September 17, 2014
– A court said Brooklyn prosecutors buried documents in the kidnapping case of Everton Wagstaffe.
Everton Wagstaffe, who refused to leave prison on probation because he viewed it as a surrender of his claim of innocence in the death of a teenage girl, learned on Wednesday that he had prevailed in a struggle that he began from behind bars nearly 23 years ago.
A panel of state appeals court judges unanimously reversed the kidnapping convictions of Mr. Wagstaffe and his co-defendant, Reginald Connor, finding that Brooklyn prosecutors in 1992 and 1993 were responsible for “burying” documents that might have shown that detectives and the prime witness had lied. The panel also dismissed the indictments of the two men.
A spokeswoman for Kenneth P. Thompson, the Brooklyn district attorney, who has pledged to aggressively hunt down injustice, said the decision was being reviewed.
Mr. Connor, 46, served 15 years, and now works for a film-production company. For the moment, Mr. Wagstaffe, 45, remains in state prison. He has been in custody since his arrest at age 23 in January 1992. Over the years, he has refused to accept release on any terms — such as parole or probation — that would imply he had something to do with the kidnapping and death of Jennifer Negron, a 16-year-old girl whose body was found on a street in the East New York section of Brooklyn on Jan. 1, 1992.
“Finally,” Mr. Connor said on Wednesday afternoon, sounding dazed. “Finally.”
He learned of the decision just after leaving a meeting with lawyers from Davis Polk & Wardwell, who had been representing him pro bono for the last several years.
Mr. Wagstaffe first heard of the ruling in a call with a family member, who asked not to be identified, but said Mr. Wagstaffe had insisted that the entire ruling be read to him. “ ‘You cry for both of us,’ ” the family member quoted Mr. Wagstaffe as saying. “ ‘I want to research part of it.’ ”
If the case comes to an end now, it would be the final chapter of an epic guerrilla legal battle waged by Mr. Wagstaffe. He entered prison with minimal literacy and taught himself to read. He then wrote hundreds of letters pleading for help in finding the physical evidence from the case so DNA testing could be done, and in finding missing witnesses. For much of that time, he had no legal counsel. He drafted his own legal papers and succeeded in being granted hearings, though not in getting any relief.
In recent years, Mr. Wagstaffe’s relentless campaign won support from a team of lawyers who included two lions of the New York legal world, James W. B. Benkard of Davis Polk, and Myron Beldock. Mr. Benkard, who died in April, brought in three other lawyers from his firm, including David B. Toscano, to represent Mr. Connor.
Now 85, Mr. Beldock represented George Whitmore, who gave a lengthy confession to two notorious murders in the 1960s. With help from journalists, Mr. Beldock proved the confession was false and that Mr. Whitmore could not have been responsible. The case helped bring an end to the death penalty in New York and was cited by the United States Supreme Court in the 1966 Miranda v. Arizona decision. Another client was Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, a former middleweight boxer found guilty of a triple homicide in Paterson, N.J., whose conviction was later overturned.
At home in poor health for much of last winter, Mr. Beldock rallied to attend the appellate division hearing, and presented the argument that carried the day: that there had been “fraud and misrepresentation” in the testimony of detectives who said that they were led to Mr. Wagstaffe and Mr. Connor by a single witness, a crack addict who supported herself with prostitution.
In fact, a computer record unearthed by Mr. Wagstaffe showed that detectives had actually pulled up information on him and Mr. Connor a day before the witness was first interviewed about the killing. It was the contention of Mr. Beldock that the detectives had presented the witness, Brunilda Capella, with the two names, and that she had merely ratified them. The computer records were turned over just before the trial, with piles of other papers, the court said.
“Given the lack of any other evidence tying the defendants to the crime, the credibility of Capella and the investigating detectives was of primary importance in this case, so that the burying of the subject documents by the prosecution” was significant, the court ruled.
Mr. Beldock wept briefly when he learned of the results, then said he had to get ready for another case. “We’re overjoyed that the appellate division heard the arguments of Everton and myself,” he said.
The 75th Police Precinct, where the murder occurred, was one of the city’s deadliest in the early 1990s. Detectives there had few qualms about taking shortcuts, according to the squad’s former sergeant, Michael Race.
In a 2001 interview, Mr. Race said that of 750 murder cases that he had handled, only one had been “done the correct way, from A to Z.” Mr. Race, who oversaw the investigation into Ms. Negron’s killing, has said he remembered nothing about the case.
– By Jim Dwyer / New York Times