Michael Googe’s first arrest, on a drug charge, came at the age of 14. In the two decades since, he’s been booked 20 times, for burglary, entering automobiles and shoplifting.
When he was blamed for the June 2007 break-in at the Jazz Mart in Brunswick, it wasn’t hard to make the charge stick. The thief took three cases of beer and $20 in change, leaving behind only one piece of hard evidence: a drop of blood on a money order receipt in the register.
More than seven years after his conviction, that drop of blood turned out to be enough to get Googe exonerated.
Out of the 2,890 cases reviewed by the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council and the Georgia Innocence project, Googe is the only person cleared of a charge because DNA evidence collected at the crime scene didn’t match his. The groups, along with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, received a $424,000 National Institute of Justice grant last year to reexamine evidence processed by the state crime lab in the past six years.
“He’s certainly not a choir boy or a poster child we would put out there for exoneration,” said Christina Cribbs of the Georgia Innocence Project. “Nevertheless, he was wrongly convicted and he shouldn’t have been.”
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The process that led to Googe’s exoneration began with the cataloguing of thousands of DNA samples stored at the state crime lab. Officials then went back to 2009, looking for cases in which the DNA collected did not match the people convicted. It just so happened that, a year after Googe’s conviction, the crime lab was conducting additional tests on evidence flagged in his case.
His was among 2,890 cases that were then reviewed by the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council.
Most of the discrepancies could be explained: for instance, the DNA belonged to a co-defendant. But there were 69 cases in which an explanation was not clear. Those files were forwarded to the Innocence Project for closer examination, and as many as four could end with exonerations.
“No prosecutor in this state wants a truly innocent person to be punished,” said Chuck Spahos of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council.
Clearing people is not the only reason for the project, Spahos said.
“It’s also about solving crime and using the new tech to identify offenders we were not previously able to identify,” Spahos said.
Despite Googe’s exoneration in the June 9, 2007 break-in at the Jazz Mart, he admits he’s guilty of a number of other burglaries and property crimes and is back in custody.
“I’ve done a lot of things,” the 34-year-old Googe said in an interview. “I’m a drug addict.”
That’s no reason to look the other way when the system gets it wrong, said his attorney. “People may not like Mr. Googe’s record but we need to get it right,” said Wrix McIlvaine. “It’s critically important that we have evidence to convict people and that we have safeguards to looking into whether people are being convicted properly.”
Googe told the owner of the Jazz Mart a few days after the burglary that he had seen people at the closed business the night of the crime. When interviewed by a detective, Googe directed the police to the home of Paul Anthony Wright.
Eleven days later, Googe was arrested. Wright and his girlfriend told a detective Googe was the burglar.
At the time, other cases against Googe were pending. He was charged with breaking into the Greyhound Bus station and a money box at a car wash. He pleaded guilty on March 31, 2008 to all three crimes, though he insisted he did only the bus station burglary.
“If he had gone to trial on three different burglaries, he would have got a lot of time,” Cribbs said, explaining the reason Googe admitted to all three while insisting he didn’t do two of them.
Less than a month later after he was sentenced to two years in prison and eight years on probation, the GBI Crime Lab notified Glynn County prosecutors that the blood on the money order receipt was not Googe’s. A year after that, in 2009, the lab told prosecutors that additional testing showed the blood sample belonged to Wright, Googe’s accuser.
Neither Googe nor his public defender from the trial was notified.
“We have prosecutors sitting on evidence when they full-well know this is not the person who committed the crime,” Cribbs said. “It bothers me that we allow this.”
Spahos said prosecutors, like in Googe’s case, don’t have policies in place for notifying defendants or their lawyers when conflicting DNA results come back after a case is been closed. He also said prosecutors don’t have funding to pay for those additional steps.
Consequently, the Crime Lab report on Googe’s case “was just put in a file,” Spahos said, adding that changes are being made.
Soon after the the Innocence Project identified the discrepancy, Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson agreed Googe should be cleared of the Jazz Mart conviction. But she also wrote in a letter to the council that Googe “is not now, and has not ever been, incarcerated solely upon the 2008 burglary conviction which is the subject of concern because of the DNA results.”
Johnson, who was not in office in 2008, wrote that investigators could not find Wright.
“He just got a free pass,” Googe said.
This country has the best justice system in the world, said McIlvane, but it needs improvement.
“The state’s position is he would be up the road anyway,” he said. “It’s at the heart of the Constitution. Get things right. You can’t let things slide because you think he’s not worthy of justice. It could be you or me next time they get it wrong.”