The Miami New Times hones in on the fact that the show's producers are looking for good television, not necessarily the truth about who committed the crimes depicted. One of the innocents they identify who was falsely accused on the show was from Houston:
1,300 miles south in Houston, an innocent man named Cameron Coker languished inside a Harris County jail awaiting trial. In mid-July 2009, 16-year-old Eric Elizarraraz had been shot at an apartment complex just off Highway 6. The boy had confronted a group of men who'd insulted his girlfriend. At least three witnesses offered county deputies a similar description of the killer — tall, light-skinned, skinny — and later picked 18-year-old Coker out of a lineup. As cameras rolled, Coker, who professed innocence, was arrested and charged with murder.
When the episode "Straight Menace" aired on March 11, 2010, viewers howled for Coker's execution. "Put him down," one commenter wrote in an online forum. "They got the death penalty in Houston?"
But the case was substantially more fraught with error than viewers realized. Though the show didn't broadcast it, none of the witnesses whom detectives used were positive Coker was the shooter.Read the whole story. Grits has never been comfortable with the notion of crime as entertainment, so I must admit this New Times story confirms many of my own biases. It's irresponsible when accusations are trumpeted from the mountaintops but dismissals are back-page news, if they're acknowledged at all. They'll keep doing it, though, as long as the method generates strong ratings.
In February 2012 — after Coker had spent nearly three years in jail — Steven M. Smith, a professor of psychology at Texas A&M and an expert in human memory, tracked down the witnesses as part of Coker's defense. The first, Andrew Nguyen, confessed he hadn't seen the shooting and had "taken a good guess," picking Coker out of the lineup "based on what my other friends had told me," according to court documents.
Another witness, Roberto Valdez, who confessed he'd been drunk and high on weed and Xanax the day of the murder, said he told detectives he wasn't sure who pulled the trigger and would "guess." At the bottom of the photo array, he wrote, "I'm p.," which he later told Smith had meant, "I'm probably wrong." A third witness also admitted he hadn't been sure.
In mid-2012, after spending 1,095 days in prison, Coker was released. Prosecutors' closeout memo had cited "witness identification problems."
"I couldn't believe they did that to me," Coker now tells New Times. "It was like a torture that no one should have to go through in this life." Coker's attorney, Vivian King, says she's repeatedly asked The First 48's producers to stop rebroadcasting the episode now that Coker has been exonerated, but they've declined. First 48 producers refused to comment for this article.
"Just imagine the image they made out of me," Coker says, adding he fears retribution for a crime he didn't do. "Even when I walk places I've never been, people know me from The First 48 without really knowing what happened."