Last month, Innocence Project client Eric Kelley and Centurion Ministries client Ralph Lee celebrated a major victory. Their 1996 murder and robbery convictions in New Jersey were overturned based on DNA results which exclude them and point to another man linked to a similar crime. But, sadly, despite the ruling and compelling new evidence, Kelley and Lee remain in prison. In an op-ed released today, the Star Ledger Editorial Board asks why “these wrongfully convicted men are languishing behind bars,” while the man who likely committed the crime walks free, and calls on the New Jersey’s attorney general to “force prosecutors to stop digging in.”
In 1996, Kelley and Lee were sentenced to life in prison for the 1993 murder of Tito Merino in Paterson, New Jersey. But DNA testing of a hat found at the crime scene excludes both Kelly and Lee and matches to another man—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.
As the Star Ledger emphasizes, however, even this compelling scientific evidence has not convinced local prosecutors of Kelley’s and Lee’s innocence. “They are vowing to appeal, and conceding no wrongdoing,” writes the Ledger. The time has come, says the editorial board, for Chris Porrino, the state’s attorney general to step in. The Ledger writes:
The AG has authority over county prosecutors and a responsibility to prevent malpractice, like a flimsy appeal or retrial that wastes taxpayer dollars, keeps two men who are legally innocent in prison and a violent suspect on our streets. . .
. . . . New Jersey’s Criminal Justice Act of 1970 gave the Attorney General the power to supersede in a case when it appears a prosecutor’s office has a conflict, or is just egregiously dropping the ball. That certainly seems to be the case in Passaic County.
If not for a judge’s order, prosecutors wouldn’t even have sought the rap sheet of the convict who matched the DNA hit. In legal filings, they argued . . . Eric Dixon did not commit the murder, without even having spoken to him – undermining any future prosecution.
They didn’t bother to notify the victim’s family. And a detective on the original case, still on the job, refused to even say whether he would have investigated Dixon at the time if he knew his DNA matched; what a judge called “the best example of tunnel vision.”
That judge found this new evidence powerful enough to toss out the convictions, after listening to both sides for a year. Now, in order to get a reversal from an appeals court, prosecutors would have to show he abused his discretion in making the factual findings he did. Please.
Any appeal would likely be denied, wasting even more resources on a badly bungled case. A retrial would be an even bigger boondoggle. And as prosecutors drag their feet, they’re still trying to keep these men in prison. Why are they being held on $450,000 bail, when the DNA shows they’re innocent?
The AG should force prosecutors to stop digging in, and in the meantime, the judge should let these men go. One factor in setting bail is the likelihood of conviction, and in this case, he found the new evidence “would probably change a jury’s verdict if a new trial was granted.”