News 05.15.07

After 19 Years in Prison for One of the Most Heinous Crimes in NJ History, Byron Halsey Is Proven Innocent through DNA

DNA indicates that another man – who testified against Halsey two decades ago – is the actual perpetrator; Halsey’s conviction set to be vacated today

(ELIZABETH, NJ; May 15, 2007) – New DNA tests prove that Byron Halsey, who narrowly escaped the death penalty when he was convicted in 1988 of the brutal sexual assault and murders of two young children, is innocent and should be released from prison, the Innocence Project said today.  At a hearing today in New Jersey state court, a judge is expected to grant a joint motion to vacate Halsey’s conviction filed by the Innocence Project and the Union County District Attorney’s Office.

The motion to vacate the conviction says that DNA testing on several key pieces of evidence used to convict Halsey actually indicates the guilt of another man, Cliff Hall, who is already in prison for several other sex crimes in New Jersey and who testified against Halsey during his trial.  In March 1988, Halsey was convicted of several charges stemming from the November 1985 murders of a seven-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy he was raising with his girlfriend; Hall, who lived next door to the family, had dropped Halsey off across town and then returned home on the night the children were brutally killed.  

“Today, we can say with scientific certainty that Byron Halsey is innocent.  Every piece of physical evidence connects Cliff Hall, not Byron Halsey, to these murders,” said Vanessa Potkin, Staff Attorney at the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.  “It has taken more than two decades, but DNA has finally revealed the truth in this case.”

The physical evidence that was subjected to DNA testing over the last 14 months includes key evidence that was used at Halsey’s trial (when advanced DNA testing was not available):

•    Semen on the seven-year-old girl’s underwear (which was stuffed into her mouth during the rape and murder); the prosecution said during the trial that the semen came from someone with the same blood type as Halsey, but DNA testing now shows that the semen was from Cliff Hall.

•    Semen at the crime scene, which was also matched to Halsey’s blood type but is actually from Cliff Hall, DNA shows.

•    A cigarette butt found at the crime scene, which was central to the initial police investigation of the crimes.  DNA testing shows that the cigarette butt was Cliff Hall’s.

The brutal rapes and murders of the two children were among the most horrific crimes in memory in Northern New Jersey, and the prosecution sought the death penalty for Halsey.  The girl had been brutally raped, beaten and strangled to death.  The boy was sexually assaulted, and a piece of cloth had been hammered into his head with large nails while his face had been slashed with scissors (it was later determined that he died as a result of the nails being hammered into his brain).  In public statements in 1987 leading up to the trial, one of the public defenders who represented Halsey accused the prosecution of “encouraging a lynch mob kind of feeling.”  When the jury returned a verdict convicting Halsey on multiple charges, but not on charges that would have led to a death sentence, spectators in the courtroom jeered loudly.  

“With New Jersey in the middle of a serious discussion about whether the death penalty is worth its risks and costs, it is imperative that we learn the lessons of Byron Halsey’s case.  The fact is that Byron Halsey is lucky he is alive to see the DNA test results in this case.  The state fought hard to execute him for a crime that, two decades later, science proves he did not commit,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project.  Last week, a New Jersey Senate committee approved legislation that would abolish the death penalty in the state.

Today’s motion vacates Halsey’s conviction and releases him from prison on bond; he will live under state supervision (wearing an electronic monitoring device at all times) while the District Attorney decides whether to dismiss the indictment against him, which would officially exonerate him of the crimes.  “The District Attorney’s Office has been working cooperatively with us for over a year.  They agreed to conduct DNA testing, and they agreed to vacate the conviction based on the DNA results.  In cases where the DNA shows our client is innocent and matches another suspect, it is not unusual for a District Attorney’s Office to conduct a careful investigation before making a decision to dismiss the indictment.  We recognize the District Attorney has an obligation to conduct a full investigation, and we are hopeful that he will reach the logical conclusion and dismiss the indictment,” Potkin said.

The only remaining evidence against Halsey is a supposed confession before his trial.  “In about 25% of the 201 wrongful convictions that have been overturned by DNA, people confessed or admitted to crimes that DNA later proved they did not commit.  It would be a stretch to say that Byron Halsey even confessed to this crime – given the state of mind he was in, the length of the interrogation, the tactics police used, and the words he actually said,” Scheck said.

The supposed confession was so riddled with problems that by the time Halsey’s trial started, the prosecution began to argue against the confession – telling the jury that Halsey intentionally gave a flawed confession as a “passport” out of being found guilty.  In fact, the “confession” was the result of 30 hours of interrogation over a 40-hour period of time during which Halsey (who has a sixth-grade education and severe learning disabilities) had little sleep.  Even the detective handling the interrogation characterized Halsey’s statements as “gibberish” and noted that Halsey was in a “daze” and a “trance” most of the time.  On every key fact of the crimes, Halsey gave incorrect answers during the interrogation and had to guess several times before giving police accurate answers (on everything from the location of the bodies to how they were killed).  The final police statement signed by Halsey does not reflect any of those inaccuracies or the process that led to them – it only recites the information that Halsey eventually guessed correctly after numerous tries and information about the crime he received from police and repeated back in fragments. Halsey confessed to things that DNA now proves did not happen.

The events leading up to Halsey’s wrongful conviction began on November 14, 1985.  Halsey was living with Margaret Urquhart and her two young children in a rooming house in Plainfield; Halsey helped support the family and raised the children as his own.  Halsey worked days at PMS Consolidated, and Urquhart worked nights as a health aide.  On the night of November 14, Urquhart was at work and Cliff Hall (who lived in the same building) took Halsey across town while the children were home alone.  After dropping Halsey off with friends, Hall went home.  Cliff Hall’s whereabouts are unaccounted for the following two hours.  Halsey, meanwhile, walked home a couple of hours after Hall dropped him off (which several witnesses corroborate) and discovered that the children were missing.  Throughout the night, he repeatedly called Urquhart at work and checked with several friends and relatives to see if they had the children.  The next morning, the children were found in the basement of the rooming house.  

From his behavior and other evidence, police suspected Cliff Hall from the beginning.  But as the lengthy interrogation of Halsey progressed, leading to the supposed confession, police stopped investigating Hall.  By the time Halsey’s trial began, nearly three years later, Hall was called as a witness for the prosecution.  Even though his testimony was contradicted by other witnesses, it was damaging to Halsey’s case.  Halsey’s attorneys, both public defenders, presented evidence of Halsey’s alibi and argued strongly that his supposed confession was not valid.  Regardless, the jury convicted him.  Halsey – who had actually been born in prison in New Jersey to a mother who was convicted of fornication and essentially put in prison for being pregnant – was sentenced to two consecutive life terms, plus 20 years, in prison.  

Cliff Hall committed three separate sex crimes in Plainfield during an 11-month period in 1991-1992.  In June 1991, he grabbed an 18-year-old woman from behind on a street and, holding a knife to her throat, orally, vaginally and anally raped her for up to three hours.  Three months later, he abducted a 19-year-old woman and took her to a building where he repeatedly and violently raped her vaginally and anally for two hours.  Several months after that, he punched and attempted to rape a 26-year-old woman as she walked toward a train station in Plainfield.  Hall pled guilty to all three of these crimes (all off which were committed while Halsey was in prison for the murders that DNA now indicates Hall committed).  

Nationwide, 201 people have been exonerated through DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project.  As in Halsey’s case, DNA in more than 37% of the exoneration cases also helped identify the true perpetrator of the crimes.  Four of the 201 exonerations were in New Jersey.  Raymond M. Brown of Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith & Davis in Woodbridge is co-counsel with the Innocence Project on Halsey’s case.

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