On June 2, 1980, a woman agreed to go into an apartment building in Manhattan, New York to have sex with a man she had just met. The woman later told police she had second thoughts after they entered the building, but when she tried to walk away, the man pulled a knife and raped her.
Investigation and Trial
The woman reported that the man left and went down a flight of stairs. She followed and saw the man with the knife still in hand, fighting with another man, 62-year-old Ramon Hernaiz, in the stairway. The woman said her attacker stabbed Hernaiz, rifled through his pockets, and fled.
The woman told the police that her attacker was a black man, wore a black hat, had a chipped tooth, and a gap between his teeth. Police recovered a blood-stained blue baseball cap and a bloody knife from the scene.
Four months later, the woman went to a police station and viewed 58 photographs of black men who had been arrested in the vicinity of the crime in recent years. She selected the photograph of 26-year-old Clifford Jones as the man who raped her and murdered Hernaiz.
On October 25, 1980, Jones voluntarily went to the police station after learning that the police were looking for him. He stood in a live lineup and the woman picked him as the rapist and killer.
Jones went to trial in New York County Supreme Court in April 1981. The only evidence implicating him was the testimony of the woman, who admitted that she had a $50-a-day heroin habit and was high when she picked Jones in the photo array and the live lineup. At the end prosecution’s case, the judge ordered Jones—despite his attorney’s objection—to open his mouth and display his teeth to the jury. One of the teeth was chipped and there was a gap between them—as the woman had described.
On April 15, 1981, the jury convicted Jones of second-degree murder, rape and attempted robbery. He was sentenced to 18 years to life in prison.
In 2008, after his convictions had been upheld on appeal, Jones filed a motion seeking DNA testing of any physical evidence, including the rape kit, the baseball cap and hairs recovered from the cap. The prosecution located 18 hairs from the cap, but the cap and rape kit—along with the knife and the victim’s clothes—had been destroyed.
Ultimately, the hairs were sent to Mitotyping Technologies, LLC, a laboratory specializing in mitochondrial DNA testing of hair. The result was a “consensus profile” that was “very different” from Jones’s profile and excluded him as the source of the hairs. Jones then filed a motion to vacate his convictions and grant him a new trial. Soon after, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York analyzed seven fingernail scrapings recovered from the murder victim. Only one of the scrapings was suitable for DNA testing and the analysis of that scraping excluded Jones.
The court denied Jones’s motion. It stated that although Jones was excluded as the source of a few of the items of evidence, those exclusions did not rule him out as the perpetrator. Meanwhile, in June 2010, Jones was released on parole after nearly 30 years in prison.
In 2013, the Appellate Division upheld the denial, citing the eyewitness testimony of the rape victim.
In December 2014, the New York Court of Appeals overturned that ruling and held that Jones was entitled to a hearing on the new evidence.
The case was then reviewed by the Manhattan District Attorney’s conviction integrity unit. Further DNA testing on 12 more of the hairs revealed the same profile identified by Mitotyping and also excluded Jones. In September 2015, William Darrow, head of the conviction integrity unit, informed the court that the prosecution had agreed to vacate the convictions. On November 3, 2016, the prosecution dismissed the charges.
– Maurice Possley
State: New York
Conviction: Second-degree Murder, Rape, Attempted Robbery
Sentence: 18 years to life
Incident Date: 06/02/1980
Conviction Date: 04/15/1981
Exoneration Date: 11/03/2016
Accused Pleaded Guilty: No
Case Year: 1981
Contributing Causes of Conviction: Eyewitness Misidentification
Death Penalty Case: No
Race of Defendant: African American
Status: Exonerated by DNA
Type of Crime: Homicide-related, Sex Crimes
Year of Exoneration: 2016