This is a horrible injustice. Will the AG finally set these men free? | Editorial

Posted Jan 26, 2020

To find someone guilty of a crime in America, the standard of proof is supposed to be “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

We especially shouldn’t be locking people away for life on the basis of flimsy evidence, dooming the innocent to a place where no one hears their cries.

So why are two New Jersey men each serving life sentences for a double-murder on the shaky account of a sole eyewitness – a woman high on crack cocaine?

She was inconsistent and vague on critical details, like who shot whom and whether both defendants had guns. She has since also been contradicted by new forensic evidence.

Yet in a joint trial that lasted less than two days, a one-witness case with no motive, Kevin Baker and Sean Washington each got life in prison for the slaying in a Camden housing development.

Now, after nearly 25 years behind bars, an appellate court just tossed their convictions, saying new evidence “powerfully undermines” her account, which was “inconsistent and at times incoherent.”

So why should they have to spend one more day in prison?

A decision on whether to appeal is coming Monday. The Attorney General’s Office, which effectively took over the Camden County prosecutor’s office, has signaled it might proceed with this fight.

Instead, it should drop it, right now — especially since this would only extend the travesty by keeping these men locked up.

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s office has said a new conviction review unit will look into this case, one he deserves big credit for establishing. It’s horrifying how our system can make such mistakes.

Rodney Roberts, a Newark man, served 17 years for a rape he didn’t commit. Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee, of Paterson, were recently exonerated by DNA after 24 years behind bars – and freed only after a public pressure campaign forced the prosecutor to drop the charges.

Baker and Washington shouldn’t have to suffer that injustice. At the very least, they could be released with ankle bracelets today while the conviction review unit looks into this.

An appeal would be wasteful and likely futile. The state Supreme Court doesn’t take up cases unless there’s a legal error that affects many other decisions. That’s not what happened here.

This move to toss the convictions was about Baker and Washington, and the specific facts of their case.

Among other things, the drug-addled witness claimed the victims were standing up, but new forensic testing shows that one of them was lying down and murdered execution-style.

She said two guns were used, while forensic evidence showed that there was likely only one.

And it was Washington who discovered the bodies and made a distraught 9-1-1 call, later saying he mistook one of the victims for a relative. Yet that tape wasn’t even part of the trial.

Lesley and Michael Risinger, the married legal team that spent nearly nine years on this case and represented Baker on the appeal, and Lawrence Lustberg, who represented Washington, have done their part.

Now it’s up to the Attorney General and his acting prosecutor to do what’s right.

“They can be heroes for justice, or continue being agents for injustice, and bear responsibility for it,” as Lesley Risinger said.

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