Grant Williams, whose conviction was overturned on Thursday, told inmates they would see a day that he was innocent. "And today is that day, " he said.
It was around 6:00 p.m. on Good Friday in April 1996, and Shdell Lewis was walking with a close friend outside his home in Staten Island when a manarmed wearing a black jacket and hat of the Wu-Tang Clan walked by, turned around and opened fire. Mr Lewis was shot several times, collapsed nearby and later died in a hospital.
Within hours, police were identified Grant Williams, then 25, as his killer. .
Mr. Williams was arrested shortly after, convicted in 1997 and sentenced to life in prison, where he spent 23 years, all for a crime he did not commit.
On Thursday, a Richmond County judge overturned Mr Williams' conviction, after a review of the case identified a number of witnesses who failed did not testify at trial, two of which were essential to prove Mr. Williams 'innocence.
One of those witnesses, friend walking with Mr Lewis at the time of the shooting, had told police thatMr. Williams, whom he knew, was certainly not the shooter. Another witness said he was with Mr. Williams at another location at the time of the shooting.
After Thursday's hearing, Mr Williams, who was released from prison on parole in October 2019, said he always knew he would one day be exonerated.
"You never know how bad th you have until it's tested," Mr. Williams said. "I never lost strength.
Mr Williams' exoneration follows a series of similar reversals in New York City, which have shed harsh light on police and prosecution practices that have jailed innocent people for decades. His arrest and conviction came at a time when police, struggling to contain New York's gang wars and an extremely high murder rate in 1s990, could often cut corners in his search for suspects.
In March, a Queens State Judge quashed the convictions of three men who had spent more than two decades in prison after being wrongly convicted of double murder in the late 1990s. In April, the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office has announced that it will overturn up to 90 convictions a police detective had helped get it.
The case against Mr. Williams was slim. Prosecutors did not have a confession, murder weapon, or significant evidence other than the testimony of two eyewitnesses. A policeman who had pursued the gunman gave himwritten as being 5 feet 5 inches and stocky, with a round face. Mr Williams was 6ft 2in tall and slim.
And the district attorney's re-investigation revealed that the police ignored the witness who told them that Mr. Williams was not the shooter, neither recording this interview nor sharing it with prosecutors before they indicted Mr. Williams.
This witness became so frustrated with the process that he refused to need to respond to investigators working for Mr. Williams' defense, according to a report filed by the district attorney.
" It 's enraging to read how the investigation went and to see someone who lost decades of their life because the police fabricated evidence and ignored and buried the information that reached him that he had the wrong person, "said Vanessa Potkin, director ofhe special litigations at the Innocence project, which seeks to overturn convictions. "But cases like Mr. Williams' are very common.
Ms. Potkin, whose organization was not involved in exonerating Mr. Williams, added that the only thing unusual in the case was that Mr. Williams was able to obtain proof of his innocence, attract the attention of the prosecutor's office and have his conviction overturned. .
"Cases like Mr. Williams' and the factors that led to his wrongful conviction were ubiquitous in the 1990s " he said. she said.
In its report, the district attorney's office also noted that the investigation into Mr. Lewis's death had taken place in a time "when New York City was strewn with drug gang wars and murder rates." was in the thousands. "
" This case was classified as "resolved " within four hours and no further investigation or corroboration was sought after, "the report says. " It 's happening. was essentially a "one-witness murder case ".
Police did not respond to a request for comment on the report district attorney.
Irving Cohen, Mr. Williams' attorney for the past seven years has said it is too common for Police detectives at the time to stop investigating once they identified a suspect. He said he had had around 15 similar cases from the late 1980s and 1990s, and that pressure on investigators to clear cases was often at play.
At the time, while cases like Mr. Williams' were re-investigated, these reviews were generally effective.Killed on an ad hoc basis by district prosecutors responding to allegations of innocence by defendants and their lawyers. But over the past decade, conviction review units like the one that re-examined Mr. Williams' case have become much more common, in part thanks to Kenneth P. Thompson, the Brooklyn District Attorney between 2014 and 2016. , whose office exonerated more than 20 people. found had been wrongly convicted.
Not all Conviction Review Units, or Conviction Integrity Units, are the same, and some have been criticized for their lack of transparency, for "in name only, or to be composed only of prosecutors, who do not always have strong incentives to overthrow the work of their colleagues.
Again, belief integrity units, along with pressure from outside organizations like Project Innocence and others, have led to more exemptions from the in recent years.
Many involve trials like Mr. Williams', where evidence appears to have been scarce. During his trial in November 1997, prosecutors placed particular emphasis on the Wu-Tang hat, noting that Mr. Williams had been employed at the Wu-Tang recording studio. But the Wu-Tang Clan, Staten Island's most famous rap group, reportedly peaked in popularity that year.
(Later , from prison, Mr Williams requested that the hat be tested for DNA evidence, but it had been destroyed by the police, as was their standard procedure.)
After deliberating for about a day, the jury declaredre that he was "desperately at a standstill ". The judge asked him to continue his deliberations, a day before the court's Thanksgiving break. An hour later, the jury found Mr. Williams guilty of second degree murder.
More than 8,500 days later, Mr. Williams left the Richmond County Courthouse with its head held high. He thanked his family, friends and lawyer for their support and said he always knew that day would come.
"There is a lot of joy in my heart right now "he said. " I have been through a lot of pain. "
He said that in prison he often told others about his innocence.
"I said: 'I'm telling you the truth, one day you will see me on the news, and they will see that I was innocent, ' "he recalled. " And today is that day. "