These 15 people were convicted of serious crimes. Now they’re getting new trials
By Rebecca Everett | For NJ.com
A jury votes to convict. A defendant is led away in handcuffs and heads to prison.
But that’s not the end of the story. The justice system gives convicted people the right to appeal, in case errors or other issues deprived them of fair trials. These appeals take years but sometimes, they succeed.
Take the case of Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee. After the 1993 slaying of a Paterson video store clerk, the pair initially confessed to but later recanted. They were convicted and given life sentences.
But in 2017, 24 years into their sentences, a judge tossed their convictions. Modern testing found that DNA on a hat left at the scene of the crime did not match Kelley or Lee and actually matched a Paterson convict. The Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office appealed, lost, and in April, dismissed all charges against the pair. They were free men.
The case of Kelley and Lee is extraordinary in more ways than one. Usually, if someone wins an appeal of their conviction, it means heading back to court for a second (or sometimes a third) trial. In other cases, it brings the two sides back to the bargaining table and they work out a plea deal for a lesser sentence.
We looked over cases where defendants won their appeals over the last year and a half. Here are the 10 men and five women who were granted new trials.
Jenny Tran at the time of her arrest and in a recent prison headshot. (Bergen County Prosecutor/Department of Corrections)
Was wife who killed husband given fair shot at insanity defense?
Name: Jenny Tran
Charges: Tran, 56, admitted to suffocating her ailing husband, Minh Tran, with a plastic bag in their Elmwood Park home in 2009. She also tried to kill her daughter and threatened to kill their son, prosecutors said. In 2011, a Bergen County jury acquitted her of murder but didn’t buy her insanity defense, convicting her of aggravated manslaughter and other charges. She was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
Why she gets a new trial: The state’s Appellate Court overturned the verdict on June 13, saying that an expert witness was improperly allowed to opine on Tran’s state of mind and intent to kill, which should be up to the jury to decide. The 61-page decision also noted that the judge made several “inappropriate and insensitive” comments about the seriousness and length of the trial.
What’s next: Tran was released from prison several days after the decision, Department of Corrections’ records show. A new trial date has not been set, but she has a status conference scheduled for July 13, according to court records.
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James Stuart is pictured in court in 2016 and in a recent prison photo. (Lori M. Nichols/Department of Corrections)
Cop who killed friend was convicted of contradictory crimes
Name: James A. Stuart
Charges: Stuart, 34, was a Deptford police officer when he was charged with murdering his best friend, David Compton, 27, after a night of drinking in his home in 2013. Stuart testified at his 2015 trial that he and Compton had been fooling around with the unloaded gun that night, but hours later, when he pointed the gun at his TV and quickly turned to face his friend, he shot him unintentionally.
A jury convicted him of murder and aggravated manslaughter and he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Why he gets a new trial: The appellate panel ruled in August that by convicting Stuart of both knowing murder and manslaughter, the jury failed to determine whether he intended to kill or just acted with conscious disregard for the risk.
The judge’s instruction was misleading, the decision said, and should have made clear that the jury should consider a murder conviction and only if they couldn’t convict on that, then consider manslaughter.
What’s next: Stuart was released on bail after the decision. He is scheduled to go to trial on July 31.
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Tatrone Waters is pictured in court in 2015 and in a recent prison photo. (Don Woods/Department of Corrections)
Jury should have considered ‘provoked’ manslaughter for teen
Name: Tatrone Waters
Charges: Waters, now 24, was only 17 when he was charged with murdering David Sapp, 19, in Bridgeton in 2011. Waters and a friend drove to Tip’s Trailer Park looking for Sapp and the three exchanged words. Sapp pulled out a gun and Waters, who was in the car’s passenger seat, shot and killed him, police said.
A jury convicted him of murder, among other charges, and he was sentenced to 60 years.
Why he gets a new trial: The appeals court decided in October that the trial judge erred in his instructions to the jury. The decision said the judge failed to instruct the jury that they could consider a “passion or provoked” manslaughter charge, despite the evidence that Waters fired after, or in reaction to, Sapp pulling a gun.
The decision also said the judge should have instructed the jury on self-defense laws and failed to take into account Waters’ youth when sentencing him.
What’s next: Waters was transferred from prison to the Cumberland County Jail to await his retrial, according to court and Department of Corrections records. He has a status conference in court July 23.
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