Jerome A. Thagard was pulled out of his high school class the morning of April 30, 2009, and charged with gunning down a man in a Riverside field the night before. That was the last time the 16-year-old saw freedom – until this week.
He was released Monday after three witnesses who previously identified him as the killer recanted their claims – and after police realized that the gun used in the Riverside killing has since been used in two more shootings.
What continues to confound police and the District Attorney’s Office is that dozens of other people who witnessed the killing of Kenmore resident Steven Northrup that April 29 have not come forward.
While ordering Thagard’s release Monday, State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. chastised the killer, who remains free, and the witnesses who still refuse to assist police.
“There might be a lot of villains, but, Mr. Thagard, for anybody that’s interested, the villains did not include the Police Department, who did their job with the facts that were unfolding to them at that point. It was not the DA’s office who prosecuted the case as best they could at that point with the information given to them. It wasn’t this defense counsel who, as you know, Mr. Thagard, hasn’t dropped the file a day since you were convicted. It wasn’t a jury, the jury who I thanked for their service, and cried, every one of them, after they had convicted you.
“The villains are the guy who did it. The villains are the people in the community who stood by and said nothing when they know, they knew who did it, and they knew that a wrong man may have been convicted. That’s the villains,” Kloch said.
The judge urged the now 21-year-old Thagard, who lived a couple of blocks from the murder scene, not to hold a grudge.
“The last thing I have to say for anybody who has any interest in this, you, Mr. Thagard, specifically, when I first saw you, you were a kid. Now you’ve grown into a young man, the last 4½ years spent serving time for a crime that it appears you didn’t commit. And that can make somebody bitter, and I hope you don’t get bitter. The ones who should be bitter, Steven Northrup, his family, his friends, the community that would have benefited from him,” Kloch said.
Thagard remained silent during his 30-minute court appearance, but nodded in agreement when the judge explained that the greatest injustice occurred against Northrup.
John J. Molloy, Thagard’s defense attorney, on Tuesday said that after a Jan. 13 court hearing is held to proceed with exonerating his client, more details will come out on how “a perfect storm” conspired to put the young man behind bars.
“There are two great tragedies in this event,” Molloy said. “The awful death of Steven Northrup and the wrongful incarceration of Jerome Thagard.”
Northrup, the 31-year-old father of two boys and a real estate appraiser, was arguing with his former girlfriend in a field adjacent to Shaffer Village housing complex off Isabelle Street in Riverside, when he was shot seven times with a 9 mm handgun by a man dressed in a dark-hooded sweatshirt. The gunman approached the couple and asked the ex-girlfriend if she wanted him to shoot Northrup and then started firing without waiting for a response.
Thagard was a junior at Bennett High School and claimed he was home watching television with his mother when the slaying occurred at about 8:45 p.m.
He was arrested after the ex-girlfriend and two other witnesses picked him out of a photo array. Thagard lived near the shooting scene, and police had his photo because he had been arrested, but later exonerated, in a shoplifting case.
Earlier this year, Buffalo Homicide Detectives Mary Evans and Scott Malec, Molloy said, obtained new evidence that put in motion what has resulted in Thagard’s freedom.
“Once the detectives had doubts about the conviction from evidence they received in another investigation, they presented the results to the District Attorney’s Office and the DA moved with alacrity,” Molloy said.
Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda, when informed by his detectives of their concerns months ago, said he directed them to reinvestigate the case.
“As soon as the Buffalo Police Department was made aware of potential exculpatory information, it immediately shared it with its partners in law enforcement and conducted a follow-up investigation, which resulted in Mr. Thagard’s release,” Derenda said.
In an ironic twist, Thagard was found not guilty of armed robbery in a second trial that followed his murder conviction in January 2010. A robbery victim had contacted police after seeing Thagard’s photograph in a 2009 television news story identifying him as Northrup’s killer and said Thagard robbed her with a handgun one day before the fatal shooting.
“He was found not guilty of armed robbery based on faulty identification,” Molloy said.
Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said Tuesday that he agreed not to oppose Molloy’s motion to set aside the verdict after reviewing new information and new interviews with the three witnesses who previously had identified Thagard as the gunman, as well as a recent interview with Thagard.
