After filing a flood of lawsuits against the Trump administration and seeking to improve police transparency, Phil Murphy’s Attorney General is narrowing his eye for justice on a badly bungled murder case in Passaic county.
Gurbir Grewal this week vowed to do what Chris Christie’s AG and a local prosecutor would not: investigate how two innocent men spent nearly 25 years in prison for the killing of a Paterson store clerk, while the most likely murder suspect still walks free.
He also wants to prevent this kind of mistake from ever happening again, and is asking outside experts for help.
He is considering creating a statewide team to investigate wrongful convictions, and to oversee county prosecutors handling those cases. Another promising possibility is the creation of a cold case unit to catch the real killer after a bad conviction is overturned.
How many innocent people are locked up in N.J.? Murphy’s AG eyes reform after bungled case
All great news. For Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee, just released after decades behind bars, it could mean further vindication. For the family of Tito Merino – slain while minding his uncle’s video store back in 1993 – it means the real murderer may finally be held responsible.
And for New Jersey, it could mean a future process to help prevent horrible injustices like this.
Grewal’s decision to appoint a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, James Zazzali, to analyze what went wrong in Passaic is the right first step. This is what should routinely happen after a wrongful conviction: Authorities carefully dissecting the mistake.
Yet it didn’t happen under Christie, even though the Attorney General’s office has oversight over prosecutors. And it didn’t happen in Passaic County, where Prosecutor Camelia Valdes botched this case inexcusably, refusing to change course even after DNA evidence discovered in 2014 exonerated the two men in prison.
That means the real killer remains free. In fact, DNA found on a hat near the body at the murder scene was a match for another man, Eric Dixon, who had served prison time for a similar knifepoint robbery in Paterson.
2 men confessed to murder. Their DNA tells another story.
And yet Valdes refused to send investigators to interview him, and even declared his innocence outright, for reasons that are mysterious.
She finally backed down last Friday and dropped the charges, after the AG leaned on her, according to a source close to the case. Her incompetence is matched only by her shocking lack of compassion for those innocent men in prison.
While Zazzali will examine what went wrong in the Passaic case, Grewal has appointed former state Supreme Court Justice Virginia Long to head a panel that will look at wrongful convictions more generally.
She’s on the board of Centurion – the Princeton-based group that, along with the Innocence Project, fought for the freedom of the two Passaic men.
Her experience in this area is promising. So is Grewal’s willingness to drill down and find out exactly what went wrong in this specific case. It shows a sincere commitment to justice.
In his former job as Bergen County Prosecutor, Grewal says he told his staff, “You will never be measured by the number of convictions we bring. We’re here to do the right thing.”
This is a breath of fresh air. The very least we owe the wrongfully imprisoned is a chance at exoneration.