News 08.24.09

NJ Judge to Order Evidence Search

(NEWARK, N.J.; August 24, 2009) A New Jersey judge said today that he would order police to conduct a thorough search for evidence connected to the case of Stephen Brooks, an Innocence Project client who has been in prison for more than 20 years for a rape he says he didn’t commit. Brooks is seeking DNA testing that could prove his innocence.

Prosecutors have repeatedly told Brooks that evidence collected from the crime scene has been lost or destroyed, but the Innocence Project argued at a hearing today in Newark that a thorough search has not been conducted or documented. Judge Jerome St. John agreed to order the search, saying his order was a starting point and that he may order additional evidence searches in the case. The Innocence Project said the development is a good first step.

An editorial in today’s Star Ledger called for the evidence search, and for better evidence handling procedures in New Jersey. “New Jersey law allows a prisoner access to DNA testing whenever that evidence becomes available,” the editorial said. “Until it's located in Brooks' case, his guilt or innocence remains a mystery. That's not just sloppy record keeping, that's sloppy justice.”

Read the full editorial here

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Brooks’ conviction was based largely on eyewitness identification, which has contributed to 75% of the 241 wrongful convictions later overturned through DNA testing. Brooks began seeking post-conviction DNA testing in 1988, when DNA evidence was first used in criminal cases. But authorities have failed to produce the evidence.  

 Innocence Project Staff Attorney Vanessa Potkin recently told The Star Ledger that biological evidence in Essex County, New Jersey, has not been properly stored and inventoried. “While evidence has been successfully retrieved in numerous cases throughout New Jersey, Essex County is proving to be in unique disarray,” she said.

Also at today’s hearing, prosecutors told the judge that they had opened a locked vault known to contain files from cases in the 1980s. Before today, prosecutors had said the vault had not been opened in years because no one on the county payroll has the combination. Prosecutors did not provide documentation of their search of the vault or any record of its contents.

Brooks, whose Muslim name is Sharif Abdur-Raqeeb, recently told WNBC in New York that he is determined to find the evidence from his case because DNA testing will prove his innocence. “I didn’t do it, and I don’t think I should have to go through all of the stigma and everything else that’s attached to this thing for a crime I didn’t commit,” he said.

Watch the full report

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Learn more about the Innocence Project’s work to support improved evidence preservation standards nationwide

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