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Alford plea in stabbing vacated
NIGHTCLUB INCIDENT: Court says evidence doesn't support Richardson's guilt




A Rochester man who went to prison claiming he was innocent of a 2007 nightclub stabbing has had his guilty plea vacated by an appellate court and the matter has been returned to Jefferson County Court for further proceedings.

Rashjeem L. Richardson, 22, pleaded guilty in January 2008 to first-degree attempted assault. He has been serving a five-year prison sentence imposed in February 2008 at Wyoming Correctional Facility.

He had been accused of participating in an April 2007 stabbing at the now-closed Club Renaissance in which two Fort Drum soldiers were injured. It was alleged that he used what appeared to be a knife to stab Arthur L. Hayes III at the former nightclub on Route 3 in the town of LeRay. The victim suffered an injury that required open-heart surgery.

While entering and leaving LeRay Town Court following an initial arraignment on the charge, Mr. Richardson repeatedly said, "I'm innocent" and "I didn't do it." Before his sentencing in County Court, he told Judge Kim H. Martusewicz, "I feel that I was violated. I did not commit this crime."

He entered his guilty plea using an Alford plea, meaning he did not admit to the allegations, but was pleading guilty to avoid the possibility of being convicted of a more serious offense at trial.

Mr. Richardson appealed the conviction to the state Appellate Division, Fourth Department, claiming that the lower court erred by not suppressing a photo array identification based on the alleged intoxication of the witness who identified him. The court rejected that contention, as well as his claim that the array put together was "unduly suggestive."

Mr. Richardson also contended that the court erred in accepting his Alford plea because there was insufficient evidence to support his guilt. Although he did not preserve that contention for the appellate court, the court considered it "as a matter of discretion in the interest of justice."

In a decision released Friday, the court said that prosecutors stated there were four witnesses who would testify at trial that they saw Mr. Richardson stab the victim. However, the appellate court said the record does not support that assertion, as there were only three witness statements and those statements tended more toward Mr. Richardson's innocence than guilt.

Additionally, one witness who initially provided police with a positive identification of Mr. Richardson as the attacker made another statement to police the following day suggesting she may have been wrong.

The court said there is nothing on the record to support Mr. Richardson's guilt except for the prosecutor's "unsubstantiated" statement regarding witnesses. The court said that even though Mr. Richardson's plea was a "knowing and voluntary" one, the lower court erred in accepting it because the record did not strongly enough support his guilt.

The appellate court returned the matter to the lower court, where Mr. Richardson remains under indictment on charges of third-degree assault and third-degree criminal possession of a weapon.

A second man involved in the nightclub stabbing, Michael J. Purvis Jr., pleaded guilty in January 2008 to third-degree assault and was sentenced the same day to an unspecified amount of time served.

He was accused of using a sharp object to stab soldier Shelby M. Kerrick during the same incident. Mr. Kerrick suffered stab wounds to his chest, back and forearm, requiring extensive medical treatment to his kidney, colon and arm, according to court documents.

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