New York: Darryle Adams was on his knees on a Queens street, begging for his life. He had emptied his pockets after four men mugged him after dark. One of the men had pointed a gun at him. A second man, in a wheelchair, had struck Adams in the head with a bottle.
Then the gunman shot Adams in the back of the head.
Four days later, on March 11, 1994, detectives showed up to the home of 18-year-old Samuel Brownridge and took him to the police station. "I never made it home," Brownridge, now 45, said in a recent telephone interview.
Brownridge was arrested several days after he was first detained at the station, where two men identified him in a photo array and in a line-up as the shooter. Their testimony was all prosecutors needed to persuade a jury to convict Brownridge of murder in 1995.
He served nearly 25 years in prison before being paroled in March of last year. From the beginning, he said that he had been at home with his girlfriend and son at the time of the shooting.
On Tuesday, a state judge in Queens vacated Brownridge's conviction after his lawyers and the Queens district attorney, Melinda Katz, filed a joint motion to throw out the case because a crucial witness had recanted his testimony and six others had come forward to say someone else killed Adams.
When a person is set to have their conviction overturned, their loved ones typically pack the courtroom and erupt into thunderous applause when the judge announces the case is vacated. But because of the pandemic, Brownridge's hearing was held online.
Anger and apology
"Everyone in the criminal justice system failed you in some way or another," Justice Joseph Zayas said as he addressed Brownridge. "The miscarriage of justice in your case is monumental. It is therefore no surprise that large segments of our city and our country have grave doubts about the criminal justice system and its ability to deliver equal and fair justice to all."
Zayas added that the case "demonstrates that their anger is justified".
Brownridge, who addressed the court from his home in Maryland, cried as he reflected on the time he had lost. The judge, using a tissue, dabbed tears from his eyes as Brownridge spoke.
Brownridge's current lawyer said that the detectives decades ago had ignored investigative leads that would have led to the perpetrators; that crucial information about the credibility of the prosecution's witnesses, also known as exculpatory evidence, was withheld from the defense; and that Brownridge's previous lawyer had made mistakes at trial that complicated his appeal.
"There was a failure at every level of this case - from the investigation and arrest, the trial and the appellate process," said the current lawyer, Donna Aldea. "His exoneration is not going to get him back the 25 years he lost for a murder he did not commit."
In 2018, prosecutors had begun re-examining Brownridge's wrongful conviction claim, and the Conviction Integrity Unit that Katz established after taking office in January completed the investigation.
Her predecessor, Richard Brown, who was known for his tough-on-crime approach, had refused to create a conviction review bureau - even as prosecutors in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn formed similar units - instead choosing to assign the investigation of innocence claims to his senior staff.
Since 1992, 29 people have been exonerated in cases that include murder, rape and robbery in Queens, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Of those cases, many were overturned because of a mistaken witness identification, false accusation or official misconduct.
But under Brown, the office, even when it agreed a new trial was necessary, almost never admitted it had made a mistake and convicted an innocent man.
"The idea that someone is in prison who hasn't committed the crime is something that should be important to everybody," Katz said. "No system is perfect, and there has to be ways to catch the imperfections."
Bryce Benjet, director of the Conviction Integrity Unit and a former senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project, said 50 people have asked the unit to review their convictions. "This is our obligation to go back and make sure the person convicted was the right person," he said.
The case against Brownridge relied solely on the testimony of two men, Kevin Boatwright and Quintin Hagood, who said they saw Brownridge shoot Adams and picked him out of a police line-up, according to court papers filed by the district attorney and defense lawyers. Prosecutors never found the gun and had no forensic evidence tying Brownridge to the shooting.
Boatwright had been stopped by the four men just moments before Adams was shot. Before Boatwright had pointed Brownridge out to detectives, he had mistakenly identified two innocent men - one as the gunman and the other as the man in the wheelchair - during the lineup, according to court documents.
Those errors were not noted in police reports. They were only recorded in a note written by an assistant district attorney, Johnnette Traill, and that document was never turned over to Brownridge's defense lawyer.
Boatwright also said the shooter had a fade haircut and was in his 20s, and Brownridge had a medium-length Afro and was 18.
At the trial, prosecutors described Boatwright as a "watchman" who had been trained to make accurate observations. He testified that Brownridge had held a gun to his head and later shot Adams.
Hagood's account was also problematic. His descriptions of what he saw the night Adams was killed changed over time, court records show.
Crime scene photos suggested that Hagood could not have witnessed the shooting from the location where he said he had been. He also had schizophrenia and had exhibited an "impaired" mental state during the trial, according to court records.
In addition, Hagood later recanted his testimony, saying that he had been pressured by Boatwright and the police, who he said had threatened to jail him if he did not identify Brownridge as the shooter. The detectives, Hagood said, showed him a single photograph of Brownridge before the lineup.
Brownridge testified at trial that at the time of the shooting, he was with his girlfriend and son in Queens Village, a roughly 30-minute walk from the crime scene in St. Albans. The killing occurred at about 9 p.m. at Quincer Road and Mexico Street.
His girlfriend, her mother and his mother were prepared to testify that Brownridge was nowhere near the scene and could not have shot Adams. But his defense lawyer, Michael Mays, failed to inform the court that he intended to call the three women as alibi witnesses, and they did not testify at trial.
Justice Robert Hanophy, now retired, sentenced Brownridge to 25 years to life and recommended to the Department of Parole that he remain in prison "until he dies."
Starting in 1999, Brownridge filed appeals in state and federal courts. He was granted a hearing in 2003, when an eyewitness to the murder, Mark Taylor, said that he had new information after being arrested in an unrelated crime.
Taylor told detectives and the district attorney's office that a man named Garfield Brown killed Adams. Two other people present at the time then backed up Taylor's account: Darren Lee, who was the man in the wheelchair, and Dean Hoskins. All three said they were with Brown when he shot Adams.
Brown had a violent history. He was a fugitive featured on the television show "America's Most Wanted," had been imprisoned in California for manslaughter and was wanted in two other murders, according to court records. He was killed by police officers who were trying to arrest him in 2002 in North Carolina.
But the hearing to reconsider Brownridge's conviction fell apart. Taylor, who was threatened and labeled "a snitch," recanted his statement on the witness stand, according to records filed by the defense. He later agreed to testify again, but Hanophy would not give him immunity from a perjury charge, court records show. Taylor did not return to the witness stand; the judge also denied Brownridge's other petitions.
In 2017, Aldea, who had begun reviewing the case, found that the detectives had received Lee's name from witnesses but never tried to interview him. She also located a friend of Brown who said Brown had confessed to killing Adams and two other people who had placed Taylor at the crime scene.
On Monday, Hanophy, the former judge, said that he did not remember the case.
"I tried more homicides than any judge in the country," he said, adding that his rate on appeal was "outstanding" and that he had been told his sentences were sometimes excessive. "I'm 85 now. I've left a lot of that behind me."
But for Brownridge, it is not that simple.
"It's something you never will forget: years of my life, years of being a father, a husband, plenty of years and opportunities in life that I missed," said Brownridge, who works at a supermarket deli in Maryland. "I was innocent. I can't just lay down."