Two childhood friends met in court Wednesday. Both men had been accused of murder; both had confessed to murder. One left freely while the other remained in handcuffs and leg chains, still seeking release.
The two men are Bobby Johnson and Kwame Wells-Jordan. They both arrived Wednesday morning in a basement courtroom in Rockville.
Johnson, who arrived under the guard of court marshals, was there to sue the state. He claims he is being wrongfully imprisoned for a 2006 murder he did not commit.
Johnson, who was 16 at the time of the murder, argues that police lied to him and coerced him into a false confession for the killing of 70-year-old Herbert Fields on West Ivy Street in New Haven’s Newhallville neighborhood. Johnson ended up pleading guilty to the crime and is now serving a 38-year prison sentence.
Attorneys for the state argue that Johnson offers no newly discovered evidence, that he freely confessed to the murder, and that his petition for release has no merit.
In 2006, when police arrested Johnson for the Fields murder, they also arrested his friend, 14-year-old Wells-Jordan, and charged him as well. Police said the two boys acted together to shoot and rob the elderly man.
Like Johnson, Wells-Jordan confessed to the crime in 2006 under pressure from the police. But unlike Johnson, he then chose to fight the charges. Despite his taped admission to police, Wells-Jordan pleaded not guilty, brought the case to trial, and was found innocent in 2008.
A jury was convinced of Wells-Jordan’s innocence at his 2008 trial in part by the impassioned testimony of Johnson, who testified at the trial that the police had forced him to falsely implicate Wells-Jordan in the Fields murder.
On Wednesday, more than four years later, Wells-Jordan returned the favor.
He arrived in court Wednesday with his aunt, Julia Sykes. They each took the stand to testify that police had in 2006 pressured Wells-Jordan into lying by saying he was part of the murder—thus supporting Johnson’s claim that police had coerced innocent teens into false confessions.
Julia Sykes took the stand first, wearing a white cardigan and black pants. Under questioning from Johnson’s attorney, Ken Rosenthal, Sykes said she is a preschool teacher at the YMCA in New Haven. She has been Wells-Jordan’s legal guardian since he was small.
Here’s what she said happened:
In September, 2006, Sykes brought Wells-Jordan to the police station for questioning at the request of Detective Michael Quinn, who was working on the Fields murder. Detectives Quinn and Clarence Willoughby questioned Wells-Jordan, with Sykes in the room.
They asked Wells-Jordan where he was at the time of the murder. They told him they had his hand print on the car Fields in which Fields was found dead.
Wells-Jordan told them that couldn’t be. He offered to let the cops take his prints and compare them. They’d see they were different. “You’re going to feel cheap,” Wells-Jordan said to Willoughby, Sykes recalled.
“Look, son, I’m not one of your homeboys!” Willoughby shouted, jumping up and getting in Wells-Jordan’s face, Sykes recalled.
Eventually Sykes and Wells-Jordan decided to leave.
They were back in November, 2006. Sykes got a call that police had come and picked up Wells-Jordan at Hamden middle school, where he was in the eighth grade, and arrested him for murder. She rushed down to the station, where police again questioned Wells-Jordan with her in the room.
The cops again accused Wells-Jordan of the murder. They played him a tape of Johnson and another boy—Johnson’s cousin, Michael Holmes—saying Wells-Jordan had been there. They told him they had fingerprints.
The detectives said they would protect Wells-Jordan if he cooperated. Sykes asked about a lawyer. They told her she didn’t need one. Then they left him and Sykes alone to talk about it.
“I got very upset,” Sykes said. She broke into tears on the stand and needed a moment to collect herself. “I’ve never been in that position. … I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to handle the situation.”
Sykes tried to call her cousin, a police detective, but couldn’t reach her.
“I’m getting really, really nervous,” Sykes said. “I told Kwame to just go ahead and say he was there.” Then they would get a lawyer and fight it.
Wells-Jordan questioned her, but then agreed. The cops gave him a paper with the information they wanted him to convey, told him to put it in his own words, then turned on a tape recorder. Wells-Jordan confessed.
“They put handcuffs on him and took him downstairs,” Sykes said. “I left crying.”
On cross-examination, state attorney Adrienne Maciulewski proceeded to punch holes in Sykes’ story. Under questioning, Sykes admitted she had signed a form before the police spoke with her, acknowledging her and Wells-Jordan’s right to remain silent, right to an attorney, right to leave at any time. They had been advised that anything they said could be used against them.
Sykes had known she could leave at any time—she’d done so at the first interview with police, she admitted.
“I didn’t understand my rights,” Sykes said, under re-direct examination from Rosenthal. “I trusted the policeman with my child’s life and I made a mistake.”
Wells-Jordan took the stand next, wearing camouflage cargo pants and a green T-shirt over a brown thermal. Under questioning from Rosenthal, he corroborated his aunt’s story. Maciulewski asked no questions of him.
Although he was eventually found to be innocent, Wells-Jordan’s life was derailed. He spent his 15th and 16th birthdays in jail, completing eighth and ninth grades behind bars, awaiting trial. Wells-Jordan said he now has his forklift license and is looking for work.
Wells-Jordan’s testimony Wednesday was followed by testimony from Holmes, the other boy who police placed at the Fields murder. Holmes, incarcerated on another charge, wore an orange jumpsuit and remained handcuffed during his testimony.
Holmes also testified that detectives coerced him into making a false confession. Cops threatened to send him to jail if he didn’t. No part of his confession was true, he said. “I didn’t want to get arrested.”
“Knock It Off!”
Wednesday’s proceedings marked another day of increasingly testy relations between Rosenthal and Judge John Newson, which may not bode well for Johnson’s case.
“Sit down and knock it off!” Newson bellowed repeatedly during morning testimony as Rosenthal several times tried to interject during cross-examination of Sykes.
“Stop, counsel! I am talking,” Newson shouted. “Last warning!”
“I need to make a record,” Rosenthal protested. In case he appeals Newson’s ultimate decision in the case, Rosenthal has been looking to set out his argument in the court transcript, even if it’s blocked.
“I rule. Thats the record.” Newson said.
During three days of testimony Newson has again and again sustained objections by Maciulewski. In another strike against Rosenthal, Newson Wednesday afternoon sent home one of his witnesses—a New Haven cop—before he took the stand. He ruled that his testimony was not relevant to the case.
When another New Haven cop, Sgt. Rachel Cain, took the stand, Rosenthal struggled for some time to find unobjectionable ways to phrase his queries. He repeated multiple iterations of long convoluted questions, blocked repeatedly by Newson’s rulings that his inquiries were either leading or irrelevant or both.
Newson grew visibly frustrated. He warned Rosenthal repeatedly to simply ask questions of the witness, not try to testify in question form.
Rosenthal, meanwhile, grew more flustered. He started and re-started questions several times, interrupting himself to try different articulations.
Macuilewski’s cross-examination, on the other hand, proceeded crisply and efficiently with short and clear questions of the cop.
The hearing is expected to continue Thursday with testimony from the attorney who represented Johnson when he pleaded guilty to murder in 2006.