Uriah Courtney was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. In 2004, a teenage girl was sexually assaulted by a stranger on the streets of Lemon Grove, a city in San Diego County. Prior to being assaulted, the victim noticed a man staring at her from an old, light-colored truck with a fake wooden camper. When the victim spoke with police, she told them she assumed the man from the truck had attacked her, and that her attacker was a white male in his 20s.
Police put out an alert for a vehicle matching that description. Eventually, someone saw a light-colored truck with a fake wooden camper in that area and called the police. The truck belonged to Courtney’s stepfather. He used the truck for the business where he and Courtney worked and allowed his employees to use the truck as well. Courtney’s coworker had the truck parked in his driveway in Lemon Grove when someone called it in. Both the coworker and Courtney’s stepfather were too old to match the victim’s description, but Courtney wasn’t.
Police presented a photo of Courtney to the victim in a photo lineup. She picked out Courtney, saying she was, “Not sure, but the most similar is number 4,” according to the California Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that helps free innocent people and overturn wrongful convictions.
An eyewitness also identified Courtney. Based on this, Courtney was arrested for kidnapping and rape. In 2005, a jury found him guilty and a judge sentenced him to life in prison.
Years later, the California Innocence Project took on Courtney’s case and got the San Diego District Attorney’s office to submit the victim’s clothing for DNA testing. The DNA on the victim’s clothing did not match Courtney. But it did match a man who lived three miles from the crime scene, looked like Courtney, and had been convicted of a sex crime.
Courtney’s conviction was vacated in 2013. He spent eight years in prison. We spoke with Courtney about his experience and what he wants people to know about wrongful convictions.
“I could have been in prison for the rest of my life if there wasn’t DNA evidence,” Courtney said. “Sitting in prison all those years. I just felt hopeless. I wished I could die. When I hear about other people behind bars still awaiting their day back in court, or someone who was just released due to DNA evidence, it hits me from time to time. I try not to think about it.”
The California Innocence Project recently launched a true-crime podcast that highlights cases of wrongful convictions and features interviews with exonerees. The interview below has been condensed for clarity and length.