Freddie Lee Gaines

Mistaken ID cost Freddie Gaines 16 years

Freddie Lee Gaines was sentenced to thirty years in prison in 1974 for the murder of Mary Ann Wright based on the mistaken identification testimony of a non-victim witness. Gaines was exonerated in 1991, after the actual murderer confessed in detail to the killing. In 1996, the Alabama Legislature awarded Gaines $1 million for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment.


Case Chronology

1972 — Jonnie Lee Swanson and Mary Ann Wright are shot to death in Wright’s apartment in Birmingham, Alabama.

1973 — Gaines is arrested and held without bond for first-degree murder and is charged with killing both women.

October 23, 1974 — Gaines is convicted of second-degree murder for the killing of Mary Ann Wright and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

1976 — Gaines is acquitted of the murder of Jonnie Lee Swanson, after an earlier trial ended with a deadlocked jury.

July 6, 1985 — Gaines is released from prison with time off for good behavior.

August 17, 1990 — Larry Dennis Cohen (who looks like Gaines) is arrested on drug charges in Jacksonville, Florida, and gives authorities a detailed confession to both of the killings.

February 12, 1991 — The District Attorney in Jefferson County moves for and the trial court grants a petition for relief from conviction for Gaines.

April 30, 1996 — The Alabama Legislature passes the Freddie Lee Gaines Act, Act 96-579, which pays Gaines $1 million over 10 years as compensation for the time he wrongly served in prison.

February 7, 2005 — Gaines receives a full pardon based on innocence.


Case Data

Crime date: 1972
Jurisdiction: Jefferson County, Alabama
Crime: Murder
Related crimes: A second murder
Defendant’s Age at time of crime: 22 (born July 1, 1949)
Gender: Male
Race: White
Arrest date: 1973
Victim: Mary Anne Wright
Victim’s gender: Female
Victim’s race: African American
Victim’s age: Not specified in materials reviewed
How defendant became a suspect: Identified by non-victim witness
Principal evidence of defendant’s guilt: Identification
Principal defense: Mistaken identity
Type of trial: Jury trial
Conviction date: October 23, 1974
Convicted of: Murder
Sentence: 30 years
Appellate record: None
Basis for exoneration: Confession of actual killer
Legal form of exoneration: Conviction vacated by court, pardon from governor
Causes of wrongful conviction: Erroneous eyewitness identification
Release date: July 6, 1985
Days of incarceration: 4,388 (estimated)
Prior record: None
Compensation: $1 million (special award by Alabama Legislature)


— David L. Ridenour