(NEW YORK) — A deceptive photo lineup helped imprison a man for over 18 years for a fatal shooting he did not commit, according to the Brooklyn district attorney.
On Thursday, he walked free after a judge vacated the conviction and dismissed the indictment.
Sheldon Thomas, 35, was convicted of a 2004 murder in Brooklyn’s East Flatbush neighborhood. He was arrested based on a witness identification of a different person with the same name who lived in the same precinct — a mistake that was first concealed and then explained away during the proceedings, prosecutors said.
A reinvestigation concluded detectives knew they were different people but were intent on arresting the defendant and used the faulty identification procedure as pretext, prosecutors said.
During a hearing on Thursday, the judge’s decision to vacate the conviction drew a smattering of applause in the small courtroom.
“Thank you, your honor, for allowing this to happen,” Thomas said. “I’ve waited a long time.”
Thomas said he forgives the NYPD detective, witnesses and others involved in his prosecution and incarceration for the murder of 14-year-old Anderson Bercy, whose true killer remains unknown.
“All this time they really had the wrong person,” Thomas said. “The real people are still out there.”
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, whose Conviction Review Unit reexamined the case, said he apologized to Thomas when the two met in court.
“This is the first time in 25 years I’ve seen an erroneous photo identification used as the basis for an arrest that actually went to trial,” Gonzalez said.
A prosecutor, Charles Linehan, said a re-investigation of the case came to the “inescapable conclusion” that Thomas’ conviction could not stand because he was arrested based on a photograph of a different Sheldon Thomas.
Three alleged gang members, including Thomas, were charged with killing Bercy, and wounding another person on Dec. 24, 2004, in East Flatbush. Two guns were used and the shooters were inside a white car. A witness initially identified two men she knew, who did not include Thomas, as being in the car.
According to the district attorney’s Conviction Review Unit, detectives obtained a photo of another Sheldon Thomas from a police database and showed an array with that photo to the witness, who identified him as being in the car with 90% certainty. Based on her identification, the detectives went to the defendant’s address — not to the address of the Sheldon Thomas whose photo the witness had identified — and arrested him.
The defendant denied any involvement in the homicide, but the same witness who identified the other Thomas in the array also identified defendant Thomas in a lineup — effectively identifying two different people as the perpetrator, prosecutors said. Thomas was then indicted along with the two others.
It wasn’t until a pretrial hearing in June 2006 that the array identification of the wrong Thomas came to light. Detective Robert Reedy admitted he falsely testified and the defendant was actually not in the array. Reedy was later disciplined following an investigation by the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau.
Another detective conceded that, when questioned a few days after the murder, the defendant had told them that it wasn’t him in the photo array.
At the time, when police told Thomas he had been picked out of a photo array, he told Reedy “that’s not me,” Linehan said in court. The detective went ahead with the arrest anyway because his “gut told him he had the right person,” Linehan said.
When comparing the photographs of the two men with the same name, Linehan said the “defendant did not look like the other Sheldon Thomas.”
Despite these revelations, the judge found that there was probable cause to arrest Thomas based on “verified information from unknown callers” and the fact that he resembled the other Thomas from the photo array. The defendant was convicted of second-degree murder, attempted murder and related counts and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
The Conviction Review Unit recommended vacating the conviction as “the errors undermined the integrity of the entire judicial process and defendant’s resulting conviction.” Because the evidence was and is defective, the case cannot be retried, and the unit recommended dismissing the underlying indictment.
Thomas arrived at Brooklyn criminal court in handcuffs; he left in the arms of his grandmother. He opted not to speak to reporters upon leaving court but mentioned he wanted his first meal home to be oxtails.
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