News 07.29.08

Newark Man’s Conviction for 1995 Murder Should Be Tossed Based on DNA Testing and Other New Evidence


At hearing today in Newark, Innocence Project moves for retrial in the case of Darrell Edwards, who is serving a life sentence

(Newark, NJ; July 29, 2008)— DNA testing and other substantial new evidence constitutes strong proof that Darrell Edwards was wrongfully convicted of a 1995 murder in Newark and should get a new trial, the Innocence Project will argue at a hearing in state court today.

DNA test results on the gun used in the murder and a sweatshirt worn by the assailant have excluded Darrell Edwards, who was convicted of murder in 1999. The central evidence against Edwards was eyewitness testimony – but one of the state’s key witnesses now says she was wrong when she identified him, and new scientific analysis shows it would have been impossible to accurately identify the perpetrator from 271 feet away at night.  The DNA testing, eyewitness statements, new scientific analysis of the distance from which witnesses could have identified the perpetrator and other evidence is outlined in a 120-page motion that Innocence Project filed in the case. The motion also notes significant evidence that the murder was actually part of a Newark-Atlanta drug trafficking ring – having nothing to do with Edwards – but police ignored evidence that could have led to the real perpetrator years ago.

“We believe Darrell Edwards is innocent, and the new evidence should result in a new trial at the very least,” said Vanessa Potkin, the Innocence Project Staff Attorney handling the case.  The Innocence Project is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.  “The DNA test results alone meet the legal standard for vacating Darrell Edwards’ conviction and granting a new trial – and the other new evidence we’ve submitted to the court shows that his conviction was based on faulty information and erroneous witnesses.”

This case “provides the latest dramatic example of the fallibility of eyewitness identifications—the leading cause of wrongful convictions—and why advanced DNA evidence is increasingly described as the criminal justice system’s ‘truth machine,’” according to the Innocence Project’s motion for a new trial which will be heard in Essex County Circuit Court today at 1:30 p.m. The Essex County Prosecutor’s office is opposing the motion. Judge Michael Casale will hear arguments from the Innocence Project and the Prosecutor’s office and will likely rule on the case at a later date.

Edwards was convicted of an execution-style shooting of a known heroin dealer. On a hot and humid August evening in 1995, Errich Thomas stopped in at the sandwich shop he owned on Springfield Avenue and told his employee to close early. As the employee was cleaning up with his back turned to the entrance, two men, described later as a tall man wearing a black, hooded sweatshirt and a shorter man, came in and ordered a sandwich. The employee turned around and “glanced” at the tall man ordering the sandwich, and noticed the shorter man standing near the door. When the employee turned his back again to wash his hands, Thomas (the store owner) was shot with a single bullet to the head. When the employee turned around, he saw Thomas fall to the floor and saw the back of the shorter assailant leaving the store. No money was asked for or taken. Numerous people on the street saw the assailants walk down Springfield Avenue, turn onto 18th Street, and dispose of the sweatshirt and the murder weapon in a trash can.  Thomas was taken by ambulance to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. The black, hooded sweatshirt and the murder weapon were recovered by police and preserved as evidence.

It would take three years for Darrell Edwards’ case to go to trial – and it would take four trials to convict him. The first two ended in mistrials, and the third resulted in a hung jury and the acquittal of a co-defendant. The State’s first key witness was the store employee who identified Edwards as the tall man. The store employee initially told police that he had only “glanced” at the tall man and had never seen either assailant in the neighborhood before. The employee also told police that Thomas was a heroin dealer with a partner called “Hak.” Police never followed up on this “Hak” despite the employee’s offer to show them where he lived across town.

