The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has reopened a two-decade-old murder case now that details have surfaced casting serious doubt over the 1989 murder conviction of former Brooklyn resident Lebrew Jones. Once a security guard, now an inmate at Otisville Correctional Facility, Jones may get a second chance at justice because the irregularities in his case became too glaring for authorities to ignore. Although the past proceedings appear riddled with errors that technically might exonerate Jones, the one thing that experts say could spring him in a second may be missing: DNA evidence.
The case was reopened in Feb. 2007 after journalist Christine Young – whose path crossed that of Jones on the eve of his trial in the murder of Michaelanne Hall in Manhattan – articulated her nagging doubts to the Manhattan DA’s Office. Last month, Young published an exhaustive account of the murder, trial, conviction and her own involvement in the newspaper where she is a reporter, the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y. The dramatic tale made an impact in journalistic circles – and among criminal justice advocates. For the latter group the Jones case, coupled with the recent DNA-based exonerations of several wrongfully convicted men in the metropolitan area, underscores the need to modernize how the NYPD and the city’s five district attorney’s offices preserve crime scene evidence.
The NYPD’s methods of collecting and preserving evidence repeatedly have come under fire for frustrating the route to a successful defense – or conviction. Just weeks ago, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly recruited a forensic expert to review the evidence collection methods of the NYPD’s crime scene unit (according to the Daily News) in the wake of news accounts detailing errors committed in the recovery of ballistics evidence in several high-profile cases.
This follows the efforts of Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, a Brooklyn Democrat, to shepherd passage of statewide legislation to improve evidence preservation. As chairman of the Assembly’s Codes Committee, Lentol held a hearing on the issue in Oct. 2006 after the exoneration of Manhattan native Alan Newton, who spent 21 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. Prior to his release, Newton spent more than a decade appealing to the courts for access to the evidence in his case for DNA testing, but was repeatedly told that it was missing or destroyed. Then a request made to the NYPD’s Property Clerk Division by former Bronx Assistant DA Elisa Koenderman led to its discovery in the storeroom where it had been located all along. That’s the Pearson Place warehouse in Long Island City, Queens, which serves as the central depository for physical material collected from crime scenes throughout the five boroughs. Yet critics charge that the NYPD – which did not respond to a request for comment on this article – still uses an antiquated paper system and ineffectual storage method.
“That the evidence storage situation, and specifically the Pearson Place Warehouse, is a complete mess is common knowledge throughout the city,” says attorney Vanessa Potkin, a staff member of the Innocence Project, which represented Newton. The Innocence Project wants to re-examine 19 other New York City cases of possible wrongful conviction that it dropped in the past decade after the Project was told the crime scene material at Pearson Place was lost or destroyed. “It’s time for the NYPD to stop its lip service and get serious about this problem which is in everyone’s interest to solve,” Potkin said.
To a growing number of observers, “everyone’s interest” now includes that of Lebrew Jones, 50, who is in year nineteen of a 22-years-to-life sentence in the Otisville medium-security prison in Orange County. Jones was convicted of second-degree murder in the heinous 1987 slaying and sexual mutilation of 21-year-old Michaelanne Hall at a plywood-enclosed construction site where he worked in then-gritty Hell’s Kitchen.
Reporter Young, who has inspected the trial transcripts and related court documents, wonders how Jones was ever convicted. The son of the late jazz drummer Rufus Jones, whose frenzied technique earned him the nickname “Speedy” and gigs alongside the likes of Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton, Lebrew Jones had no prior arrest history. Yet among the troubling findings, Young argues, is everything from the noticeable lack of physical or credible circumstantial evidence linking Jones to the murder, to a broken lock at an entrance to the construction site, to the lack of a medical examiner at the scene to establish Hall’s time of death. “I’m not a lawyer,” says Young, “but none of this makes any sense.”
Her doubts about the handling of the Jones case actually began nearly 20 years ago. As a CUNY journalism student in 1989 investigating stories about teenage runaways who became prostitutes on the city’s streets, Young stumbled upon the Hall murder case when she interviewed Betty Baker, who worked with the Salvation Army to patrol the streets and provide food and snacks to sex workers and the homeless. Driving around in a converted ice cream truck, Baker and her driver picked up Hall and gave her a lift in Manhattan around 2:00 a.m. on the night she was murdered.
Two decades ago, however, Young discovered just how crucial that detail was when she mentioned it to a police detective whom she knew during a casual conversation at Manhattan’s 10th Precinct, near her home. According to Young, detective Paul Clermont, who has since retired, cautioned her that if Baker’s story was true that it would strike a fatal blow to the case – because Baker saw Hall at a time after the one police had claimed was her time of death.
That’s significant because it was also an hour at which Jones, the lead suspect who was then heading to trial, was fully accounted for. And while Baker was later called as a defense witness, her testimony failed to prevent Jones’ conviction. “I was damned surprised he got convicted,” attorney Robert Beecher, who represented Jones, told City Limits. “I thought at the very least we were going to get a hung jury. I didn’t think the jury was going to reject Betty Baker’s testimony. And then when you factor in everything else, I thought we had a real shot.”
Jones alternated working security guard shifts at the construction site where Hall was murdered and another location on the Upper East Side. At the Hell’s Kitchen site, Jones worked from 3 p.m. to 11:30 pm. Relieved by another security guard who worked the next shift, Jones went to the other site and signed in, which was later confirmed by police according to the transcripts Young has reviewed. The discovery of Hall’s body was made in the early morning hours by the security guard who relieved Jones.
