Jailed for a year, man's name cleared

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It took a jury this week just 15 minutes before it found a Mount Oliver man not guilty of robbing a PNC Bank branch.

The prosecution of Dale Shaffer was based solely on the identification of the suspect by three bank employees who variously testified that they saw the suspect from a distance away, "out of the corner of their eye," or for only a second or two.

After his release from jail late Tuesday, Mr. Shaffer contacted the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about his situation, which echoed that of DeAndre Brown, whose case was profiled in Sunday's paper.

Mr. Brown was charged with robbing a Homewood bakery in September and spent a month in jail before anyone investigated his alibi -- which proved he was at a work training seminar at the Carnegie Library in Oakland at the time the crime was committed.

In Mr. Shaffer's case, he sat in jail for nearly a year awaiting the chance to prove his innocence.

"I wanted to clear my name," he said.

Mr. Shaffer, 24, was accused of entering the branch at 2603 E. Carson Street on the South Side on March 13 and threatening a teller there.

According to an affidavit of probable cause, a person entered the bank about 2:45 p.m. and approached a teller, saying he would like to cash a check.

The subject then removed a folded note from his jacket, which said, "This is no joke. This is no 911. Give me all your money. No buttons or I'll blow you away!"

The teller handed the suspect a little less than $850, and he fled.

A photo of the suspect was released to the media, and officers got a tip the next day from a person identifying the robber as Mr. Shaffer.

According to the criminal complaint, written by Pittsburgh police robbery Detective Nicholas Bobbs, Mr. Shaffer was picked out of a photo array and identified as the bank robber.

After his arrest on March 27, he said, Detective Bobbs attempted to get him to confess, but Mr. Shaffer would not.

"I know what I did or didn't do," he said. He told the detective, "You're not going to scare me or entice me into confessing to something I didn't do."

Because Mr. Shaffer was already on probation from a previous conviction for driving under the influence, he was lodged in the Allegheny County Jail on a detainer -- along with the robbery charges -- and could not make bond.

He remained there until his trial began Monday, despite efforts by his defense attorney to get the case thrown out.

Assistant public defender Daniel Eichinger filed a number of motions filed in the case, targeting the identifications made by the bank employees.

He said they were unreliable and that the procedure used to obtain them by investigators was "highly suggestive."

"Indeed, Mr. Shaffer is the only person in the photo array whose characteristics match the description provided by witnesses," Mr. Eichinger wrote.

The teller who was robbed initially described the suspect as clean-shaven, having black curly hair, with braces. The suspect was also wearing large black sunglasses that completely covered his eyes.

The defense alleged that description did not match Mr. Shaffer. But Common Pleas Judge Donald E. Machen denied the motion, and the case went to trial.

The prosecution called only four witnesses -- the three bank employees and a detective. The defense also called four, including the woman with whom he'd been living around the time of the robbery, who confirmed Mr. Shaffer didn't have braces and that investigators never searched their home to look for evidence.

The jury was barely gone from the courtroom deliberating long enough for Mr. Shaffer to finish his bologna sandwich in the bullpen before it reached a verdict.

"I had a feeling it had to be good because we presented a strong defense," Mr. Eichinger said.

A spokesman for the DA's office had no comment. Pittsburgh police supervisors could not be reached Friday. After the verdict was rendered, several jurors expressed to the defense that they believed that not only had the commonwealth failed to meet its burden, but that Mr. Shaffer was actually innocent.

Mr. Eichinger concurred.

He represented Mr. Shaffer throughout the criminal court process, from his preliminary hearing through trial. "He's a very sincere and personable guy," Mr. Eichinger said. "I had a gut feeling about this. He was so adamant it wasn't him.

"I believed in his innocence from the start."

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard.

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