ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) - A man claims he's innocent of a crime for which he was sentenced to nearly two decades in prison. Now, someone else is stepping forward saying he’s the one who did it instead.
The crime happened in October 2004 at the now-demolished Cochran Gardens housing complex in St. Louis.
A woman was on her way to visit her sister, but the elevator doors of the building opened too soon. The victim told police two men were there. One held a gun. The other wore a mask. They demanded her purse. At first, she resisted, but then, terrified, she turned it over.
The next day, at the housing complex, police arrested John Hickman and Marcus Ellis in connection with the crime.
For 13 years, Ellis has been behind bars.
“I had no money for powerful lawyers, no status in the community and this is what happens,” he said.
Ellis says his childhood was not unlike others growing up in St Louis.
“I grew up in a violent neighborhood, I grew up around people into drugs, selling drugs. I even sold drugs before,” Ellis said.
That October, the day after the armed robbery, the 19-year-old had gone to his grandma's house. She lived in the Cochran building, too.
He saw Hickman, his daughter's uncle.
“I said ‘oh that's John Hickman,’ I am going to go holler at him,” Ellis said.
Hickman asked him if he wanted a hat, a skull cap.
“I noticed there were eye holes in the skull caps, he said, ‘It’s nothing, it is what it is,’” Ellis said.
But that cap became evidence against Ellis at his jury trial. The victim never saw his face because of the mask.
Police put Ellis in a line-up with four other men, he says, who were older than him.
The masked man had said five words during the robbery, "shoot her, man, shoot her."
In the line-up, police instructed Ellis to utter those same words.
“The victim allegedly picked me out by my voice,” Ellis said.
The victim testified his height and build were consistent too.
"How sure are you?" the prosecutor asked her at trial.
"100 percent percent sure." she said.
Though on cross-examination, she said his voice was younger than other people in the line-up.
The jury found him guilty.
"I’m innocent," Ellis told the judge at sentencing, "And I feel it's unfair for me to convicted by voice, by somebody saying I sound like a person, and I want to continue to proclaim my innocence."
With a prior record, including drug dealing, the judge sentenced Ellis to 18 years in prison.
“I do remember the case well,” said attorney Jessica Hathaway about the voice identifying procedure. “I have done hundreds of appeals in the last 15 years and this was the only case where I've seen that,” said Hathaway,
Hathaway represented Ellis on appeal. She questioned police procedure with the line-up.
“There was no effort to find people who had a similar sounding voice,” she said.
She argued against the voice identification.
“In the area of voice identification, it's just the Wild West. It comes up very seldom. There haven't been the same sorts of rigorous studies of its reliability, partly because it’s so rare,” Hathaway said.
But the courts upheld the conviction.
Hickman had long before pleaded guilty. After all, the victim had clearly seen his face. He got less time than Ellis.
Through his parole officer, Hickman declined to talk to News 4.
“Because he said I did it, he gets to go home,” Ellis said.
Thirteen years have passed. Ellis' daughter was just a baby when he went into prison. Now, she’s much older, posing for pictures in the prison's visitor's room.
“My daughter is 15-years-old. She needs a father now,” Ellis said.
Ellis says, through it all, he's held onto hope.
“Hope is the only way I can stay rational, I can stay sane,” he said.
Now, Ellis' hope has a name, Nathan Barry.
“How do you know Marcus Ellis did not commit that crime?” asked Trager. “Well, that's simple, I know it because I'm the one who did it,” Barry said.
In 2016, Barry was sentenced to prison for 15 years for a series of crimes. He got transferred to the state prison in Pacific last year.
That’s where he just so happened to meet Ellis for the first time.
“We were talking sports, women, we were talking like regular guys,” said Barry.
Talk them turned to why they were in there.
Barry says he told Ellis he believed Ellis didn’t do the crime, for one simple reason.
“I did that, that was me,” said Barry.
Barry, who was 16 at the time, described details.
He had been hanging out with Hickman and a group on that day in October. Hickman suggested the robbery and gave him a mask.
“Let’s get something to drink, rob somebody, hang out with these gals,” Barry said.
Ellis says he could barely believe it.
“I was shocked but I was relieved because he was the only one who ever said he believed me,” said Ellis.
Barry says he suddenly faced a dilemma.
“He was like, ‘Man would you be willing to tell somebody this?’ and I was like, ‘Can I think about it?’ But I am thinking, no,” Barry said.
But he says he stopped sleeping.
“It’s like man, I might as well have put that man in jail myself, I might as well have put him in here, because in a sense I did, so it's up to me to fix it, who else but me?” Barry said.
He decided to come forward. He wrote an affidavit. They sent it off to attorneys and to News 4.
“I began to sleep better, to this day I sleep better now,” Barry said.
But could it be too good to be true? Too convenient? News 4 asked Barry if Ellis had promised him anything for coming forward.
“Now I am going to be honest with you, sometimes when I need something, I'll say, ‘Hey, you got a bag of chips?’ and he'll be like, ‘Yeah, I'll give you a bag of chips,’ but as far as promising me anything, no he didn't promise me anything," Barry said.
“Are you willing to cooperate with any investigation about it?” Trager asked. “Yes, I am,” Barry said, even knowing it could bring consequences.
So News 4 took the matter directly to the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's Office, who prosecuted the case under a previous administration.
“We are investigating it,” said Tony Box with the Circuit Attorney’s Office. “If there was a wrong, we would right the wrong.”
In fact, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner says the office has just been awarded a federal grant. Dedicated staff will work with the Midwest Innocence Project to begin reviewing approximately 20 cases.
She says no prosecutor wants to convict the wrong person.
“Sometimes good people make mistakes, as well as prosecutors, it's not intentionally, but it’s our job to make sure we have the right person,” she said.
Hathaway too, says she's willing to help.
“I wouldn't be surprised if he was wrongfully convicted, I wouldn't be surprised if there was some other people out there,” she said.
“I think it was divine intervention,” Ellis said.
“What else could it be? What else could it be aside from God wanted to set things right in the world,” Barry said.
Their unlikely meeting is now renewing Ellis’ hope.
“I feel like at the end, justice will be done for me,” Ellis said.
Some experts say armed robberies are among the cases most likely to see a wrongful conviction because so much of the evidence relies on eye witness testimony, which can sometimes be flawed.
Both men say they're very sorry for what the victim in the case went through. News 4 tried numerous times to reach out to her but she never responded.
The review of Ellis' case could take a while.