Saturday, August 1, 2009

Brooklyn man found innocent after more than decade in jail for murder

From the Daily News by Scott Shifrel:

A Brooklyn man who spent 12 years in prison for murder is innocent, a judge ruled Friday in a powerfully worded decision.

Jonathan Wheeler-Whichard, 29, was just 17 when he was convicted of gunning down Joseph Foster in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

New evidence convinced a Brooklyn judge he was the wrong man in the 1996 slaying.

"It would be abhorrent to my sense of justice and fair play to do other than to vacate the defendant's convictions," Justice Joseph McKay wrote. "He is innocent of this horrible murder."

Foster was shot in the lobby of a crime-ridden building on Marcus Garvey Blvd., a senseless murder that went mostly unnoticed by everyone but friends, family and police. It seemed like an open and shut case.

Foster had attacked Wheeler-Whichard earlier, and a witness said Wheeler-Whichard confessed to shooting Foster for revenge. Another testified that she heard the two fighting.

Wheeler-Whichard, who had a pending arson case, was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life.

An appeal went nowhere, but something about the case bothered his appeals lawyer.

"The case had haunted me," lawyer Lynn Fahey said. "I was just never sure he was the right kid."

McKay granted another hearing earlier this year after one witness, now serving life on an unrelated murder, recanted. The other was proven a liar when the real 911 caller was found.

McKay also heard from alibi witnesses not called at the original trial, including a correction officer.

After a two-week hearing, the judge scolded both the original prosecutor and defense lawyer and labeled Wheeler-Whichard's conviction "a miscarriage of justice."

The judge said there are several suspects in Foster's murder, including a brother of one of the witnesses who implicated Wheeler-Whichard.

The wrongly convicted man, who pleaded guilty to the arson charge, could be freed next month, although he could face five more years because of his bad behavior, a state official said.

Still, he's a happy man.

"This doesn't happen that often," Fahey said. "He was lucky we were able to find out things the jury never heard. The stars were aligned."

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