Forget about “fair.” Fair fled the scene 38 years ago.
If fairness mattered, John Walker Jr. and his teenage pals never would have been convicted of murder. Walker would not have spent his prime years in Attica. He would not now – as a free, 53-year-old man – still be shackled to the past.
Forget fairness. Walker just wants justice.
“I feel like I’m still paying for something I didn’t do,” he told me.
We sat Friday in the kitchen of his modest home in a battered East Side neighborhood. Rail-thin, with a shaved head, he speaks quickly, as if expecting a timer to go off.
I think Walker belongs in the wrongly convicted file with Anthony Capozzi and Lynn Dejac Peters. The difference is, after doing his entire time, he still fights to clear his name, years later. The day may soon be coming: Attorney Steve Cohen recently became aware of the case. He has filed a motion to reverse the conviction.
“The justice system has the opportunity to set things right,” said Cohen, who represented Dejac Peters.
William Crawford was drinking and flashing a bankroll that January 1976 night at the Golden Nugget on Fillmore. He and a neighbor left together. Crawford, 62, headed to his home across the street. His wife later found him in the driveway, robbed and beaten to death.
Looking back, it seems astounding that Walker – who said he was nowhere near the Golden Nugget – was even charged. No physical evidence – no fingerprint, no drop of blood, no hair nor clothing fiber – connected Walker, then 16, or his four supposed accomplices to the scene. One of the five, the only “eyewitness,” recanted soon after the trail, claiming police coerced a “confession” in return for immunity.
The teenagers supposedly beat Crawford on the sidewalk and dragged his body up the driveway. But police statements, not given to Walker’s attorney, noted just one set of driveway footprints in the fresh snow, and another – presumably the killer’s – coming from behind the house.
It sounds like a classic pre-DNA miscarriage of justice involving dubious “witnesses,” withheld evidence, obvious leads – including recently uncovered statements implicating Crawford’s neighbor – never followed, a white victim, black teenaged suspects and separate trials before all-white juries. City Court Judge James McLeod – then the attorney for the only suspect who was acquitted – maintains that all of them are innocent. If so, Crawford’s killer remains free – and Walker and fellow defendant Darryl Boyd each served 22 years (including work release) for nothing. The third teenager convicted, Darryn Gibson, died in 2009 – just eight months after being freed.
Any possible restitution matters less than clearing his name, Walker said.
“People say, ‘You’ll get paid,’ ” he told me. “But they could never pay me for what I lost.”
Walker does not sound bitter, just determined. He worked as a custodian after getting out and is now a neighborhood handyman. He lives with his 6-year-old son, John III. The thought of a happy ending softens him.
“In Attica, you’re in there with rapists and murderers – you gotta be hard,” he told me. “But sometimes now, I cry. I never cried before.”
Maybe, soon, there will be tears of joy.