Innocence Project Seeks Thorough Search for Evidence That Could Prove New Jersey Man Innocent in 1985 Rape


Hearing set for Aug. 24 at 2 p.m. in Newark

Contact:  Eric Ferrero; 212.364.5346; [email protected]

On Monday, August 24, at 2 p.m. the Innocence Project will ask a state judge in Newark to order a thorough search for crime-scene evidence on behalf of a man who was convicted of rape 22 years ago.

For two decades, Stephen Brooks has been requesting DNA testing that he says will prove his innocence. Prosecutors claim they cannot locate evidence from the case for DNA testing – but the Innocence Project argues that a thorough search for the evidence has not been conducted.   

The evidence could be locked in what is known as the “legacy vault,” which is inside a storage facility in Essex County and has not been opened in years because nobody currently on the payroll has the combination to open the vault. The “legacy vault” reportedly contains evidence from a wide range of cases, and it would likely cost about $1,000 to hire a locksmith to open the vault and reset the lock so evidence can be retrieved in the future.

WHAT: New Jersey Superior Court hearing to review a proposed order directing the state to perform a comprehensive search for crime-scene evidence from a 1985 rape case

WHO: Vanessa Potkin, Staff Attorney at the Innocence Project, will argue on behalf of Brooks (also known by his Muslim name, Sharif Abdur-Raqeeb)

WHEN: Monday, August 24, 2009, at 2 p.m.

WHERE: Superior Court of New Jersey, Veterans Courthouse

(In front of Judge Jerome St. John)

50 West Market St., Newark

Background on Brooks’ case and problems retrieving evidence in New Jersey

Just before Brooks’ motion seeking DNA testing was initially denied in 1989, the prosecutor said that the evidence had been taken from the lab by the East Orange Police Department and delivered to the prosecutor’s office, where it was placed in the evidence room. Later that same year, prosecutors claimed that the evidence no longer existed.  In fact, some of the evidence had been kept at the lab.

Nine years later, in 1998, the lab sent the evidence it had been holding for a decade to the East Orange Police Department. Today, the police department again claims that it cannot locate the evidence.  Police have also speculated that the evidence may have been destroyed in 2004, when the ceiling of a storage facility caved in, but nobody will know for sure until a thorough search is conducted.

Prosecutors maintain that they shouldn’t have to search for the evidence because the case against Brooks was solid. Eyewitness testimony linked Brooks to the crime. However, in 75% of wrongful convictions overturned with DNA testing, eyewitness misidentification contributed to the wrongful conviction. The Innocence Project argues that DNA testing could prove Brooks’ innocence or confirm his guilt.

Brooks’ case is part of a pattern of difficulties locating old evidence in Essex County cases. Potkin says evidence preservation and storage in the county is in “unique disarray.”

About half the states in the country have laws requiring that evidence in at least some cases be stored and organized for retrieval. New Jersey has no such law, but the state’s Attorney General has the authority to issue a mandate to clean up evidence storage facilities across the state as an interim step while stakeholders develop a policy.  This would allow for all evidence to be located and tested – helping exonerate innocent people and solve cold cases.

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