A Buffalo man who was released last month from a life prison sentence for a murder he insisted he didn’t commit returned to a Buffalo courtroom today for the official dismissal of his indictment.
State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. dismissed the indictment against Jerome A. Thagard in the April 29, 2009 fatal shooting of Steven Northrup in a Riverside field.
The court proceeding took less than 30 seconds to clear the 21-year-old man who had spent nearly four years in prison.
The judge ordered him released in early December based on new information in the case, after granting a motion by Thagard’s attorney, John J. Molloy, to set aside the verdict.
Before dismissing the indictment today, Kloch told Thagard that he was allowing cameras in the courtroom to record the event because the public previously had only seen his mug shot when he was charged, tried and eventually convicted in the case.
“Now they can see you as a free individual,” he said. “The indictment is dismissed.”
Thagard shook his attorney’s hand and then embraced his aunt. Thagard and his aunt declined to comment as they left the courtroom.
Assistant District Attorney Michael Hillery said nothing at the short hearing, which was held to consider the district attorney’s motion to dismiss the indictment.
Thagard was pulled out of his high school class the morning after the killing and charged with gunning down Northrup, based on three witness identifications. He was 16 at the time.
A State Supreme Court jury convicted him of second-degree murder on Jan. 25, 2010, and Kloch sentenced him to 25 years to life in prison, the maximum punishment, on April 13, 2010.
He was released from prison Dec. 9, 2013, after the three witnesses recanted their claims that he was the shooter – and after police realized the gun used in the Riverside killing had since been used in two more shootings.
Northrup, 31, a real estate appraiser and father of two boys, 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 at the time 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.
Last year, Buffalo Homicide Detectives Mary Evans and Scott Malec obtained new evidence that put in motion what eventually resulted in Thagard’s freedom, Molloy said.
“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.
District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said last month that he agreed not to oppose Molloy’s motion to set aside the verdict after reviewing new information and the new interviews with the three witnesses, as well as a recent interview with Thagard.
The new information, Sedita said, surfaced in June. That’s when Buffalo police learned the gun used in the Northrup slaying was later used in at least two other shootings after Thagard had been convicted and sentenced to prison. A comparison of the bullets fired at Northrup and those in the other two shootings showed they came from the same weapon, Sedita said.
Based on that information, Sedita said Buffalo police and the District Attorney’s Office opened an exoneration investigation.
During the investigation, all three witnesses were reinterviewed. The district attorney said they indicated Thagard looked like the gunman but they were not sure he was the gunman.
The investigators also interviewed Thagard. The district attorney said Thagard was brought from state prison to his office where he was interviewed by prosecutors in early December.
During the 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 credible.
After the interview, Sedita said he sat down with his prosecution team. He said some said believed Thagard was likely innocent, while others viewed the case as rife with reasonable doubt about his guilt. All agreed keeping him in custody was unjust.
The next day, after reviewing the case, Sedita said he called Molloy to tell him he would not oppose his motion to set aside the verdict.
Since the exoneration investigation began, Sedita said, another individual has been identified as a suspect in the fatal shooting but questions remain about whether authorities have enough evidence to charge and convict him. He said the unidentified man was not previously a suspect in the case.