Star-Ledger

DNA tests reveal questions about a Newark killing


BY RICK HEPP AND WILLIAM KLEINKNECHT

It was a hot, humid August night a dozen years ago when two men entered E.T.'s Sandwiches Almighty Deli in Newark, ordered "a corn beef sandwich with everything" and shot the owner dead.

Based on eyewitness accounts, Newark detectives quickly zeroed in on a suspect, Darrell Edwards, who lived in the neighborhood, and arrested him on Sept. 15, 1995. After three mistrials, a jury convicted Edwards of store owner Errich Thomas' murder.

Now, attorneys with the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal clinic that specializes in trying to free the wrongfully convicted, say they have DNA evidence that exonerates Edwards, who is serving life in prison. Vanessa Potkin, who is handling Edwards' case with famed defense attorney Barry Scheck, who launched the Innocence Project, said the significance of test results is not what was found, but what wasn't found.

"His DNA is not there," she said.

Two eyewitnesses swore they saw Edwards, who lived in the neighborhood, as he disposed of balled-up clothing -- police said it was a black sweat shirt wrapped around a handgun -- in a garbage can moments after the shooting.

Lawyers for the Innocence Project say results from an independent lab in Texas show DNA from multiple people during testing on the recovered sweatshirt and handgun, but none of it belonged to Edwards. The attorneys plan to use this new evidence Tuesday to persuade a Superior Court judge in Essex County that Edwards deserves a new trial.

"The person who committed this crime left their DNA on the sweatshirt and the DNA does not belong to Darrell Edwards," Potkin said. "From our perspective, the new DNA test results are powerful evidence showing what Darrell Edwards has been saying for nearly 13 years, that he is not responsible for this crime."

Prosecutors are convinced they got the man responsible for Thomas' death and will argue the DNA evidence is not conclusive. Robert Laurino, a chief assistant Essex County prosecutor, said the evidence was old and the handgun had been handled by many people during the prosecution. He also said the DNA sampling found a "mixed profile" on the sweat shirt, meaning it came from two different people.

"In this case, the DNA really wasn't definitive," Laurino said. "He could have gotten the sweat shirt at a thrift shop; lots of people could have worn it. This is one of those cases where it really doesn't say anything either way."

In addition to the DNA evidence, Potkin said, one of the two eyewitness has since recanted her identification of Edwards, noting mistaken identifications were the leading cause of wrongful convictions in the 218 cases that have been overturned based on DNA evidence since 1989.

In a sworn affidavit last July from her home in Pennsylvania, Patricia McKinnis said she was high on heroin the night of the shooting and only picked Edwards from a photo lineup because the detective had his finger over Edwards' photo.

"I was directed, pointed at the bottom row of the pictures and said which one of these look familiar and he had his finger pointed at the one I thought I saw and I picked him out," McKinnis said. "I was just guessing."

Edwards' attorneys will also introduce a 2004 study that it was impossible for a witness to accurately identify the face of a person who is 150 feet away. McKinnis was 271 feet away when she saw the suspect dump the balled-up clothing in the garbage can, according to court testimony.

Laurino did not put much stock in McKinnis' statement, saying "Recantations are not at all uncommon after cases are concluded."

Edwards has consistently maintained his assertion police arrested the wrong man based on faulty eyewitness statements. He initially wrote in 2001 to the Innocence Project, which has overturned five convictions in New Jersey and more than 200 nationwide based on DNA evidence.

"Since 1995, I have been claiming my innocence to this whole thing," Edwards told Superior Court Judge Jared Honigfeld at his sentencing in 1999. "I am letting you know I am still an innocent person. ... I am innocent."

Edwards' sister, Jacqueline Holmes, said he has missed seeing his two daughters and one son grow up, as well as the birth of a grandson, but her brother hopes one day he'll be freed.

"He's positive about it," Holmes said. "It's been a struggle on our family dealing with this. He was at home with his family the night that this happened. Nobody ever checked that out. They didn't bother to prove his innocence and that's what is so upsetting because it's like they didn't even care."


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