After spending 19 years behind bars for a crime he’s no longer accused of committing, Marquis Jackson walked out of court a free man Thursday — with a planned upcoming stop in Wakanda.
New Haven Superior Court Judge Elpedio Vitale dismissed all charges against Jackson, who turns 39 on Monday, connected to his alleged involvement in a botched robbery-turned-murder at Dixwell Deli at 706 Dixwell Ave. early in the morning on Jan. 24, 1999. The dismissed charges included felony murder and first-degree robbery.
It was the second exoneration and release of a prisoner in a week in that case thanks to new evidence uncovered by the federal public defender office.
After a 25-minute court proceeding, Jackson emerged from the courthouse around 2:45 p.m. alongside Vernon Horn, a close friend and the co-defendant who similarly spent nearly two decades behind bars for his alleged involvement in the Dixwell Deli robbery before being freed on April 25. Jackson said he plans to spend this first day of his life as a free man watching Black Panther, the new Marvel superhero movie that envisions a secret, prosperous, self-sufficient African kingdom, Wakanda, protected from the ravages of racism and colonialism.
“Today is the first day of my new life,” Jackson declared as he hugged his mother Mary and his attorney Daniel Lage on the steps outside the New Haven County Courthouse at 235 Church St. “And I’d like to say, in [words of] the Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!’”
Jackson’s long and tortuous path through the criminal justice system began in the spring of 2000, when he and Horn were convicted for their alleged involvement in the armed robbery of the Dixwell Deli in early 1999.
On Wednesday afternoon, New Haven State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin rehashed that history as a prelude to a motion to set aside the previous judgment of conviction, restore the case to the Superior Court, and ultimately dismiss the case and all charges against Jackson.
According to Griffin, court records, and evidence offered against Horn and Jackson those years ago, three masked and armed robbers entered the Dixwell Deli at 3:30 a.m. on Jan. 24, 1999.
The robbers shot and injured the owner of the deli, Abby Yousif. They also shot and killed a 22-year-old customer named Caprice Hardy, They assaulted off-duty employee at the deli named Vernon Butler, robbing him of cash and his cellphone.
Butler’s cellphone would prove to be a critical piece of evidence in the state’s investigation, Griffin said, after the third man who had been involved in the robbery, Stephen Brown, cooperated with the prosecution and accused Horn and Jackson of being his co-conspirators in the armed robbery. At trial back in 2000, the state’s attorney argued that Horn used the phone to make two calls from New Haven the day after the crimes were committed.
Horn and Jackson were ultimately found guilty of several felony counts, including murder and first-degree robbery. Horn was sentenced to 70 years in prison. Jackson got a sentence of 45 years. Jackson wound up serving a little under 19 years, mostly at Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown, Connecticut.
For the next decade and a half, Horn and Jackson protested their convictions and consistently claimed their innocence. In 2014, Horn filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, leading to an investigation by the federal defender office. That office’s team disocvered nearly 140 pages of phone records that had been collected by an office investigator during the initial prosecution but had not been logged into police evidence or shared with the defense’s lawyers.
The federal defenders found that the new evidence and new interpretations of the previously presented evidence proved that the calls made on Butler’s stolen cellphone did not originate in New Haven, as alleged, but rather in Bridgeport. Click here for a previous story describing the work of the office in unearthing the new evidence that lead to the release and exoneration of Horn.
“The totality of the information developed to date has sufficiently undermined the state’s confidence in the judgment of conviction,” read the state’s motion to void Jackson’s conviction on Wednesday, “such that justice is done by setting the judgment aside and restoring the case to the Superior Court docket.”
State’s Attorney Griffin put the matter more bluntly during Jackson’s hearing before Judge Vitale on Wednesday.
“As state’s attorney,” he said, “it would be virtually impossible to untangle that evidence that was presented at the original trial. We would not be in a position in good faith to stand before this court or in good faith to represent this victim’s family or to retry this case.”
Referring to the newly interpreted cellphone information and the contemporaneous testimony of Stephen Brown as “at best unreliable, at worst patently false,” Griffin said that he was “honor-bound” as state’s attorney to support the state’s decision to reopen Jackson’s conviction and dismiss all charges against him.
Griffin said that he had spoken with the murder victim’s mother before Jackson’s hearing, letting her know about the newly interpreted evidence and the state’s motion to clear Jackson.
“Mrs. Forbes [Caprice Hardy’s mother] is understandably broken-hearted,” he said. He said that Forbes, who declined to attend the court hearing on Wednesday, has lost two of her sons to gun violence in New Haven. He said she sees Horn and Jackson’s exoneration and release as a failure of the criminal justice system.
The dozen weeping and cheering family members and friends of Jackson who showed up on Wednesday called the state’s decision to reopen and dismiss his case as a first step in amending the grievous failure of justice that took 19 years from Jackson’s life.
“Every case that they investigated needs to be reopened,” said Jackson’s aunt Lorraine Spann, referring to the prosecution team that helped wrongfully convict Horn and Hackson those two decades ago. “They retired. The state’s still paying their pensions. But we’re not in it for the money. We’re in it for justice.”
“It’s a horrible system,” Horn said as he and his lawyer prepared to leave the courthouse on Wendesday. “There’s so much work that needs to be done.” He praised the federal defender office for their tireless support of him, and thanked everyone who had donated to a GoFundMe page set up by Yale Law School students with the mission of helping Horn rebuild his life after prison. (Terence Ward, David Keenan, Kelly Barrett and Jennifer Mellon of the Federal Defender Office handled the case with the help of Quinnipiac Law Professor Sarah Russell and Yale law students Alison Gifford, Amit Jain and Christopher Desir.)
Horn said that, after his release, he insisted that his attorneys turn over all of the evidence they had gathered in his case to Jackson’s lawyers from the Shelton-based firm Ruane Attorneys At Law, so that they would be able to marshal the same research and evidence in support of his friend and former co-defendant.
“I went to law school in order to fight for people like Marquis,” said Ruane Assistant Attorney Daniel Lage, who said that he grew up in Bridgeport and spent some time struggling with homelessness before getting his GED and law degrees. “Because Marquis reminds me of people I grew up with. To those people, we are fighting for you. To the people out there who have been wrongfully accused, wrongfully convicted, people will fight for you. We are out there. Do not give up.”
On the sidewalk outside the courthouse, Jackson described the sensation of being free as “wonderful” and “unreal.”
“This is a wonderful day for me,” he said. “Nineteen years and coming. I always believed that I would be exonerated. Sometimes it was shaky, but I kept the faith and I kept moving forward.”
“The same system that took my liberty today gave it back,” he continued. “So it’s bittersweet. Unfortunately, there’s several other men who didn’t get that lucky break as I got today. Mistakes have been made, and unfortunately several other mistakes were made. But I’m here now. I’m happy. I just want to start part two of my life.”