“Justice finally prevailed,” declared Sean Adams, as he walked free from prison Thursday after 17 years, into the arms of his daughter.
Adams had been facing a 100-year sentence in a murder he claims he didn’t commit. He and three other convicts—all jailed since the late 90s for allegedly killing a rival gang member—all walked out of jail as free men Thursday.
They walked free after the state Supreme Court ordered a new trial for one of the convicts—based on questions about the testimony of a key witness.
The new questions concern the key eyewitness in the original trial, which former Senior Assistant State’s Attorney James Clark prosecuted in Superior Court in New Haven. The state had offered that witness a reduced jail sentence for a separate criminal case in return for his testimony in the murder trial. But the witness, Andre Clark, testified during the trial that he hadn’t been offered such a deal—and the prosecutor’s office never corrected the record.
Because the Clark testified in the trials of all four men—and because the state’s attorney Thursday declared he would not re-try them—the men were cleared in the murder.
The four men have maintained their innocence and claim they weren’t even at the scene of the crime.
All four were charged in a Dec. 14, 1996 murder at the Farnam Courts housing complex. Three men—Jason Smith, Marvin Ogman, and Clark—were shot at 2 a.m. that day. Smith died from his wounds. Ogman and Clark, who’s Smith’s cousin, survived—and went on to serve as the two key witnesses for the state.
The state Thursday released all four men convicted of the murder. New Haven State’s Attorney Michael Dearington said he has no plans to retry them, because the main witness, Clark, is dead; the second witness, Ogman, is locked up in federal prison; and too much time has elapsed.
Three of the convicts—Adams, Darcus Henry and Carlos Ashe—were serving effective life sentences: 100 years for Adams and Henry, 90 for Ashe. The fourth, Johnny Johnson, was serving 75 years. They have already served between 13 1/2 and 17 years of their prison sentences.
All four were convicted of murder and first-degree assault in the case. Police said the killing sprung from a rivalry between the Island Brothers of Quinnipiac Terrace and the Ghetto Boys of Farnam Courts, who had been warring regularly at the time, according to court records.
The men’s freedom stemmed from a state Supreme Court decision issued last week. In it, the justices ruled that the state violated Adams’ right to a fair trial by failing to disclose the deal Clark had struck with the prosecution—and by failing to correct the record when Clark claimed, under oath, that he had struck no such deal.
That witness’s testimony was central to the case, said Damon Kirschbaum, a private attorney who was assigned to work on Adams’ case for the past eight years. No weapons were recovered. The only physical evidence that allegedly placed the defendants at the scene was a yellow jacket: Clark and his 15-year-old brother both testified that the shooter wore a yellow jacket, and Adams was wearing a yellow jacket when he was arrested. The relevance of the jacket depended on the reliability of the witnesses.
The state’s case hinged on whether Clark and Ogman were telling the truth when they pegged the four men as the killers.
“The evidence was very weak,” said Kirschbaum.
“If the jury knew the truth” about Clark’s tainted testimony, Kirschbaum argued, the four men “would have been acquitted in 1999.”
Kirschbaum and three other lawyers based their habeas corpus lawsuit on two transcripts—one of Clark’s plea hearing, and one from a sentencing hearing—that revealed Clark’s deal with the state.
The state countered that even if the jury had known about Clark’s deal, they might still have convicted him, for several reasons: the jury was aware of Clark’s pending charges; Clark “had a strong incentive to testify truthfully” because he was a victim of the shooting and a witness to his cousin’s murder; and the defense thoroughly cross-examined and “impeached” Clark anyway. The state said there was also independent evidence, namely, the testimony of Clark’s brother and Ogman, that corroborated Clark’s testimony.
The Supreme Court, in upholding an appellate court decision, ended its decision by stating, “We are unable to conclude that [witness] Andre [Clark]’s perjurious testimony was so relatively insignificant that the state’s failure to correct it does not warrant relief under the strict materiality standard applicable in this case. We therefore conclude, contrary to the conclusion of the habeas court, that the petitioner is entitled to a new trial.” Click here to read the full decision, which lays out in detail the facts of the case.
The four convicts were officially ordered released Thursday at a hearing in Judge Patrick Clifford’s sixth-floor courtroom. The four men filed into the courtroom, three of them wearing bright orange jumpsuits. The state asked to have the charges nolled; the defense asked to have them dismissed outright. The state didn’t object. Judge Clifford dismissed the charges.
Carlos Ashe’s aunt, Sharon Watts (pictured), instantly broke into tears.
“Oh my god, it’s finally over!” she called out as she left court.
Watts then ran outside and skipped on the sidewalk. “This is the happiest day,” she said. “We prayed for this day for so long.”
After the judge released the men, they had to wait for the court to process lots of paperwork before they could walk free. Watts and about 60 other friends and families spent two and a half hours waiting for their loved ones to emerge from court.
Adams’ daughter, Ashante Adams, was among those waiting. She has never known her father outside prison: Her mother was pregnant with her when her father got locked up. She has been visiting him every two months for her entire life.
She wore a T-shirt with a picture taken in jail of her and her father.
“I’m very excited. I finally get to have my father,” said Ashante, who is 16.
Even as it began to rain and others took shelter under the courtroom eaves, Ashante stayed at the bottom of the cement courthouse stairs, waiting for her dad.
As they waited, family and friends danced to tunes projected from speakers in a nearby Jeep. Darcus Henry, who goes by the artist name Darky B, sang the vocals on some of the tracks they played. He’d recorded the tunes before he went to prison. Henry, who’s 37, and Ashe, who’s 35, are first-cousins; they grew up at Quinnipiac Terrace with Adams and Johnson, who are 39 and 35.
James Moye, who’s cousins with Henry and Ashe, flitted around between the sidewalk and inside the courthouse, updating family members on the progress inside.
“I’m ecstatic,” he said. “All I feel is elation.”
“We’ve all be fighting for years,” he said. He sat on top of the Jeep to get a good vantage point to capture the men’s arrival with his phone.
At 2:20, Judge Clifford emerged, followed by a marshal holding four empty sets of shackles.
The crowd drew near, with cellphones ready.
A marshal tried to wave the crowd to the other exit. Then the men came out, eliciting a rush of whoops and applause and tears.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Carlos Ashe.
He hugged his family close, without the limits of prison regulations.
“I just want to hug you without the cops saying ‘Don’t touch,’” said one family member through her tears.
“I’m overcome with joy,” said Johnson’s mom, Gloria, after hugging her son.
“Justice finally prevailed,” declared Adams. “I don’t have time to feel bitter or hate. I’m just glad it’s over and done with.”
He held onto his daughter as he moved through the crowd.
“Finally, I get to be with her,” he said. “She was born while I was in jail.”
Darcus Henry has two 14-year-old sons, both of whose lives he’s missed out on.
“I feel like justice is served,” said Henry as he hugged Darcus, Jr.
He declined to say if he plans to file a civil lawsuit.
“I do feel like I should be compensated for this wrongful conviction,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said, he’s focused on the day ahead.
“I’m just happy it’s over,” Henry said. “I can spend time with my children, my family.”