Law & Justice

Charges Dropped for Two Men After Nearly 25 Years in Prison

Ralph Lee and Eric Kelley moments after their exoneration on April 6, 2018 Credits: The Innocence Project

PATERSON, NJ- After 24 years in prison two Paterson men will remain free following a decision by Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia M. Valdes not to retry their case.

While clarifying that the decision is in no way a declaration of their innocence Valdes announced on Friday that the Office has moved to dismiss the matters of State v. Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee. 

According to the statement, the decision was made in consultation with the family of Tito Merino, the man the two were found guilty of stabbing and bludgeoning to death while he was working at Victoria Video in Paterson on July 28, 1993.

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With the convictions tossed out in 2017 and the men freed on bail following the discovery of DNA matched to a third man, Eric Dixon, on a green and purple plaid hat found at the scene that did not belong to anyone in the store, the Prosecutor’s office would have found itself starting the case over again. “The passage of nearly 25 years since the date of the crime presents difficult challenges with retrying these matters.  Such a lengthy passage of time impacts witness availability, cooperation and credibility,” the Prosecutor’s statement reads.

Dixon, according to court documents, had “just been released from prison” for a “similar crime” not far from the video store where Merino was murdered. According to Judge Joseph A. Portelli, the DNA, only discoverable through new testing, met the three criteria for admitting new evidence, including being “of the nature that would probably change a jury verdict.”

Calling the decision “three years overdue,” Vanessa Potkin, Post-Convition Litigation Director of the Innocence Project, recounted that the DNA evidence excluding both Kelley and Lee, while also identifying an “alternate suspect” was presented in 2014. Expecting the court appearance to be “routine” Potkin said the announcement by the state to dismiss the charges was “unexpected, but a long-awaited victory for Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee.”

The Innocence Project, “a group of independent organizations that exonerate and support the innocent, and redress the causes of wrongful conviction,” represented Eric Kelley in the case.

In issuing his opinion that the two men were entitled to new trials, Judge Joseph A. Portelli said that he wished to “emphasize that this decision in no way, shape or form, is to be considered that my opinion is that the defendants are not guilty.”

“Considering the totality of the circumstances,” Prosecutor Valdes concluded, “to re-try these matters 25 years later would not be in the interests of justice.

Offering a harsh review of the case, the Innocence Project said in a press release that the men were convicted “based largely on contradictory statements they made to police after the police took them into custody.” While police claimed the men had confessed to the crime the defense argued that “the only evidence of the confessions are typewritten statements officers prepared that were signed by Kelley and Lee.” These confessions, the press release reads, came after Kelley “who suffers from significant cognitive impairments because of a brain injury from a car accident and has difficulties processing information,” faced several hours of interrogation on his own and “allegedly admitted to the crime.”

While celebrating the decision The Innocence Project lamented that even with the new evidence “the prosecutors chose to bury their heads in the sand and cling to the conviction.” Potkin concluded by expressing the organization’s hope that with its conclusion the “case will spark changes in how prosecutors in New Jersey respond to potential wrongful conviction cases.”

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