New Jersey Court Vacates 1996 Murder Convictions Based on DNA Identifying Another Suspect

By Innocence Staff

Eric Kelley and his attorney Vanessa Potkin. Photo by Zoe Potkin.


(Paterson, NJ – September 15, 2017) Today, a New Jersey Superior Court Judge vacated the 1996 felony murder and robbery convictions of Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee based on DNA evidence identifying another suspect.  It is now up to prosecutors to decide whether they will dismiss charges or retry the case.

“With such compelling DNA evidence demonstrating Mr. Kelley and Mr. Lee’s innocence and pointing to the true assailant most prosecutors would have moved to overturn these convictions long ago,” said Vanessa Potkin, Post-Conviction Litigation Director at the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.  “We are grateful for the court’s decision, which came after a year of hearing new evidence and argument and careful deliberation.”

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 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.

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.

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 the earlier hearing who testified about the false confessions, a leading cause of wrongful convictions, contributing to more than 25 percent of the 351 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 mens’ statements.

In reversing the convictions today, the court said that “this is probably one of the best examples of tunnel vision one could imagine.”  The court also addressed the false confessions, noting “During the trials and this motion, the State has relied heavily on the statements given by the defendants when they were initially arrested.  However, history has shown many instances where false confessions are given and DNA has proven the defendant or defendants not guilty notwithstanding a confession.”

Reacting to the decision, Potkin added, “We now know that the primary evidence used to convict Mr. Kelley and Mr. Lee is unreliable and objective scientific evidence points to their innocence.  We hope that the prosecutor’s office will move quickly to dismiss the charges and finally initiate an investigation into the person whose DNA was found at the crime scene.”

Mr. Kelley remains incarcerated, but the Innocence Project will be making a bail application on his behalf in the coming days.  Meanwhile, the prosecution must now decide whether to dismiss the indictment or retry the case.


  1. Carol Capper

    Why did it take 7 years (since the hat was ordered to be re-tested in 2010 until now) to release these guys? Happy for them and so angry at the same time…

  2. What a tainted justice system we have. So glad to see they were cleared along with so many others..yet so many wrongly convicted remain in cages because they have no DNA evidence.

  3. Qwaundy Jason

    Can someone call me at 2257185268
    I have someone who needs to speak with someone from your office!!!

  4. April akins

    I’m happy for them but these poor men have missed out on more than half their lives!! It just amazes me how a judge and prosecutor can sleep at night knowing they had NO credible evidence to put these men behind bars in the first place! I hope these 2 men get out soon! Hell they should’ve let them go right away!

  5. Baldauf Nancy

    How can we stop police and prosecutors from counting a conviction as a “win”, and getting a win no matter what it takes? Our “justice” system needs a complete revamp. The number of times people are tried and found innocent should be a bigger win than convictions.

  6. Elizabeth Block

    “Most prosecutors would have moved to overturn these convictions long ago.”
    I hope so, but I wonder.

  7. Regina

    Great work by the Innocence Project and Centurion Ministries!

    The question now is how will New Jersey compensate these men
    for the 24 years that were stolen from them? Our justice system is
    shameful and in need of a total revamping.

  8. Elizabeth makes a very valid point, and, I think she is correct. It probably should have said something like..

    “Most prosectors who truly beieive that their job is to find and present the truth would have moved to overturn these convictions long ago.”

    Then there are those who don’t which I beleive constitute ‘most’ prosecutors.

    Public opinion must change. We need to move away from who can put the most people in prison to ‘protect the citizens’. I live and work as an expert witness in Williamson County, TX and I have seen DA’s do things that would light your hair on fire.

    We need to make some noise and wake up the public.

