Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Back in action: On-going; Eric Kelley; Ralph Lee; New Jersey: False confessions; Reporter S.P. Sullivan (New Jersey.com) shows how prosecutors violated their rights by opposing DNA testing..."Assistant prosecutors did nothing to investigate a new suspect, refused to meet with lawyers for the defendants and kept the county's top prosecutor in the dark until media scrutiny pushed the story into the spotlight, according to a confidential report from a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court." (Link provided to confidential report).

STORY: "'Perfect storm' of injustice kept two wrongly convicted N.J. men locked up, documents reveal," by reporter S.P. Sullivan, published by New Jersey.com on November 20, 2018.

SUB-HEADING: "New DNA evidence means new trial for N.J. men convicted in 1993 murder."

GIST: A "complex, perfect storm of circumstances" led prosecutors in Passaic County to a series of grave missteps that kept two New Jersey men locked up for years on murder charges after new DNA evidence raised questions about their guilt, according to documents obtained by NJ Advance Media. Assistant prosecutors did nothing to investigate a new suspect, refused to meet with lawyers for the defendants and kept the county's top prosecutor in the dark until media scrutiny pushed the story into the spotlight, according to a confidential report from a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court. All the while, Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee shuffled between jail and prison cells. The pair spent 24 years behind bars for the 1993 murder of a Paterson video store clerk, Tito Merino, whose case has now gone cold. The inquiry, led by former Chief Justice James Zazzali, found "no evidence of foul play or illegal conduct by prosecutors" and noted that the judge who tossed their convictions in 2017 stopped short of declaring Kelley and Lee innocent. But it highlighted "flaws in the paths taken and positions held" by the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office going back to 2009, when it unsuccessfully fought the DNA testing that later shed new light on the case. A copy of the report was obtained Tuesday by NJ Advance Media in response to a request under the state's Open Public Records Act. State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal ordered the $48,000 taxpayer-funded probe into how the case went sideways in April as his office weighs whether to create a statewide conviction review unit. Authored by Zazzali and Kevin Walsh, a colleague at the politically connected law firm, Gibbons P.C., the report noted that "many different facts and forensic details pointed to (Kelley's and Lee's) possible guilt." But it found county prosecutors put too much stock into their confessions, which were recanted before trial. The two men later said they made up details of the crime under pressure from police - including facts later contradicted by DNA testing. The case was the subject of a 2017 special report from NJ Advance Media which reexamined court records and evidence gathered by two legal groups, the Innocence Project and Centurion Ministries, which raised questions about the investigation that led to their arrest. A key piece of evidence in the case was a green and purple baseball cap found near the body of Merino, the young store clerk who was beaten and stabbed during the robbery at his uncle's store, Victoria Video. Both Kelley and Lee were identified at various points as the owner of the hat, but new tests performed using technology not available at the time of the trial found no trace of either man's DNA. A sample from the hat was checked against a DNA database of convicted felons and came up with a match for a former Paterson man who finished a prison sentence for a knifepoint robbery just weeks before the video store killing. The Attorney General's Office briefly took up the investigation but recently found it lacked enough evidence to charge anyone, meaning Merino's killer - whoever it is - now walks free. The report's authors noted that Kelley claimed in his confession that the hat belonged to him, a "glaring impossibility" given that none of his DNA was found on it. Zazzali and Walsh wrote the confession "should have raised alarm bells" and "a prosecutor seeking justice should have seriously doubted ... whether Kelley's confession has any evidentiary value." In a letter sent to Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia Valdes, the attorney general said he disagreed with two of the report's findings: that prosecutors violated the rights of Kelley and Lee by opposing DNA testing and that the results proved neither man wore the hat. "It is well-established that a person can use, touch, or wear an item without leaving a DNA trace," Grewal wrote. Lee's attorney, Paul Casteleiro, the legal director for Centurion, said experts who testified in the case established it would be impossible to wear the hat without leaving a trace of DNA behind. "I don't know where the attorney general is getting that if you wore that hat in the middle of the murder, that your DNA wouldn't be on it," he said. In response to the report, Grewal has notified county prosecutors around the state of Zazzali's recommendations for better handling cases where DNA and other evidence raise legitimate questions about a person's guilt. The report effectively clears Valdes, who has been the top law enforcement official in Passaic County since 2009, of any wrongdoing.  It found she "only became aware of these cases in August 2017" - which is when the first story appeared on NJ.com and in the Star-Ledger - and that she "took prompt action" afterward. Yet her office appealed a judge's ruling granting the two men a new trial, fought their release on bail and only dropped the charges eight months later, after the Attorney General's Office intervened amid scrutiny of the case. The report found the office's arguments against new trials for the two men despite the DNA evidence were "neither logical nor intellectually authentic." In her only public comments on the case, Valdes said in April her office had decided that "considering the totality of the circumstances, to re-try these matters 25 years later would not be in the interests of justice." She has not responded to multiple interview requests. Casteleiro, whose Princeton-based group represents those it believes are wrongly convicted for free, said regardless of who knew what and when, county authorities still have to answer for how things went wrong. "Your office put two guys in jail who may very well be innocent and you don't have procedures in place to review the evidence other than picking up the Newark Star-Ledger?" Casteleiro asked. "That's pretty scary.""

The entire story can be found at:

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: I am monitoring this case/issue. Keep your eye on the Charles Smith Blog for reports on developments. The Toronto Star, my previous employer for more than twenty incredible years, has put considerable effort into exposing the harm caused by Dr. Charles Smith and his protectors - and into pushing for reform of Ontario's forensic pediatric pathology system. The Star has a "topic" section which focuses on recent stories related to Dr. Charles Smith. It can be found at: http://www.thestar.com/topic/charlessmith. Information on "The Charles Smith Blog Award"- and its nomination process - can be found at: http://smithforensic.blogspot.com/2011/05/charles-smith-blog-award-nominations.html Please send any comments or information on other cases and issues of interest to the readers of this blog to: hlevy15@gmail.com.  Harold Levy: Publisher; The Charles Smith Blog;