The new information, Sedita said, surfaced in June, when Buffalo police learned that the gun used in the Northrup slaying was later used in at least two other shootings, after Thagard had been convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. A comparison of the bullets fired at Northrup and those in the other two shootings showed they came from the same weapon, the DA explained.
Based on that information, Sedita said Buffalo police and the District Attorney’s Office opened an exoneration investigation of Thagard’s conviction.
During the investigation, all three witnesses were reinterviewed, and they recanted their earlier identification of Thagard as the gunman, Sedita said. The district attorney said they indicated that Thagard looked like the gunman but they had not been sure he was. They told investigators that they had been pressured into identifying Thagard by a Buffalo police detective who has since retired, Sedita said.
The investigators also wanted to interview Thagard.
In early November, Sedita said, after weeks of discussion, Molloy agreed to let them interview his client. The district attorney said Thagard was brought from state prison to his office where he was interviewed last Wednesday by James F. Bargnesi, chief of the DA’s Homicide Bureau; Joseph Riga, his chief investigator; and Assistant District Attorney Michael Hillery.
During that 90-minute interview, Thagard said he was at home on Philadelphia Street in Riverside watching television with his mother at the time of the fatal shooting and that he also had a phone conversation. The prosecutors determined the alibi was credible.
After the interview, Sedita said he sat down with his prosecution team Thursday. He said some advised that they believed Thagard was likely innocent, while others viewed the case as rife with reasonable doubt about his guilt. Sedita said all agreed that it was unjust to keep him in custody.
The next day, after reviewing the case, Sedita said he called Molloy to tell him he would not oppose the motion to set aside the verdict.
Objecting to Sedita’s claim that the witnesses were pressured into identifying Thagard as the killer, retired Homicide Detective Mark J. Lauber said he and three other homicide detectives, also now retired, found themselves hitting a wall of silence from individuals who were in the company of the shooter just prior to the slaying.
The eyewitnesses, who have recanted, are Suzanne-Deanna Grover, the then 21-year-old ex-girlfriend of Northrup, who was in the field off Isabelle Street with him, and two teenage girls in a car that the killer almost ran into while fleeing on foot after the shooting.
Lauber said the three witnesses at three separate times identified Thagard as the shooter from a photo array of suspects. If there had been any inkling of doubt expressed by the witnesses, he said, Thagard would have been placed in a line-up for identification.
“You have to trust your witnesses. These were three women that had no connection to the suspect,” Lauber said, adding that the District Attorney’s Office oversaw the investigation. “We followed the information we had, and it always led to Thagard. We never found an alternative path that would take us away from Thagard. We absolutely looked for one. We would do that in every case.”
He added that the DA’s office also had subpoenaed the phone records.
Detectives in the case also repeatedly returned to Shaffer Village adjacent to the shooting scene, where someone matching the description of the killer was seen associating with numerous other people before the shooting, Lauber said. All three witnesses said there were numerous people in the area at the time.
“There were people having barbecues and all of them disappeared. There were people out that night and not one came forward, and we went back 50 times to the housing project. Nothing came up. The killer ran past a whole bunch of people and everyone scattered,” Lauber said, adding that it sickens him that Thagard was wrongfully convicted while the killer has remained free.
Of the misidentification of his client, Molloy said, “Even though juries and the public believe in the accuracy of eyewitness testimony, often times many other factors enter into the identification process and render it faulty and mistaken.”
Since the exoneration investigation began, Sedita said, another individual has been identified as a suspect in the fatal shooting but there is a question about whether there is enough evidence to charge and convict him. He said the unidentified man was not previously a suspect in the case.
Sedita added that his office has exonerated about 200 defendants since he took office in 2009, with 99 percent of them exonerated before trial.
“We strive in our office to put together standards and procedures designed to prevent wrongful convictions,” he said.
Sedita also addressed criticism about his decisions to not prosecute in some cases.
“I know there is a small minority of critics in law enforcement of our deliberate prosecution standards,” he said, “But the reason we have those standards is to prevent wrongful prosecutions and convictions. Obviously any system designed and administered by human beings is not perfect, but we do our best to make sure we prosecute the right people.”