  9. Lucy Mcgrory

    How awful such injustice so sad how anyone can leave innocent people locked up is absolutely discusting hope the innocent ones are released soon and can move forward to the years they lost for something they never even did wrong good on the innocent project helping realise the innocent so sorry again for the injustice you had to suffer from England uk

  10. Vickie Howser.

    So very happy for him. My brother just got his vacated also. Hopefully they both will be totally exonerated soon. Prayers for him

  11. The innocent project is doing a great work. Do I think it should have been dismissed earlier. I would hope everybody would think that if we was in that situation. Even the prosecution but we know that’s not the fact know the truth. Innocent project please keep up the good work thank you for your service.

  12. Selene Medjahed-Schwethelm

    Woohoo to the innocence project and all they do you all will be in prayer let’s speed the freedom for the Innocent God is good all the time!!!!

    Hats tipped to all

  13. Joe Diaz

    Two more exoneree brothers… I can’t wait to meet them both next March 🙂
    Keep up the great work of freeing the innocent.

  14. Lisa Butts

    I’m so glad that I’m going to have my BS Degree as a paralegal at the end of next year. I can do something constructive and concrete to help serve true justice. Our justice system is absolutely broken. Police have a duty to “Serve and Protect.” How does prosecuting and jailing someone, rather than the “right one,” serve and protect society? It does not. Prosecutors who still push to retry this cases, are even more guilty. How do they live with themselves? I am privileged to have been born white. It’s no surprise that the biggest percentage of people wrongly convicted and imprisoned are dark-skinned. Consider the Ryan Ferguson Case. To my knowledge, the POS Prosecutor is still a judge. The director of my paralegal program got to know his father, as he was a frequent guest speaker at my university. I hope God is real. They will have to answer to him once they pass from this life to eternity. They deserve the same brand of injustice they dished out to their victims!

  15. Lisa Butts

    Addendum to previous post: When I said “his father,” I meant Ryan Ferguson.

  16. Teresa Schwartzkopf

    So happy to hear this news These cars are so sad.What breaks my heart more are the people like my best friend that were wrongly convicted with no evidence submitted at court that could be used to find DNA. Peopel that are convicted off only a statement they made after hour a of interrogation. I wish our system or any organizations would help those cases more as well. In his case there were 4 other people in a car when a 5th guy was shot and all said my friend looks nothing like the person they saw but yet he was still convicted and has spent 23 years in jail for a crime he was not involved in. But the light at the end of the tunnel is that the more cases like this one that get overturned the more hope there is for him too. Thank you for sharing.

  17. Sheryl


  18. Joyce Goodman

    Top Respect To All Hard Work In The Innocence Project.

  19. Jennifer Ruhala

    I am ashamed and outraged at our police, prosecutors, and the rest of the judiciary system. Here we go again, innocent men bullied, lied to, and threatened into giving false confessions by the police. Two men lost almost a quarter of a century of their lives all because of no good, lying, crooked, worthless cops who couldn’t solve a crime if it happened in front of them and on video. Dirty prosecutors with no actual evidence against the suspects just bogus confessions that should be throw out and inadmissible, however most judges are as dirty as the prosecution they always side with. Then you have idiot jurors who 9 times out of 10 are racist and honestly believe that if the defendants are black they must be guilty because that fat lazy white prosecutor. It just burns me up to think that all the innocent people in prison today and that have been executed, for crimes that they had no part of. We need to change our system so that every person who has played a part in sending innocent people to prison, make them serve a good long while on death row. Until those people mentioned above are punished like the crooks they are, they will continue to play dirty and prosecute the innocent. Thank you Innocence Project for saving another victim.

  20. Rick Robinson-NAACP Newark, NJ Branch

    We need MORE organizations like these to exonerate the many wrongful conviction cases in these United States. I interned with IP for a year as a Legal Volunteer and I came away with a wealth of knowledge, involving judicial/prosecutorial misconduct practices, numerous problems with our criminal justice system and understanding how families are FORCED to deal with these falsified matters. Barry, Vanessa and the entire IP family deserve a lot of credit for fighting these exoneration uphill battles throughout America.

  21. Anne Lake Prescott

    This is why I joined your blessed organization.

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