by Christopher Zoukis
Newly appointed New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has directed his prosecutors to take over an investigation into the 1993 murder conviction of two men who might be innocent.
He also formed a panel to consider whether New Jersey should establish a “conviction review unit” to look at claims of possible wrongful conviction.
Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee were originally convicted of the 1993 murder of a Patterson, New Jersey, video store clerk. Prosecutors alleged that the men beat and stabbed 22-year-old Tito Merino to death during a robbery of the video store. Kelley and Lee confessed to the crime but recanted shortly thereafter.
According to a report from NJ Advance Media, a key piece of evidence was a baseball cap found at the scene. Investigators initially believed that it belonged to the killer. DNA evidence tested in 2014 ruled out Kelley and Lee as the hat’s owner, and the DNA instead pointed to a local man who had just finished a prison sentence for knifepoint robbery that took place a few weeks before Merino’s murder.
The Innocence Project and Centurion Ministries raised questions about the case, and a judge ultimately tossed the convictions. But the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office still believed that Kelley and Lee committed the crime and fought to keep them locked up. Prosecutors finally dropped the case after losing an appeal in early 2018.
Grewal said that while he has confidence in Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia Valdes, a state-level formal inquiry was necessary. “We’re going to supersede the investigation … to ensure public confidence in light of the criticism that has been leveled and the coverage of the matter,” he said.
In addition to taking over the investigation, Grewal hired former New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice James Zazzali to look into how county prosecutors handled the case.
Vanessa Potkin, director of post-conviction litigation at The Innocence Project, said Grewal did the right thing. “This move kind of exemplifies exactly the job of the prosecutor: to ensure that justice is done, and not just to maintain convictions,” she said.
Grewal also convened a panel, headed by retired New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Virginia Long, to determine whether the state should establish a conviction integrity unit. He said the review “was something that we were working on since January , but it’s something that’s been hastened by this matter of Ralph Lee and Eric Kelley.”
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