DNA Evidence Points to Another Man in Case of Innocence Project Client Who Has Served 24 Years for New Jersey Murder

08.07.17 By Paul Cates

DNA Evidence Points to Another Man in Case of Innocence Project Client Who Has Served 24 Years for New Jersey Murder

Update: As a follow-up to the recent story it published about the Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee case, today the Star Ledger released an editorial questioning why the Passaic County Prosecutor’s office won’t reinvestigate the case now that DNA testing excludes Kelley and Lee, and identifies another man. Read it here.

Attorneys for the Innocence Project and Centurion Ministries are urging a New Jersey court to reverse the murder convictions of Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee based on DNA evidence that has identified another suspect who had recently been released from prison for committing a similar crime. NJ.com has published a special feature about the case detailing evidence that was presented at a hearing earlier this year.

Kelley, represented by the Innocence Project, and Lee, represented by Centurion Ministries, were convicted of the 1993 murder of Tito Merino based largely on contradictory statements they made to police after the police ask them to go to the Paterson detective bureau. At the station house, the two were interrogated separately for several hours. Kelley, who suffers from intellectual disabilities because of a brain injury from a car accident and has difficulties processing information, was interrogated first and allegedly admitted to the crime. 

Detectives admit that they fed the information supplied by Kelley when interrogating Lee. The interrogations were not recorded and there are no notes of what occurred. The only evidence of the confessions are typewritten statements officers prepared that were signed by Kelley and Lee. Kelley allegedly told police where the knife used in the murder was hidden and where stolen property was fenced. However, the knife and property were never recovered.

Prior to their arrests, police were searching for one suspect in the murder of Merino, who was stabbed to death during the robbery of the Paterson video store where he worked. A green and purple plaid baseball hat that no one from the store could identify was recovered near the victim’s body. Police submitted it for DNA testing believing it could help identify the killer, but DNA testing wasn’t as advanced then and the testing was inconclusive.

Attorneys for Kelley and Lee got permission to retest the hat in October 2010. Male DNA was identified, excluding Kelley and Lee. The profile was entered into the FBI’s DNA database of convicted felons and matched to Eric Dixon who matched to the age and physical description of the person a witness observed in the store around the time of the murder. Just three months prior to the crime, Dixon had been released from prison after serving three years for a similar knifepoint robbery of a nearby store.

An Innocence Project investigator interviewed Dixon in 2015 and he claimed never to have been inside the video store and denied recognizing the hat. When the investigator returned a few months later to ask Dixon to sign a statement outlining what he had told him, he refused to sign, saying that he had been advised by an attorney not to.

In addition to the new DNA evidence identifying Dixon, the lawyers for Kelley and Lee presented witnesses at an earlier hearing who raised serious concerns about the confessions. A forensic psychologist evaluated Kelley and determined that he is “more suggestible than approximately 98 percent of the normal population.” A former detective who now specializes in police interrogations expressed concerns with the manner in which the men were questioned, noting discrepancies, contradictions and lack of corroboration.

The court is expected to rule soon the the attorney’s motion to vacate the convictions.

You can read the full NJ.com feature here.

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