Edwards, who lived in the neighborhood where the crime occurred all his life, also went by the nickname “Hak,” short for the Muslim name Hakim. The State’s second key witness was a heroin user who knew Edwards by this nickname. She said she was sitting on her front porch and saw the man she knew as “Hak” dispose of the gun and sweatshirt in the trash can on 18th Street. The time she saw the assailant was 9:00 at night, she was not wearing her prescription eyeglasses and the distance from her porch to the trash can was 271 feet – nearly the length of a football field. This witness has recanted her identification of Edwards in a sworn affidavit saying that on the night of the crime she was high on heroin and had been drinking, and that she had been “just guessing” when she identified Edwards. She also stated that the investigator had pointed to Edwards in the photo lineup and said he was the same man another witness had picked out, thus influencing her choice.  

In its motion seeking a new trial, the Innocence Project cites new scientific analysis from a leading national authority on the distance from which someone can identify another person – even if they know the person. If the witness in Edwards’ case had perfect vision (which she did not, and she was not wearing her glasses) and if she had seen the perpetrator in normal daylight (which she did not, since it was 9 p.m.), she would not have been able to identify him from 150 feet – let alone from 271 feet.   The Innocence Project’s motion says it is “impossible to make an accurate facial identification” from that distance, citing a scientific study that factors in how people perceive facial details from various distances (even when the faces are people the witness knows).

“In recent years, New Jersey has become a leader in reforming police lineups and photo arrays to decrease eyewitness misidentifications. Darrell Edwards was convicted before these reforms were in place, and before scientific experts shed new light on just how impossible it is to accurately identify someone from this distance,” said Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck.

Police discounted two witnesses who contradicted the State’s eyewitnesses. One witness, sitting in front of a barber shop where he worked, was 15 to 20 feet away and made eye-contact with one of the two men as they walked away from the sandwich shop. The witness told police that neither man he saw was in the photo line up they presented. In a sworn affidavit, this witness said the police then pointed to Edwards and said “Isn’t this the guy?” The witness, who had gone to high-school with Edwards, said no. He said that investigators labeled him a “hostile witness” and never contacted him again. This witness testified at the third trial but was never called in by the defense to testify at the fourth. Another witness who knew Edwards well saw the assailants at close range and told police he was certain neither was Edwards. In the third trial the State produced an unsigned statement attributed to this witness saying that he couldn’t be sure whether or not Edwards was one of the men. In an affidavit, this witness denied ever knowing anything about this statement and reaffirmed his certainty that Edwards was not there. This witness was not called to the stand by the defense.

At the time of the investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration was doing its own investigation of an Atlanta-Newark drug trafficking ring. An informant told a DEA detective that a dealer involved with the ring had ordered the murder of Thomas. In fact, the gun used in the murder was traced back to Georgia. The informant provided the names of two men who were known to execute hits for the dealer. When police failed to connect Edwards to the drug ring or the dealer, instead of considering the idea that Edwards might not be involved, they stopped investigating the dealer lead altogether. The information about the dealer was never disclosed to Edwards’ defense attorney until his second trial was underway.

Edwards was identified as the tall assailant who wore a black, hooded sweatshirt on a hot, humid summer night; handled and fired the gun; wrapped the gun in the sweatshirt; and threw them both in a trash can. In 2007 the sweatshirt and gun were tested for “wearer DNA,” meaning skin cells and sweat left behind on clothing. A major male profile and additional minor male profiles were found. None of these belonged to Edwards. Male genetic material was also found on the gun. None of it matched Edwards.

Scheck and Potkin, both of the Innocence Project, will argue in court today that the DNA evidence and the prosecutorial witness’s recantation of her identification (backed up by scientific analysis) meet New Jersey’s criteria for granting a retrial. The DNA evidence alone meets these criteria in that it pertains directly to the question of the identity of the perpetrator; the science was not in practice at the time of the trial and could not have been discovered by reasonable diligence; and the test results would likely change the verdict in a new trial.

To date, 218 people nationwide have been exonerated by DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. Five of the DNA exonerations to date were in New Jersey, 23 were in New York and one was in Connecticut. Of all of the people exonerated through DNA testing, 75% were convicted based on inaccurate eyewitness identification.

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