The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office plans to ask a judge to overturn the convictions of two men accused of robbing and killing a French tourist in 1987 who have long maintained their innocence.
Prosecutors said a joint investigation with the men’s defense team has uncovered new evidence that could clear them of wrongdoing, according to a letter obtained by Gothamist that was submitted to Justice Stephen Antignani earlier this month.
Prosecutors’ change of heart in the decades-old case stems in large part from new questions about the trial testimony of several teenagers who implicated Eric Smokes and David Warren, who were both teens when they were criminally charged.
“The People do not take the decision to consent to vacate two homicide convictions lightly,” Terri Rosenblatt, chief of the Manhattan DA’s Post-Conviction Justice Unit, wrote to the judge. “However, based on the newly-discovered evidence, the People believe that the only legally correct and just outcome is to move to vacate these convictions.”
Smokes’ and Warren’s defense attorney declined to comment until a judge makes a decision in the case.
Jean Casse, a 71-year-old French tourist, died in January 1987 after he was mugged during the Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration, according to news reports at the time.
Witnesses said a group of young men attacked Casse and then took his wallet, Rosenblatt’s letter states. Prosecutors said he died of injuries to his head and neck after he was knocked to the ground.
Police zeroed in on Smokes and Warren, who claimed they were several blocks away at a nightclub. They said Smokes, who was 19 at the time, punched Casse, while Warren, then 16, went through his pockets.
Both were charged with second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and second-degree robbery. Smokes also faced one charge of first-degree manslaughter, according to prosecutors.
The two stood trial in the summer of 1987, and several teens who were in Times Square that night testified against Smokes and Warren.
After three days of deliberations, the jury convicted Smokes and Warren of all counts. The jury foreperson said they had reached their verdict with “great emotional turmoil,” Rosenblatt’s letter states.
In the 36 years since, Smokes and Warren have tried to clear their names, without success. They asked a judge in 2018 to vacate their conviction, prompting a lengthy hearing in 2018 and 2019, which was detailed in a 2020 New Yorker article.
At that hearing, according to prosecutors, several witnesses recanted their testimony. Another witness who died before the hearing had also recanted in writing, the letter states. But the judge decided not to throw out the convictions, arguing that Smokes and Warren had not established their innocence.
Two years later, Alvin Bragg took office as Manhattan’s new district attorney, pledging to reform the office. As part of that pledge, he launched a new Post-Conviction Justice Unit to review potentially wrongful convictions.
Shortly after Bragg’s inauguration, Smokes and Warren’s defense team asked the office to reopen the case. Prosecutors agreed to conduct a joint re-investigation several months later. Together, defense attorneys and members of the Post-Conviction Justice Unit interviewed witnesses and reviewed prosecution and police files.
During that investigation, according to Rosenblatt’s letter, they found several pieces of evidence that had not been shared with the defense before trial, including two trial witnesses who said they cooperated because they were afraid of being charged, themselves; notes on tips about two other suspects; and photos that show Smokes didn’t match the physical description of eyewitnesses.
Rosenblatt wrote that the DA’s office plans to ask the court to toss the convictions against Smokes and Warren, who both spent decades in prison.
In addition to the newly discovered evidence, she said, they also plan to mention Smokes’ and Warren’s alibis that they were at a club several blocks away when the crime occurred and the jury’s difficulty reaching a verdict at trial.
If accepted by a judge, the vacated judgment would join a growing list of overturned convictions in New York City, after prosecutors in all five boroughs have established units to review past prosecutions that may have led to the convictions of innocent people.
The Manhattan district attorney has moved to vacate hundreds of cases in recent years, mostly connected to police officers accused of misconduct.