New Jersey Appeals Court Upholds Lower Court Ruling Vacating 1996 Murder Convictions Based on DNA Identifying Another Suspect

By Innocence Staff

Paul Casteleiro of Centurion, Ralph Lee, Eric Kelley, and Vanessa Potkin.

Today, a panel of the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division unanimously affirmed a decision by Paterson Superior Court Judge Joseph Portelli vacating the 1996 felony murder and robbery convictions of Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee based on DNA evidence identifying another suspect. Post-conviction DNA testing of a hat recovered at the scene that the prosecution long maintained had been worn by the assailant excluded both Kelly and Lee and matched to another man who had recently gotten out of prison for committing a similar crime.

Related: Innocence Project Back in Court to Defend Eric Kelley’s Right to New Trial

“An eyewitness saw the assailant in the store minutes before the crime wearing the hat, and the hat was found just feet from the victim’s body. The test results showing that the wearer DNA in the hat belonged to a local Paterson man who committed a similar robbery in the area are powerful scientific proof that he is the actual assailant.  We are grateful that the Appellate Division considered and rejected the State’s appeal so expeditiously, finding the new evidence justified the trial court’s decision to vacate the convictions of Mr. Kelley and Mr. Lee,” said Vanessa Potkin, Post-Conviction Litigation Director at the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.  “We hope the prosecutor’s office will take another look at this powerful new evidence of third-party guilt and initiate an investigation into the real assailant.”

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

“The test results showing that the wearer DNA in the hat belonged to a local Paterson man who committed a similar robbery in the area are powerful scientific proof that he is the actual assailant.” Potkin

Detectives admitted 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 police were not able to corroborate the claims, and the purported confessions were contradicted by the crime scene evidence.

Related: 9 Moving Moments from Freedom Day of Eric Kelley

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 did not belong to anyone in the store and was not present prior to the murder 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.

The court ordered retesting of the hat in October 2010 over the prosecutor’s opposition. Male DNA was identified, excluding Kelley and Lee. The profile was entered into the FBI’s DNA database of convicted felons and matched to a man 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, this man had been released from prison after serving three years for a similar knifepoint robbery of a nearby store.

Lawyers for Kelley and Lee presented witnesses at an earlier hearing who testified about the false confessions, a leading cause of wrongful convictions, contributing to more than 25 percent of the 354 DNA exonerations nationwide.  A forensic psychologist evaluated Kelley and determined that he is “more suggestible than approximately 98 percent of the normal population,” making him vulnerable for making a false confession during custodial interrogation. A former detective who now specializes in police interrogations identified faults in the manner in which the men were questioned and pointed out discrepancies, contradictions and the lack of corroboration in the men’s statements, as well as opportunities for contamination (meaning information in the confessions actually originated from the detectives).

In affirming the lower court’s decision reversing the convictions, the appellate court ruled: “Our system of criminal justice fundamentally depends upon the soundness of the evidence presented to jurors at trial.  When, as here, the soundness of that evidence and the resulting verdicts is seriously undermined by newly-obtained DNA evidence of third-party guilt, we cannot turn a blind eye to the revelation and the probability that defendants, who have been incarcerated since 1996, would have been acquitted.”

A copy of the decision is available here.


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