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DNA Evidence: New Jersey Court Vacates Two 1996 Murder Convictions

by Mark Wilson

After spending 24 years behind bars for murder, Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee walked out of a New Jersey prison in November 2017. Weeks earlier, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Michael Portelli had vacated their convictions for the 1993 murder of a store clerk after new DNA evidence cleared them. The newly discovered DNA belongs to Eric Dixon, a convicted felon who had been released from imprisonment for a similar crime three months before the murder. Dixon matched witnesses’ description of the person seen inside the store about the time of the murder.

“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.”

Tito Merino was stabbed to death during a 1993 robbery of a video store where he worked. A green and purple plaid baseball cap was recovered near Merino’s body. It did not belong to anyone who worked at the store, and it was not present before the murder. Investigators concluded that it belonged to the killer. The hat was submitted for DNA testing in hopes of identifying the perpetrator, but the test results were inconclusive because DNA testing at the time was not as advanced as it is today.

Police initially searched for a single suspect but eventually turned their attention to Kelley and Lee. Kelley has difficulty processing information due to significant cognitive impairments from a traumatic brain injury he suffered in an automobile accident prior to the murder. Undoubtedly seeing him as the weakest link, police interrogated Kelley first, and he allegedly confessed to the crime after several hours of questioning.

Police then interrogated Lee, and then admittedly fed him information supplied by Kelley. He supposedly confessed, as well. Investigators did not record the interrogations or take notes of what occurred. The only evidence of the confessions were two typewritten statements prepared by detectives and signed by Kelley and Lee.

Kelley supposedly told detectives where the knife used in the murder was hidden and where stolen property was fenced. Not surprisingly, police could not corroborate either claim. Evidence at the crime scene also contradicted both confessions. Nevertheless, Kelley and Lee were convicted of felony murder and robbery in 1996.

Several years later, the Innocence Project and Centurion Ministries sought to prove Kelley and Lee’s innocence. Despite the prosecution’s objection, they persuaded the trial court to order new DNA testing on the baseball cap in October 2010. The results of the new testing revealed male DNA that excluded both Kelley and Lee. The profile was then entered into the FBI DNA database of convicted felons.

The DNA matched Eric Dixon, who fit the age and physical description of a person witnesses said was in the store around the time of the murder. He had been released from prison just three months earlier after serving three years for a similar knifepoint robbery of a nearby store.

At a hearing, an expert witness testified that false confessions are a leading cause of wrongful convictions, contributing to more than 25 percent of the 351 DNA exonerations nationwide. Lawyers for Kelley and Lee also offered testimony from a forensic psychologist who concluded that Kelley is vulnerable to making a false confession during a custodial interrogation because he is “more suggestible than approximately 98 percent of the normal population.” Finally, a former detective who now specializes in police interrogations criticized the way Kelley and Lee were interrogated and testified about discrepancies, contradictions, and the lack of corroborating evidence supporting their statements.

“This is probably one of the best examples of tunnel vision one could imagine,” declared New Jersey Superior Court Judge Portelli in vacating their convictions on September 15, 2017. “During the trials and this motion, the State has relied heavily on the statements given by the defendants when they were initially arrested,” observed Portelli. “However, history has shown many instances where false confessions are given and DNA has proven the defendant or defendants not guilty notwithstanding a confession.” In vacating the conviction, Judge Portelli noted that the new DNA evidence “would probably change a jury’s verdict” if they were to be tried again.

Potkin applauded the decision. “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,” she said. “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.”

That hope turned out to be too optimistic. The prosecution has not announced that it is dismissing the charges against Kelley and Lee. In fact, the prosecution has signaled that it may indeed try them again. In a further sign that the prosecution refuses to concede even the possibility it made a mistake and wrongfully convicted Kelley and Lee, Dixon reportedly is not being investigated as the possible perpetrator.

In response to the prosecution’s baffling disregard for facts and clinging to its discredited theory of the case, the Star-Ledger editorial board penned an editorial titled “Let justice be done in Passaic County: Probe the prosecutor.” The editorial board had this to say about prosecutor Camelia Valdes: “given her pigheaded reluctance to acknowledge the innocence of Lee and Kelley, this prosecutor … should be permanently removed from the case and placed in the state’s crosshairs.”

The editorial board urged the state office of attorney ethics to investigate the motives of Valdes and her staff, “because their refusal to reopen the case is an outrageous example of malpractice and a violation of their ethical obligation to seek justice.”

Too many prosecutors all across the country lose sight of the fact that their primary duty is not to win convictions, but rather to ensure the fair administration of justice.  


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