“Without a medical examiner, the police never knew what time Hall was killed, but they argued that she was killed while Jones was there and that the [other guard] found her body afterward,” notes Young. The other guard, Frederick Baddoo, who testified at the trial that he fell asleep during his shift (and has since proven difficult for Young to track down), was ruled out as a suspect.
But Jones became a suspect after he visited the Hell’s Kitchen construction site the next morning. Young tells City Limits that Jones told her that when he arrived, two uniformed police officers told him about the murder, and he agreed to go to the 10th Precinct with them. Soon after, Jones was joined by two detectives and questioned. After being released, Jones was brought back in for further interrogation nearly two days later, and found himself before a camera and a Manhattan assistant district’s attorney. During the trial, a now-deceased detective conceded that Jones provided five different statements before being read his Miranda rights. Wearing a gray sweatshirt and sitting before a blue-paneled wall, Jones calmly described how he encountered Hall at the construction site and that he requested oral sex before she violently began to attack herself with a rock.
Attorney Beecher, who sought to suppress the tape during the trial, argues that it reveals coercive tactics. “He went through a series of preposterous explanations that didn’t make any sense at all,” he says.
Young agrees. “What struck me about his statement is that he uses police jargon. ‘I proceeded down 41st Street.’ Who says that in normal conversation?”
One possible explanation may have already been presented at the trial when a psychologist testified that Jones, who was said to have a low IQ score of 66, was extremely gullible. Also, during cross-examination, Beecher got one of the detectives to admit that Jones was provided details about the crime, but he argues that it was too difficult for a jury to believe that police supplied him with all the details. “This was the era before false confessions made its way into the courtroom. I argued that my client was easily suggestible, but clearly that wasn’t enough.”
But Saul Kassin, a noted expert on false confessions and a distinguished professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, contends that videotaped statements filmed by the NYPD provide a small – and ultimately distorted – glimpse into the interrogation process. “Videotaped confessions are quite powerful and persuasive,” Kassin said. “But they can also be misleading because judges and juries don’t have access to interrogations from beginning to end.”
Jones’ conviction primarily hung on his videotaped statement. Despite the extremely violent nature of the attack – Hall was found with a piece of rock implanted in her crushed skull, a blood-drenched sock in her throat and a piece of scrap wood in her vagina – no blood was found on any clothing that police recovered from Jones. And while Young believes that facts learned over the course of her recent reporting – including the nature of Hall’s stormy relationship with her pimp, and previously unheard statements by the Salvation Army van driver in support of Betty Baker – should be factored into the Manhattan DA’s review, she also thinks the physical evidence itself lies at the heart of the case.
Recovered from the scene was a discarded condom found near her body in addition to pieces of plywood and other items retrieved from her body. “The wood that was shoved in her may have skin cells that could eliminate Jones as a suspect. There was so much evidence at the scene, God only knows what happened to it after all these years,” says Young.
But what worries attorney Beecher is the lack of a strong “alternate suspect” whose DNA could be compared to any forensic evidence that may be retrieved from the investigation. “It’s extremely difficult to get a jury’s verdict set aside,” he explains. “We don’t know what physical evidence they’re working with in this new investigation, but I’m not sure if raising questions is the same as new evidence.”
Meanwhile, Manhattan DA spokeswoman Barbara Thompson says that a rigorous review into the case is ongoing. “The results are not immediate. It takes prosecutors a while to go through the evidence,” Thompson said. “Whatever needs to be examined, we will do.”
For advocates, that makes it all the more crucial for the forensic evidence to be safely preserved should the need for its examination ever arise. Court documents from a case this summer show prosecutors conceding they could not find requested DNA evidence after a search of three separate storage facilities in Brooklyn. Frederick Diaz, who was convicted in a 1984 Brooklyn double homicide – and remains convicted – had appealed in Brooklyn Supreme Court for access to the blood and hair samples of the victims for biological testing, which his lawyer argued would prove his innocence based on “newly discovered evidence.” Judge Gustin Reichbach denied the request, ruling that Diaz’s conviction “did not rest on physical evidence linking the defendant to the crime” but on his videotaped confession – a relief of sorts given that the evidence could not be found.
In Lebrew Jones’ case, however, the whereabouts of the items that may have another person’s DNA on them are unknown. In her Times Herald-Record story, Young quotes an NYPD sergeant saying that evidence is destroyed 10 years after a conviction.
“We’ve been hearing continual complaints that evidence can’t be found in New York cases,” Innocence Project policy analyst Rebecca Brown told City Limits. “We suggested to the NYPD to take a better look at this, but we don’t know what their overall plan is.”
The lack of a standard preservation system not only hampers the detection of wrongful convictions, advocates warn, but thwarts the discovery of actual offenders. In nearly half of New York state’s 23 DNA exonerations that resulted from the work of the Innocence Project, forensic evidence has also led to the identification of the real perpetrators.
Assemblyman Lentol is pushing a new package of reform bills on the handling of DNA evidence in post-conviction cases. “If there’s a request to test the evidence from 20 years ago, why not just go back, find it and test it? It really shouldn’t be that difficult. What’s a human life worth, especially if you’re someone who is languishing in prison?” Lentol said.
For more than 20 years of his life, Alan Newton, 46, knew the answer to that question firsthand as he awaited the discovery of the forensic evidence to exonerate him. “You could say that anyone could be wrongfully convicted,” says Newton, who is slated to graduate from Medgar Evers College in May with a business degree, then plans to go on to law school. “But imagine what I went through where the evidence that could set you free is out there and all you’re hearing is that it’s missing. There definitely needs to be an overhaul, it’s just a matter of whether there’s an incentive to do it.”
To read Christine Young’s Feb. 8 follow-up article, click here.