A Queens judge Thursday overturned the murder conviction of an Army veteran and USPS mailman who spent 25 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.
”I’m very, very happy today because I never thought this would happen — although I hoped and wished it would,” Ernest “Jaythan” Kendrick, 62, told the court in a soft-spoken voice shortly before he stepped out of Queens Supreme Court as a free man.
“No one really understands what it is to be in prison when you’re innocent. You know you’re innocent and you’re behind that wall. Civilization is not there.”
Justice Joseph Zayas apologized to Kendrick.
“We failed you,” he said, before granting the motion to overturn the verdict submitted jointly by Queens DA Melinda Katz, who was present for the proceeding.
“I hereby vacate your conviction and dismiss the indictment,” said the jurist, prompting subdued applause from the gallery.
A jury found Kendrick guilty of fatally stabbing a 70-year-old woman in the back and snatching her purse on the grounds of the Ravenswood Houses in 1994. The conviction was based primarily on the eyewitness testimony of a 10-year-old boy.
The child witnessed the slaying from the third-floor window of his apartment more than 100 feet away, according to Susan Friedman of the Innocence Project, who represents Kendrick.
The boy offered a vague description of the assailant as a “black man in his 30s wearing a black jacket,” Friedman told the court.
Hours later, Kendrick was detained after police spotted him walking in his Long Island City neighborhood because he loosely fit the suspect’s description. He fully cooperated with police, allowing them to search his apartment, which he shared with a woman, where they found a black purse on top of a television.
The youngster initially identified another man in a lineup before changing his selection to Kendrick, officials said.
Police later obtained a statement from a second witness who said he saw Kendrick fleeing the scene with a black purse under his arm. The second witness had two serious pending criminal cases and every incentive to provide testimony the police were seeking to nail Kendrick, Friedman said.
After Katz took office, she founded the Conviction Integrity Unit, which investigated Kendrick’s case.
Using technology that didn’t exist at the time of the crime, the purse was tested for the victim’s DNA and none was found. Four new witnesses came forward who contradicted the second witness’ statement implicating Kendrick, Katz told the court on Thursday.
The young boy, who is now an adult, has since recanted, admitting that he wasn’t able to see the perpetrator clearly enough to identify him.
“Racial profiling and unduly suggestive identification procedures and a lack of police accountability have all contributed to the scores of wrongful convictions in this country,” Freidman lamented in court. “It is shocking to see how easy it is to obtain a conviction and to send someone to prison for the rest of their lives.”
WilmerHale attorney Ross Firsenbaum, who helped the Innocence Project with Kendrick’s wrongful conviction case for free, blasted the prior Queens DA, Richard Brown, for refusing to consider the new evidence and insisting on Kendrick’s guilt. Brown passed away last year.
“Too many police and prosecutors remain focused on securing and maintaining convictions at all costs,” he said, lauding Katz’s office for taking a different approach.
Kendrick said he was ecstatic to be a free man again. “It really feels incredible,” he said. His immediate priority is a good meal. “Shrimp, flounder, lobster, crab, any of that,” he said of tonight’s menu. In the longterm, he plans to travel and learn the latest technology. “When I went into prison, it was beepers and pagers,” he recalled.
He had one note of caution for others who find themselves in a similar position. “I would tell them to ask for a lawyer, don’t say one word,” he said. “I trusted them, I trusted the police, I trusted they’d do the right thing and see that I was innocent. That was my mistake.”
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