Wrongly Convicted Man Set Free after 4 Years in Gaol
A man in the US was set free just recently, nearly four years after he was wrongly convicted and sentenced to 25 years life in prison for murder. (See 10 December 2013 article above).
Jerome Thagard, a high school student when he was arrested at 16 years old, appeared before a State Supreme Court Justice, who ordered his release from state custody, in response to a motion to set aside the conviction based on new information. The District Attorney said that he agreed not to oppose the motion to dismiss after reviewing new information and new interviews with three witnesses who previously had identified Thagard as the gunman, as well as a recent interview with Thagard.
The new information surfaced in June, when the Buffalo police learned that the gun used in the April 2009, slaying of Steven Northrup was later used in at least two other homicides, after Thagard had been convicted and sentenced to life in prison. A comparison of the bullets fired in the Northrup slaying and the two other homicides showed they came from the same weapon. Based on that information, Buffalo police and the District Attorney’s Office opened an exoneration investigation of Thagard’s conviction in January 2010.
That conviction was based on three witnesses who picked Thagard from a photo array of suspects and identified him as the gunman. The Defense attorney insisted that Thagard was innocent. Thagard did not testify at his trial, and although the defense filed notice of an alibi defense, no alibi witnesses were presented.
In June 2013, Defence counsel filed his motion asking the Judge to set aside the verdict based on new information, but the District Attorney's office did not respond to the motion until recently after completing the exoneration investigation. During that investigation, all three witnesses were reinterviewed, and they recanted their earlier identification of Thagard as the gunman. The district attorney said they indicated that Thagard looked like the gunman but they had not been sure he was. They told investigators that they had been pressured into identifying Thagard by a Buffalo police detective who has since retired.
The investigators also wanted to interview Thagard. In early November 2013, after weeks of discussion, Defence agreed to let them interview his client. The district attorney said Thagard was brought from state prison to his office where he was interviewed by the chief of the DA’s homicide bureau, his chief investigator, and the Assistant District Attorney.
During that 90-minute interview, Thagard said he was at home watching television with his mother at the time of the fatal shooting and that he also had a phone conversation. The prosecutors determined the alibi was credible.
After the interview, the District Attorney said he sat down with his prosecution team. He said some advised that they believed Thagard was likely innocent, while others viewed the case as rife with reasonable doubt about his guilt. However, all agreed that it was unjust to keep him in custody.
Meanwhile, police have another suspect in the fatal shooting but there is a question about whether there is enough evidence to charge and convict him. The unidentified man was not previously a suspect in the case.
In the 2009 case, the District Attorney cited the testimony of the three witnesses who identified Thagard as the gunman, noting that the judge had indicated at sentencing that one of the witnesses was among the most compelling he had heard at any trial.
The District Attorney noted that Buffalo police and his office conducted the exoneration investigation in this case after information surfaced about the weapon being used in later homicides.