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After Key Evidence Was Withheld, 2 Men Spent 3 Decades in Prison

Carlton Roman and Christopher Ellis were freed after judges in separate cases found that they had been unjustly convicted.

Carlton Roman hugged his mother after his murder conviction was vacated on Monday.

At the time of one murder, in 1989 in Queens, Carlton Roman was running errands with his fiancée and infant daughter. When an unrelated killing occurred on Long Island in 1990, Christopher Ellis was DJing his brother’s birthday party.

Although there was no significant forensic or ballistic evidence implicating either man in the separate cases, each was tried, found guilty and sentenced to prison.

Mr. Roman, who was 26 when he was arrested, and Mr. Ellis, who was 20, were incarcerated for more than three decades, spending their 30th, 40th and 50th birthdays behind bars. On Monday, the two men, both of whom are Black, were freed by state judges in courtrooms 11 miles apart who found they had been unjustly convicted.

Mr. Roman was charged with murder and attempted murder in 1989, as a college graduate and honors student who had no criminal record and a fiancée who corroborated his whereabouts at the time of the fatal shooting. He was sent to prison largely because of the testimony of two men who his lawyer said were involved in the drug trade.

“The police showed absolutely no regard for Chris,” the lawyer, Ilann Maazel, said. “He was worthless to them. And he is one of many young Black men who have had that experience.”

Christopher Ellis. His murder conviction in a 1990 Long Island killing was vacated last month after his lawyer argued that the police had withheld key evidence pointing to other suspects.
Credit...Chris Ellis Jr. 

The reversal of the two convictions follows several other recent exonerations, including the release of five other Black men since last June in Queens murder cases dating to the 1990s. Their stories add to concerns about police conduct over decades during which officers operated with relatively little scrutiny: Months ago, prosecutors in several New York City boroughs threw out more than 100 convictions linked to a police detective accused of lying

There are probably many more innocent people languishing in prison, said Vanessa Potkin, the director of special litigation at the Innocence Project, which was not involved in Mr. Roman’s and Mr. Ellis’s cases. Even a very conservative estimate — assuming that the wrong person had been convicted 1 percent of the time — would mean that 18,000 of the 1.8 million people in U.S. prisons and jails are innocent, she said.

Mr. Roman echoed the point after his court appearance on Monday in Queens Supreme Court in front of Judge Michelle Johnson.

“I’m not the only innocent person in there,” he said. “There’s people in there who’ve been fighting for justice quite possibly longer than I have.”


For Mr. Roman, the choice may have proven consequential: His case was reinvestigated in 2013 and 2018, after lawyers argued that new evidence undermined the credibility of two witnesses, according to court filings. Still, the district attorney’s office took no further action.

He was accused of shooting two men, one fatally, after a dispute over drugs.

But his height and hairstyle did not match a witness’s initial descriptions of several possible suspects, new evidence shows. And the witness, who knew the victims, later told Queens investigators that he had been fed information by a detective who was working on the case.

The New York Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Ellis was convicted of murder in the killing of Joseph Healy, 25, an assistant football coach at Hofstra University who was fatally shot outside an Arby’s restaurant in Hempstead, N.Y., in 1990. The shooting received significant media attention, and the police were under pressure to identify suspects. When Mr. Ellis and two other men were arrested in connection with an armed robbery the next year, the police questioned them about Mr. Healy’s killing.

After being interrogated on and off for 18 hours, a period during which Mr. Maazel said his client had been denied food and drink, repeatedly roused from sleep and handcuffed to a bench, Mr. Ellis confessed to the crime. He recanted soon afterward and has since insisted on his innocence.

A witness to the shooting interviewed by the police said she had told them that Mr. Ellis was not the gunman. And, Mr. Maazel argued, a Nassau County police detective, Richard Wells, had interviewed several people who identified suspects other than Mr. Ellis and had then failed to turn his notes from those interviews over to Mr. Ellis’s lawyers. The Nassau County police department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Though Mr. Ellis’s conviction has been vacated, he may still be retried by the Nassau County district attorney. A spokesman for the district attorney, Brendan Brosh, said on Monday that a decision in the matter was expected by Sept. 20.

Mr. Roman’s daughter, Nadine, is now 33. Mr. Ellis’s son, Chris Jr., is 30.

Continue reading the maMr. Ellis, whose son was only a few months old when he was arrested, was convicted of murder and armed robbery in 1992. His conviction was vacated last month, after his lawyer argued that the police had concealed multiple murder suspects from defense lawyers and prosecutors, and had also failed to tell prosecutors about a witness who denied that Mr. Ellis was present at the time of the murder. At a bail hearing on Monday, Justice Patricia A. Harrington of Nassau County granted his releaThe experiences of the two men are a cautionary tale at a time when — with New York City confronting unusually high rates of gun crime — the police and prosecutors are under increasing pressure to arrest and convict crimina“That period is marked, and many of these wrongful convictions are marked, by a willingness to take serious cases to trial on what should have been viewed as dubious evidence just to see if you could get a conviction,” said James Henning, a lawyer for Mr. Roman, referring to the late 1980s and early ’90s. “Under the law a prosecutor’s duty is to see that justice is done, and not merely to get a conv
A lawyer for Mr. Ellis noted that his client had been investigated by white detectives and convicted by an all-white jury.


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