AFRICANGLOBE – Two men who’ve spent more than 15 years in prison after being convicted in 1993 of kidnapping a 16-year-old Brooklyn girl saw their guilty verdicts overturned Wednesday when a state appeals court ruled cops withheld evidence that might have cleared them and then lied about it.
Everton Wagstaffe and Reginald Connor, both sentenced to up to 25 years in prison, had always maintained they were innocent in the kidnapping and death of Jennifer Negron.
The teenage girl’s bludgeoned body was found on New Year’s Day 1992 in East New York. A “witness” was produced by cops and used by prosecutors to link the two men to the crime, even though they had no link to Jennifer and no motive was ever established.
A judge dismissed the murder charges due to lack of evidence, but Wagstaffe and Conner were convicted of kidnapping. For the past 23 years, they’ve struggled to prove they weren’t guilty of any crime.
Cops had insisted that Wagstaffe and Connor weren’t suspects until the so-called “witness” brought their names up. But based on evidence provided by defense lawyers, the Appellate Division ruled Wednesday that cops had been looking at the men before the alleged “witness” appeared — and had lied about it in prior court hearings.
“The defendants were being investigated by the New York City Police Department prior to the detectives’ interview of [the witness], a fact that was contrary to the testimony of one of the investigating detectives that the interview with [the witness] on Jan. 2, 1992, led the police to the defendants,” the ruling stated.
The defense lawyers had additional arguments attacking other police evidence as well, but the appeals court said it didn’t need to hear anymore and moved to overturn the convictions.
“Mr. Wagstaffe is in shock, he is trying to come to grips with this,” his attorney, Myron Beldock, said Wednesday.
The Appellate Division took the unusual step of not just overturning the convictions but also dismissing the original indictments — which Beldock said was an indication of how flagrantly the authorities had violated the law while pursuing the guilty verdicts.
“It is very rare (to do both), it indicates the great injustice that occurred when evidence was kept from the defense. As the court said, the verdict would probably have been different,” Beldock said.
His client, Wagstaffe, 45, is currently in the 23rd year of his 25-year sentence. Wagstaffe had refused to accept parole offers for early release that demanded he admit guilt.
Beldock hopes that Wagstaffe will be brought to the city from Greene Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Coxsackie, NY, as early as next week for a hearing on next steps in his case.
Connor, 46, served 15 years and was released on parole, said his attorney David Toscano.
As a condition of his release, he had to register as a sex offender, Toscano said. It’s been a “big obstacle” as Connor has tried to rebuild his life, the lawyer noted.
“This is great news, obviously he’s very happy today. He was wrongly convicted and even out on parole he continues to have restrictions on him,” Toscano said.
The Brooklyn District Attorney’s office still has an option to appeal, but the lawyers said they’d hoped not further litigation would be necessary.
“We would be very disappointed if this ruling were not the end of the matter … It would be a very misguided use of prosecutorial resources,” said Toscano.
Jennifer Negron’s case was one of 100 being re-examined by Brooklyn prosecutors after information emerged about a tainted detective who allegedly fabricated evidence in some murder cases decades ago. The Conviction Review Unit is going over 71 cases tied to retired detective Louis Scarcella.
The questionable detective wasn’t involved in Jennifer Negron’s murder investigation, but the cops’ methods in identifying Wagstaffe and Connor fit the “pattern” of a Scarcella case because they relied on testimony from a sole witness, Toscano said.
As with many of the Scarcella convictions under examination, Wagstaffe and Connor were convicted on the word of a police informant — a crack-addicted prostitute who had to be forced to testify at trial. The woman, identified as Brunilda Capella in Wednesdays’ ruling, died many years ago. But she provided a key detail that prosecutors used to define their case. Capella said she saw Wagstaffe and Connor haul Jennifer Negron into a Buick known around the neighborhood. When cops found the car, they also found a headband on the backseat. It had belonged to the dead girl, prosecutors claimed.
Cops said they’d never suspected Wagstaffe until Capella pointed them out.
But as it happened, it was the cops who fingered the men, and fed the information to their so-called witness, Beldock said.
“She did not disclose their names until [cops] told her who they wanted her to identify. They misrepresented it. It was fraud and misrepresentation,” he said.
Toscano and Beldock had plenty of other ammunition to bring to bear if they had needed it, including new DNA tests that proved hair and skin under the victim’s fingernails did not belong to Wagstaffe and Connor.
They also had found the woman who owned the Buick implicated in the crime.
The woman had testified that she’d taken her car to church the night of the girl’s murder, where it had stayed until 5 a.m. the next day. She said she’d told cops that in 1992, but they made no record of her statement.
By: Oren Yaniv, Ginger Adams Otis
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