Maligie Conteh was hoping to receive an acceptance letter from the Marines on Nov. 24, 2009, the culmination of his dreams since fleeing to the United States from civil-war-ravaged Sierra Leone as a child almost a decade earlier.
But as he biked past the scene of a robbery near an Alexandria mall that evening, the victim identified him as one of the culprits. Conteh was arrested, put on trial and sent to prison for more than a year while also facing possible deportation to the homeland he escaped.
Now, just two weeks before a deportation hearing, a group that includes the staff director of the Senate Finance Committee, the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia and a pro bono attorney say the 22-year-old Alexandria resident is innocent.
They contend that Fairfax County prosecutors failed to disclose key evidence before trial and that newly uncovered records place Conteh away from the scene when the crime occurred. His unusual alibi: Facebook.
The Virginia attorney general’s office said in a court filing that prosecutors did nothing wrong and that the new evidence does not prove that Conteh did not commit the robbery. They point out that the victim said he saw the perpetrator face-to-face and identified Conteh a short time later.
On Thursday, a Fairfax judge is scheduled to hear a petition by Conteh’s attorney asking for the conviction to be overturned.
Russ Sullivan, the Finance Committee director, met Conteh through a mentoring program and has served as his guardian since the death of Conteh’s father. He said that before the robbery case, Conteh, who has no other criminal record beyond a conviction for driving without a license, would chastise kids for getting in trouble — not get into it himself.
Conteh played for the T.C. Williams state championship rugby team in 2009 and sent money to relatives in Sierra Leone, Sullivan said. He survived an ambush by rebel troops there that killed his stepfather and stepsister, his family said.
Conteh, who is in an immigration detention facility in Hampton Roads, was not available to comment. But Sullivan said that Conteh told him, “I think that in the end they are going to figure out who did this.”
Shortly before 6 on a November 2009 evening, Alfredo Cordona-Lopez was behind the Plaza at Landmark shopping center when he was approached by two African American men, one of whom had a knife, he said, according to court papers.
Cordona-Lopez said that one of them demanded money while the other reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, which had $150 in it, according to the records. The men ran, and Cordona-Lopez told the court that he briefly chased them before calling 911. Phone logs show the call was received one second before 6 p.m.; Cordona-Lopez later told police that he thought the robbery was about two minutes before that.
Police went to the scene and began to question Cordona-
Lopez, court records show.
Conteh says he was on Facebook at a friend’s house and left there on his bike shortly after 6 p.m. to head to the apartment he shared with Sullivan. When Conteh was near the mall, Cordona-Lopez spotted him and told police that he was the perpetrator, court records show.
Conteh was detained and later charged, but officers did not find a knife or Cordona-Lopez’s money on him, according to court records.
Conteh’s supporters point out inconsistencies between Cordona-Lopez’s description of the perpetrators and what Conteh was wearing when he was stopped. The victim said the man with the knife had on a gray, hooded jacket and white tennis shoes. Conteh was wearing a black, hoodless jacket and flip-flops.
The attorney general’s office and county prosecutors declined to comment because the case is pending.
Detectives, however, have said that Conteh’s alibi was suspect because he was riding in the direction away from his home, and a judge later said in court that Conteh had enough time to change his clothes between the crime and when he was stopped.
During a 2010 trial, Cordona-Lopez pointed to Conteh when asked who had taken his money. Conteh testified that he was innocent and had talked with police “because I didn’t have nothing to hide,” according to a trial transcript.
Conteh was picked up by immigration officials soon after he was released from jail. He was in the United States legally but risks deportation because of the conviction.
Attorney Anand Ramana and the Innocence Project at U-Va. say that prosecutors failed to disclose Cordona-Lopez’s three convictions, including one for presenting a fake Social Security card to a police officer during a traffic stop. They said the information casts doubt on Cordona-Lopez’s credibility. Cordona-Lopez could not be reached to comment.
The Virginia attorney general’s office says that the information was readily available and did not need to be disclosed.
Conteh’s team also obtained Facebook records showing that a picture was posted to Conteh’s account at 6:09 p.m. — about 11 minutes after the crime. A message was also posted at 6:11 p.m. Those records, they say, bolster Conteh’s contention that he was more than a mile away at a friend’s house and on Facebook about the time of the crime. The friend could not be reached to comment.
The attorney general’s office has said that there is no way to prove that Conteh was the one who made the Facebook posts.
Mabinty Conteh, Maligie’s grandmother, said she fears that he will be sent back to Sierra Leone.
“Who is going to watch him? Who is going to care for him?” she said. “I’m going to lose him again.”