A state appeals court on Monday ruled two New Jersey men serving life for the 1993 murder of a Paterson video store clerk deserve new trials based on DNA evidence that “seriously undermined” the case against them.
A three-judge panel rejected that challenge on Monday, finding that a DNA match pointing to another suspect would likely have swayed the jurors who convicted them at separate trials.
“Our system of criminal justice fundamentally depends upon the soundness of the evidence presented to jurors at trial,” the judges wrote in the 68-page ruling.
“When, as here, the soundness of that evidence and the resulting verdicts is seriously undermined by newly-obtained DNA evidence of third-party guilt, we cannot turn a blind eye to the revelation and the probability that defendants, who have been incarcerated since 1996, would have been acquitted.”
Jason Statuto, the chief assistant prosecutor in Passaic County, said his office was reviewing the ruling and had not yet decided whether to bring the matter to the state Supreme Court.
Kelley and Lee claim they made bogus confessions under pressure from police questioning them about the killing. The pair quickly recanted but were convicted based in large part on those confessions.
The case was the subject of a July special report from NJ Advance Media reexamining court records and evidence gathered by two legal groups, the Innocence Project and Centurion Ministries, which raised questions about the investigation that led to their arrest.
The key piece of evidence in the case is a green and purple baseball cap found near the body of Tito Merino, the young store clerk who was beaten and stabbed during the robbery at his uncle’s store, Victoria Video.
Both Kelley and Lee were identified at various points as the owner of the hat, but new tests performed using technology not available at the time of the trial found no trace of either man’s DNA.
A sample from the hat was checked against a DNA database of convicted felons and came up with a match for a former Paterson man who finished a prison sentence for a knifepoint robbery just weeks before the video store killing.
Prosecutors have refused to interview that man and have argued in court papers that he had nothing to do with the murder.
Judges Jack Sabatino, Mitchel Ostrer and Mary Gibbons Whipple wrote in their decision Monday that while they “have not decided these men are innocent,” the DNA evidence pointing to another man could be used as a defense at new trials.