A Manhattan judge on Wednesday overturned the convictions of two men who each spent decades behind bars after being found guilty in 1987 of killing a French tourist in Times Square.
Justice Stephen Antignani ruled that Eric Smokes and David Warren should never have been convicted of a fatal mugging during that year’s annual New Year’s celebration in Midtown. The judge also tossed the original indictment against the men, meaning they won’t be tried again.
After dismissing the charges, Antignani noted, “it will never give you back the years you lost.”
Loved ones who filled the seats of the courtroom gallery cheered and applauded as the judge announced his decision. Smokes sat up straight in his chair. Warren smiled and turned his face to the sky.
The judge’s ruling ends a nearly four-decade fight for the two friends to clear their names in a crime they say police were desperate to solve because they wanted to signal to tourists that the city was safe enough to visit.
The outcome is also one of several high-profile convictions from the 1980s and 1990s that judges have recently overturned as it becomes more common for prosecutors to reexamine potentially wrongful convictions.
“We knew we wasn’t going to give up,” Smokes said outside the courthouse in Lower Manhattan, as Warren stood quietly at his side. “We was going to fight until there was no more breath in us — no more fight in us.”
The quest to clear their names
Around midnight on Jan. 1, 1987, someone mugged and assaulted French tourist Jean Casse during the New Year’s Eve festivities in Times Square, according to court records. The 71-year-old tourist hit his head and died shortly after, the New York Times reported.
Smokes and Warren, who at the time were 19 and 16, respectively, were arrested and charged with murder and robbery, prosecutors said.
During a trial in the summer of 1987, a handful of teenagers took the stand and accused Smokes and Warren of the fatal mugging, court records show. There was no biological or physical evidence connecting either man to the crime, and the teen witnesses’ statements were contradictory, according to court papers.
A jury deliberated for three days, court records say, but ultimately convicted the men on all counts. The jury foreperson said they reached their decision “with great emotional turmoil.”
In the decades since, Smokes and Warren have tried repeatedly to prove they didn’t commit the crime. Warren was paroled in 2007 and Smokes in 2011. Justice Antignani agreed to reevaluate the case several years ago, and the hearing was detailed in the New Yorker magazine. But in 2020, the judge declined to overturn their convictions, ruling that they had not presented enough evidence to prove their innocence.
Then, after Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg took office in 2022, his office’s Post-Conviction Justice Unit agreed to reinvestigate the case alongside Smokes’ and Warrens’ attorneys. Last fall, both sides asked a judge to toss both men’s convictions, citing newly discovered evidence.
Smokes’ and Warrens’ attorneys say all but one of the witnesses who accused the pair at trial have since recanted, claiming law enforcement pressured them to lie.
The reinvestigation revealed that another person who claims he saw Smokes 10 blocks away from the crime scene on New Year’s Eve was never called as a witness at trial, even though records show he met with law enforcement. He told investigators one of the teen witnesses who pinned the crime on Smokes made up his story.
Prosecutors say the reexamination of the case also identified previously undisclosed photographs showing that Smokes didn’t meet the description of the perpetrator; leads for other possible suspects; and information that could have cast doubt on the credibility of two of the teens who testified.
In a statement on Wednesday, Bragg said he was “inspired by the unyielding advocacy” of Smokes and Warren. Under Bragg, the DA’s office has convinced judges to vacate nine potentially wrongful convictions and hundreds of cases tied to police misconduct.
“It is never too late to reconsider the integrity of old convictions, because everyone in New York deserves equal justice under the law,” he said.
In the courtroom, Antignani said the new information had changed his perception of the case.
He also expressed dismay about the harsh sentences Smokes and Warren received when they were both so young, noting he now oversees adolescent criminal cases in Manhattan and that his approach to juvenile justice has drastically changed since the mem were on trial.
“It was so out of proportion to what we would see today and how we would treat people your age,” the judge said.
Antignani wished Smokes and Warren good luck and joked: “You’re out of my life.”
“Now you can all leave with the confidence that you are not criminals,” he added.
“We never were,” Warren interjected from his seat.
“Exactly,” the judge agreed.