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Jerome A. Thagard holds no hard feelings, though he lost more than 4½ years of his life in state prison for a murder he did not commit.

“I want to say I’m not angry. I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and this made me a stronger person,” the 21-year-old Buffalo man said shortly after he was officially exonerated Monday in State Supreme Court.

Thagard’s court appearance before Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. lasted less than a minute.

Kloch wasted no time. He smiled at Thagard, explained that he had permitted cameras into the courtroom so that the public might see images of a free man rather than a police mug shot from the time of his arrest when he was 16 years old.

Thagard had been convicted of murdering Steven Northrup, a 31-year-old Kenmore father of two boys, who was shot seven times at close range with a handgun in a Riverside field at about 8:45 p.m. April 29, 2009.

“I grant approval of the motion to dismiss the indictment,” Kloch said. With that pronouncement Thagard formally got his life back.

“I thought there would be more to it,” Thagard said following the court appearance, speaking to The Buffalo News and for the first time publicly about his ordeal.

Now, instead of a prison sentence of 25 years to life, he looks forward to a future he hopes will see him settled by next fall in Canada and attending college in pursuit of a business degree. Because his mother, Karen Thagard, is Canadian, he has both Canadian and American citizenship.

He says he wants to leave Buffalo and put the injustice behind him, though his lawyer, John J. Molloy, intends to sue New York State for compensation for the years wrongfully lost behind bars.

And while Thagard says he is eager to start fresh, he knows what he has been through will always be with him. That’s why, he said, he chooses to stay positive.

Never once had he hesitated, he said, in seeking a jury trial after being charged with second-degree murder, believing he would be found innocent. He said he could even sympathize with one of his accusers.

At the trial

When Suzanne-Deanna Grover wept as she testified how her boyfriend died in her arms, following an argument and how she never had the chance to make up to him, Thagard said he wept right along with her.

It didn’t matter that the then-teenager was sitting in the defendant’s chair, and she had pointed him out repeatedly as the shooter.

Thagard explained he felt deeply saddened for the grieving woman, though he believed evidence that he was home watching television more than a block away from the shooting with his mother and 5-year-old sister would prevail.

There were even phone records showing he had made several calls to his girlfriend that night, around the time of the shooting, which had been witnessed by numerous people who authorities said never came forward.

He also recalled his willingness to cooperate with homicide detectives when they came to Bennett High School the following morning, April 30, and took him – an 11th-grader at the time – into custody.

“They told me ‘if everything works out,’ they’d bring me back. I never came back.” This, he said, happened even though he was willing to appear in a lineup after the detectives informed him that witnesses had identified him in separate photo arrays.

Thagard, Molloy said, could not have known then that a series of unfortunate circumstances was already lining up against him.

They included his mug shot and police paperwork on file for a shoplifting incident in Cheektowaga. The shoplifter, Molloy said, was a female companion of Thagard’s, and the charge against his client was later dropped.

Two eyewitnesses, one of them a half sister of Grover, said they thought they heard the name “Jerome” shouted when the shooter walked up to Northrup and Grover, who were arguing in a field adjacent to the Shaffer Village housing complex. The two witnesses and Grover, Molloy said, later identified Thagard in the separate photo arrays that included the shoplifting mug shot.

“The police told each of the witnesses that a previous witness had selected the same photograph,” Molloy said, objecting to a tactic of making each witnesses feel as though “well, you picked the right one, now let’s move on.”

The shooter, Molloy added, had been described initially as possibly Hispanic. Thagard, he said, fit that description. His mother is white and his father is black. “Jerome has a light skin tone,” Molloy said, adding that he lived close to the murder scene as well.

When Thagard was arraigned two days later in Buffalo City Court, the teenager’s image was broadcast on a local television news station. A woman, watching the news, contacted police to say he was the man who had robbed her the night before the killing in the same neighborhood as the fatal shooting. Thagard, she said, took her cellphone.

Molloy investigated and found out the robber and a companion made two calls on the stolen phone, one for a cab, the other to a known gang member. The cab driver would later testify at the robbery trial that Thagard was not one of the two men who rode in his cab. A sister of the gang member would state that Thagard had no connection to her brother.

But it was too late. Thagard, though found not guilty of robbery, had already been convicted of the murder.

Desolation and hope

When the jury foreman stated “guilty” to the charge of second-degree murder in January 2010, Thagard recalled being unable to believe what he had heard.

“I was in a state of disbelief. I didn’t cry in the courtroom. When they took me out and put me in the bullpen, I started to cry. I was thinking how long I’d be in prison. How old I’d be when I got out,” he said.

But all was not lost. A big question mark hung over the gun used to kill Northrup. Shell casings recovered from the field determined it had been used prior to the homicide on April 25 and again weeks later on May 21, 2009, in shootings elsewhere in the city. A follow-up investigation by cold case Homicide Detectives Mary Evans and Scott Malec determined the gun had been handled by members of a gang with which Thagard had no connection.

Evans and Malec’s skepticism increased, and they obtained information raising serious questions about the identification of Thagard as the shooter. In fact, when Grover was told by the detectives that Thagard had been found not guilty of the robbery, the girlfriend said, “Maybe I got it wrong,” according to Molloy. The other two eyewitnesses recanted their statements identifying Thagard as the shooter to detectives and Molloy.

With the evidence building up that the wrong man was in prison and the killer still free, police officials brought their concerns to the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, which last year launched an exoneration investigation. That led to the motion to dismiss the indictment. Northrup’s killer still remains on the loose.

Nancy Northrup, the mother of Steven, said it is possible that a case of mistaken identity occurred regarding Thagard.

“We are not the type of people who would want the wrong person incarcerated,” the mother said. “Every day I go to the cemetery to visit Steven. It hasn’t stopped in almost five years.”

But she says she informed the DA’s Office early on that she believed the investigation had been botched and that another individual had set her son up to rob him. “I believe things went wrong real fast, real quick,” she said.

She says she intends to stay in contact with the authorities to make sure her son’s killer is brought to justice, and she publicly thanked Malec for his concerns. And while the Northrup family lives in the shadow of an unsolved homicide, Thagard says he is grateful to have his freedom.

A free man

Thagard said his brief court appearance Monday lifted an unbearable weight from his shoulders.

So how did he cope in prison?

He says he prayed to God and trusted in his Aunt Debra Fullenweider; another aunt, Karen Gugins in Canada; his mother; his attorney; and private investigator Sir Henry Que, whom Molloy had hired.

It also helped, Thagard said, that each of them truly believed he was innocent.

“I went to Judge Kloch after Jerome had been convicted to express concern an innocent man was going to prison, and the judge told me to go and prove that Jerome did it or didn’t do it,” Molloy said in praising Kloch for keeping an open mind.

Asked how he felt now that it is all behind him, Thagard said, “Liberating. I’m finally free.”

News staff reporter James Staas contributed to this report. email: lmichel@buffnews.com