s account at 6:09 p.m. and a message about a speech he gave the previous night at 6:11 p.m. Conteh’s attorneys said it would be impossible for Conteh to commit the robbery, run more than a mile to the friend’s house, dispose of the knife and cash, change his clothes and bike back to the crime scene where Cordona-Lopez spotted him.
Darron, the senior assistant attorney general, disputed the defense’s theory in court.
“The Facebook posts don’t provide a silver bullet alibi,” she said.
For now, Conteh’s attorney said he was satisfied.
“Our partner always says, ‘Good always wins,’ and he’s right today,” Anand Ramana said.