Conviction was vacated in May; prosecutors today fully exonerate Halsey with DNA indicating that a man who helped convict Halsey is the actual perpetrator
(ELIZABETH, NJ; July 9, 2007) – 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 in New Jersey, was fully exonerated today based on DNA evidence that proves his innocence. Halsey’s conviction was vacated on May 15, and at a hearing today the Union County District Attorney’s Office dismissed pending indictments against Halsey because he is innocent.
Halsey is the 205th person nationwide – and the fifth in New Jersey – exonerated based on DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project, which represents Halsey.
"Byron Halsey has waited 22 years for this day. For 22 years, he has waited to walk into court and have prosecutors and the judge acknowledge what he always knew but what nobody would believe – that he is innocent," said Vanessa Potkin, Staff Attorney at the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. "Byron can now begin the long, slow, difficult process of rebuilding his life. We hope the community will continue to embrace and support him, and we hope the state compensates him promptly and appropriately for the unimaginable ordeal he has endured."
Halsey’s conviction was overturned in May after DNA testing on several key pieces of evidence used to convict Halsey actually indicated 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.
DNA testing over the last 16 months links every critical piece of physical evidence from the crime to Cliff Hall, not Byron Halsey, the Innocence Project said. The District Attorney’s office consented to the DNA testing, which was conducted in state labs and at Orchid Cellmark, one of the nation’s leading private labs, which provided some of the testing pro bono. The physical evidence that was subjected to DNA testing includes semen on the seven-year-old girl’s underwear, semen elsewhere at the crime scene and a cigarette butt at the crime scene. The cigarette butt was central in the initial police investigation of the crimes, and the semen was linked to Halsey (through blood typing, since DNA testing was not available) and used to convict him. DNA testing on both semen samples and the cigarette butt matches Cliff Hall, according to papers filed jointly by the Innocence Project and the Union County District Attorney’s Office. Hall has now been charged with the crimes for which Halsey was wrongfully convicted.
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.
"By the grace of God, Byron Halsey is alive today to clear his name. He came within a hair’s breadth of being sentenced to die and ultimately being executed for a crime that DNA now proves he didn’t commit," said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project. Earlier this year, a New Jersey Senate committee approved legislation that would abolish the death penalty in the state. "It is impossible to think about the risks and costs of the death penalty in New Jersey without thinking of Byron Halsey – and realizing just how close the state came to sentencing an innocent man to die," Scheck said.
Since the May 15 ruling that vacated his conviction, Halsey has been out of prison on bond, living under state supervision (on electronic monitoring) while the District Attorney decided whether to dismiss the indictment against him. He has been living in an apartment in the Newark area and recently started a job making signs and banners at a local company, Potkin said.
New Jersey is one of 22 states nationwide with a law compensating people who were wrongfully convicted. New Jersey’s law does not provide any services (job training, health insurance, college tuition, etc.). It provides $20,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration or twice the amount of the individual’s annual income at the time he was wrongfully convicted (which, as in Halsey’s case, is often at or below the poverty level). The federal government (for federal cases) and an increasing number of states provide $50,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration; Texas legislators just passed a law doubling compensation for exonerated people, from $25,000 per year to $50,000 per year.
"From implementing eyewitness identification procedures that improve accuracy to preventing false confessions by requiring that interrogations be recorded, New Jersey has been a leader in reforming the criminal justice system to address wrongful convictions. But the state does not adequately compensate people who were wrongfully convicted, which has devastating consequences. It’s impossible to undo such a grave injustice, but when the state robs an innocent person of decades of freedom it has an obligation to provide services and adequate financial compensation," Potkin said. Larry Peterson, an Innocence Project client who was exonerated a year ago after more than 16 years of wrongful incarceration, has still not been compensated – and struggles to make ends meet, which includes caring for his family. The state fought his claim for compensation under the New Jersey law, and he has since filed a civil lawsuit (represented by private attorneys).
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 a supposed confession, police stopped investigating Hall. The supposed 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.” 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). Halsey “confessed” to things that DNA now proves did not happen.
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).
As in Halsey’s case, DNA in more than 37% of exoneration cases nationwide also helped identify the true perpetrator of the crimes. Raymond M. Brown of Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith & Davis in Woodbridge is co-counsel with the Innocence Project on Halsey’s case.