The murder convictions of two Trenton men who authorities believe killed a drug dealer during a failed home invasion were overturned by the New Jersey State Supreme Court Monday because prosecutors failed to hand over 19 pieces of evidence until after their trial started.
William “Paperboy” Brown, 34, and Nigil “Youngin” Dawson, 35, are getting a new trial in the 2008 killing of Tracy Crews, who was shot in the neck in his home in Trenton’s Chambersburg neighborhood. Brown and Dawson are currently serving 50-year prison terms.
The state’s high court found that withholding the evidence violated Brady vs Maryland, a landmark, 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision that says prosecutors must disclose to the defense evidence that might exonerate defendants. The evidence was provided to defense attorneys a week after testimony started against Brown and Dawson, in 2015.
In this case, the court also found the trial judge made errors once the material was turned over by excluding admissible, exculpatory evidence.
The high court said there’s no “evidence or allegation” that the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office acted in bad faith or intentionally withheld the materials, but the prosecutor’s and trial judge’s actions deprived Brown and Dawson of a fair trial.
Former Assistant Prosecutor Al Garcia led the prosecution of Brown and Dawson, who were represented by Edward J. Hesketh and Steven C. Lember, respectively. They were tried in early 2015 before Mercer County Judge Andrew Smithson, and sentenced a few months later.
During their sentencings, the defense attorneys argued for a new trial, citing irregularities and evidence gathered by prosecutors that wasn’t shared with the defense until late in the trial. Smith denied that motion and sent the young men to prison.
The New Jersey Public Defender’s Office filed and handled the Supreme Court appeal.
A prosecutor’s office spokeswoman said Monday only that the office intends to retry Brown and Dawson.
A New Jersey appeals court had upheld their convictions in 2017, but sent the case back to Superior Court in Mercer County so their sentences could be adjusted after a conviction for both men on a gun charge was merged with their murder convictions.
Crews was a known gang drug dealer wanted by state parole authorities when he was fatally wounded by two men looking to rob him of $40,000 in his house, officials have said. The 23-year-old was accosted as he went upstairs to tuck his 2-year-old daughter in to bed.
Among the evidence cited in the decision are two reports investigators wrote about statements from Crews’ wife, Sheena Robinson-Crews. Her statements were key to the prosecution’s case.
As her husband lay mortally wounded in the street outside their home, she reportedly ran to him, cradled him and asked, “Who did this to you?” She reported that in a dying declaration, he identified Brown and Dawson, using their street names, “Paperboy and Youngin.”
And, at the scene that night, a detective apparently overheard Robinson-Crews on a cellphone talking to, “who(m)ever shot the victim.” She told the person on the phone, “You got what you came for, you did not need to shoot him,” and then, she made a second call, in which she said, “Those boys did not have to shoot him.”
Robinson-Crews also called Crews’s mother that night, Barbara Portis, and told her that Crews said, “Paperboy and Youngin” had shot her son. This was all memorialized in an investigator’s report.
Another report, from prison officials in Pennsylvania, where Robinson-Crews was incarcerated three years after the killing, reported that her husband only identified “Paperboy” as his killer, and she just added “Youngin” to her report to police that night.
The defense, though, had learned that neither of the defendant’s cell phones received a call from Robinson-Crews the night of the murder.
The court found that the information in both reports was favorable to the defense, as it allowed lawyers to challenge the prosecution’s theories.
Moreover, once the reports and other evidence were turned over to the defense, a week into the trial, four police officers had already taken the stand and testified about information in them.
And, the report about Robinson-Crews’ comments and calls at the scene, which was excluded at trial by the judge, contained information that was used to support four search warrants in the case.