(Mt. Holly, NJ, May 26, 2006) In February of 2005, postconviction DNA testing showed that Larry Peterson was innocent. He had served 17 years in prison.
Today, the Burlington County prosecutor’s office has finally dropped the charges against him. Peterson, the 180th person nationwide to be exonerated by DNA evidence, can finally move on with his life – a life that was almost taken by the state of New Jersey, which tried Peterson for capital murder in 1989. Now Peterson must make a new life for himself as a free man, under the burden of $20,000 of debt accrued when he was forced to pay to make bond despite his innocence.
While in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Larry Peterson struggled for nine years to simply have DNA testing conducted. Upon learning that the results of the tests showed Peterson had nothing to do with the crime, the Burlington County prosecutor’s office vacated his conviction but would not set him free. Through the generosity of Peterson’s friends, family, community, and loans, Peterson was able to post bail for his release while the prosecutors re-investigated the case to determine whether they would pursue a second trial. The Burlington County prosecutor’s office now, almost a year after his conviction was vacated, has formally dismissed the charges.
At Mr. Peterson’s 1989 capital murder trial, the state’s key witness, and two other men, claimed in their testimony that, during a ten-minute hitch-hiked car ride to work, Mr. Peterson “confessed” to raping and murdering the victim. A state’s forensic expert microscopically matched six pubic hairs and a head hair fragment from the victim’s body and crime scene to Peterson and four witnesses claimed they saw fresh “fingernail” scratches on Peterson’s arms in the days after the crime.
Post-conviction DNA tests showed that sperm from the victim’s mouth and blood underneath the victim’s fingernail did not belong to Larry Peterson – instead, they came from the same unidentified man. The DNA tests also showed that the six hairs microscopically attributed to Peterson at trial actually came from the victim.
Recently, the state’s key witness also told the Burlington County prosecutor’s office that he lied about Peterson’s alleged confession, telling officers “what he thought they wanted to hear.” He now admits that Peterson never confessed and in fact this state’s witness learned key, non-public details of the crime from overhearing investigating officers talk.
“Larry Peterson, an innocent man, could have been executed based on fabricated snitch testimony and inferior forensic science,” says Vanessa Potkin, Staff Attorney for the Innocence Project at Cardozo School of Law.
Larry Peterson deserves compensation for the years he spent wrongfully imprisoned, the emotional trauma of facing a death sentence even though he was innocent, and for the personal expense he exhausted while trying to win his freedom. Under New Jersey law, a wrongfully convicted person may seek $20,000 for every year of his wrongful imprisonment. This is only the beginning of what the state of New Jersey owes Larry Peterson. We owe it to him to reform the system that led to his wrongful conviction in the first place.