Lesley Risinger '03 and Professor D. Michael Risinger
Seton Hall Law School's Last Resort Exoneration Project, headed by Lesley Risinger '03 and Professor D. Michael Risinger, has won its appeal on the wrongful conviction of two New Jersey men found guilty of a double murder in Camden.
The two men, Kevin Baker and Sean Washington, have served almost 25 years in prison for a crime they have steadfastly maintained they did not commit.
Imprisoned since 1995, Baker and Washington were serving life sentences with no parole eligibility for 60 years.
A three-judge panel of the New Jersey Court of Appeals unanimously decided that the two men be given a new trial, noting in its opinion that "our independent review of the record, in light of the newly discovered evidence, compels us to conclude it would be unjust to allow this verdict to stand." Lesley and Michael Risinger represented Baker on the appeal, and Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons PC represented Washington. Four New Jersey exonerees were represented as amici by Raymond M. Brown, and the Innocence Project and other innocence organizations were represented by Linda Mehling.
The Last Resort Exoneration Project has been working on this case for the better part of a decade with the help of firearms experts, a forensic pathologists, students and former students.
"This has been a long journey, and we are happy that ultimate exoneration and freedom for these innocent men are finally within sight," said Director Lesley Risinger.
Prosecutors may choose to file a petition for discretionary review with the New Jersey Supreme Court. Otherwise, the State may choose to retry the two men. The court noted, however, that a retrial would prove difficult for the State. The court said:
In reaching our determination today, we are very mindful of the passage of time and the serious proof difficulties the State faces if it chooses to proceed with a new trial. That is an unfortunate practical reality. But it cannot overcome the compelling reasons to grant defendants the relief they deserve.
Elaborating on "the serious proof difficulties" the State would face, the court noted that:
Viewing the totality of the evidence, the 'new' evidence – particularly the forensic evidence, in context with the State's weak trial proofs that hinged so vitally upon [a single witness] account – was material and probably would have changed the jury's verdict.
An Associated Press story that ran in newspapers across the country, described the case along with the holes in the State's "one witness case," made clearer by the forensic evidence presented by Lucien C. Haag, who was qualified as an expert in ballistics, firearms identification, wound ballistics, and shooting incident reconstruction, and Dr. Michael Baden, a certified expert in forensic pathology who is well known for his work as the host of HBO's Autopsy and as commentator on forensic issues for Fox News. AP writes:
The pair was convicted of the 1995 murders of two people outside a Camden housing project. The primary witness against them, Denise Rand, was a drug addict who was the only person to observe the shooting but whose testimony was inconsistent. A cousin who said he was with her and told police she couldn't have seen the shootings wasn't called to testify by the defense.
After numerous appeals were rejected, in 2013 two forensic experts testified at a hearing that Rand's account of seeing Baker and Washington run up to the victims, shoot them in the head and run away was wholly inconsistent with one of the victims' wounds. One expert also testified that specialized testing not in common use in 1996 led him to conclude that the bullets had struck the ground and ricocheted before hitting one of the victims.
The shooting as described by Rand "was, in essence, a 'run-by shooting,'" the court wrote. "By contrast, the new forensic evidence shows it likely was an execution-style killing, in which at least one victim was forced to lie on the ground before being shot."
The court noted numerous other facts that supported Washington and Baker's exculpatory accounts, particularly highlighting the distraught 911 call reporting the murders, made by a person identified as Sean Washington, as well as the discovery of a film clip of a TV news show that corroborated the alibi of Kevin Baker.
If prosecutors choose not to proceed with a retrial, Baker and Washington will be set free.
Media Coverage Highlights
- Courier Post, "New trial ordered for Sean Washington, Kevin Baker; Camden men got life terms in 1996"
- Newsday, "Court grants new trial to pair serving life for '95 murders"
- Court TV, "Court grants new trial to pair serving life for '95 murders"
- The Philadelphia Tribune, "Court grants new trial to pair serving life for '95 murders"
- Miami Herald, "Court grants new trial to pair serving life for '95 murders"
- Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "Court grants new trial to pair serving life for '95 murders"
- Idaho Statesman, "Court grants new trial to pair serving life for '95 murders"