The Brooklyn District Attorney’s office has dismissed all charges against a Brooklynite who spent 17 years behind bars until a state court vacated his 2006 murder conviction.
The decision to drop the murder charges against James Davis comes four months after a panel of appellate judges ruled Davis’ attorney had failed to interview witnesses who could have proved Davis’ innocence.
Davis had been found guilty of second-degree murder in the 2004 shooting death of Blake Harper during a crowded party at the Brooklyn Prince Hall Temple in East New York. The jury chose to convict Davis, who was 21 at the time of the shooting, despite Davis’ insistence that he left the party early in a taxi after drinking too much and becoming ill.
At a 2006 trial, Davis’ then-girlfriend, Kaneen Johnson, said he was with her when the shooting occurred, and the jury deadlocked 11-to-1 in favor of acquittal. But by the time the case was retried later in the year, Davis and Johnson were no longer together, and Johnson did not testify. That time, jurors convicted Davis, and he was sentenced to 18-years-to-life.
Cracks in the case began to emerge last year, when it was revealed that the DA’s primary witness at Davis’ second trial, Harper’s brother-in-law Jose Machicote, was under federal investigation for drug dealing, despite having been presented by the DA as a Brooklyn barber whose criminal activity was long behind him.
Then, earlier this year, a state appellate court ruled that Davis’s original trial lawyer, Joel Meadows had failed to interview several potential witnesses who could’ve confirmed Davis’ alibi, and declined to obtain a material witness order that could have forced Johnson to re-appear in court.
A panel of appellate judges decided to toss Davis’ conviction in April, writing that Meadows’ failure to act “cannot be characterized as a legitimate strategic decision since, without collecting that information, counsel could not make an informed decision as to whether the witnesses’ evidence might be helpful at trial.” Davis, now 38, was released from prison in May.
Now, the office of Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez says it will dismiss the indictment rather than challenge the appellate court decision or put Davis on trial for the third time. DA spokesperson Oren Yaniv told the New York Daily News on Sunday that the office was declining to retry this case because the witnesses are no longer available to testify.
“James Davis never committed this crime, and despite overwhelming evidence of innocence, he spent the past 17 years - his entire adult life - behind bars,” said Elizabeth Felber, Director of the Wrongful Conviction Unit at The Legal Aid Society, which represented Davis in his appeal. “While today provides some justice for James, it does not recoup the almost two decades of his life that were taken from him.”
Felber said that the eyewitness identifications in the case “were always troubling” and that “tunnel vision set in with law enforcement” who failed to investigate Davis’ alibi evidence.
“In order to better prevent further wrongful convictions like James Davis's, there needs to be an accounting of what went wrong here,” she said.
Davis’ friends and family have set up a GoFundMe to raise funds they say will be used for “his educational expenses and help James get back on his feet at the age 38, having lost half of his life to an unjust and uncaring criminal legal system.”
“This marks the end of James' 17 year effort to overturn his wrongful conviction in the criminal legal system,” wrote page administrator David Crow in response to the dismissal news. “We will continue to fight to clear his name in other available forums. Thanks to all his supporters and contributors over the years.”