A Riverside man was set free Monday, nearly four years after he was wrongly convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for the murder of a Kenmore man.
Jerome Thagard, a Bennett High School student when he was arrested at 16 years old, appeared before State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr., who ordered his release from state custody, in response to a motion to set aside the conviction based on new information.
Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said today that he agreed not to oppose the motion to dismiss after reviewing new information and new interviews with three witnesses who previously had identified Thagard as the gunman, as well as a recent interview with Thagard.
The new information surfaced in June, when the Buffalo police learned that the gun used in the April 29, 2009, slaying of Steven Northrup in a field in Riverside was later used in at least two other homicides, after Thagard had been convicted and sentenced to life in prison, Sedita said. A comparison of the bullets fired in the Northrup slaying and the two other homicides showed they came from the same weapon, he said.
Based on that information, Sedita said Buffalo police and the District Attorney’s Office opened an exoneration investigation of Thagard’s conviction in January 2010.
That conviction was based on three witnesses who picked Thagard from a photo array of suspects and identified him as the gunman.
Defense attorney John J. Molloy insisted that Thagard was innocent. Thagard did not testify at his trial, and although the defense filed notice of an alibi defense, no alibi witnesses were presented.
“This case is not over,” Molloy said when Thagard was sentenced in April 2010.
Last June, Molloy filed his motion asking Judge Kloch to set aside the verdict based on new information, but Sedita’s office did not respond to the motion until recently after completing the exoneration investigation.
During that 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 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, and the judge called Sedita on Monday to set up a hearing Jan. 13 on the motion at Erie County Hall.
Meanwhile, Sedita said police have another 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 said 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.
In the 2009 case, Sedita cited the testimony of the three witnesses who identified Thagard as the gunman, noting that the judge had indicated at sentencing that one of the witnesses was among the most compelling he had heard at any trial.
Sedita also addressed criticism about his decisions on when to prosecute.
“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.”
Sedita noted that Buffalo police and his office conducted the exoneration investigation in this case after information surfaced about the weapon being used in later homicides.
“When information calls into question the integrity of evidence or the integrity of a conviction, we will take a serious and hard look at it,” he said. “The duty of prosecutors is to do justice – to not only prosecute the guilty but exonerate the innocent.”
Thagard, now 21, was convicted of shooting Northrup, 31, a real estate appraiser and father of two boys, seven times with a 9 mm handgun in a field off Isabelle Street.