Saying Police Fed ‘Lies,’ Witness to ’94 Murder Recants
By SARAH MASLIN NIR JAN. 6, 2014
For the second time in nearly 20 years, Joan Purser-Gennace took the witness stand in a Queens courtroom, but this time her testimony was starkly different: Much of what she testified to two decades ago — words that helped convict a man of a murder — was a lie, she said, spoon-fed to her by police detectives.
“Everything, it was provided to me from the police — the lies,” she said on Monday in State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens, at a hearing on behalf of Robert Jones, who is serving 25 years to life after he was convicted of the 1994 murder of Antoine Stone, a street preacher, in Far Rockaway, Queens.
Ms. Purser-Gennace said that although she told the police she could not properly identify the man, they proceeded to coach her with pictures, telling her whom to pick out of a lineup, and mapping out a script for her day in court.
“They said, ‘This is how I want you to say it,’ and it was a lie,” Ms. Purser-Gennace testified. In the audience, several of Mr. Jones’s family members burst into tears.
The re-examination of a murder witness, almost 20 years later, called into question not only the conviction, but the behavior of the police and prosecutors.
The hearing was granted after a team of lawyers led by Christopher M. Joralemon filed a motion to set aside the verdict. The motion alleged that possibly exculpatory information was not given to defense lawyers, and that Mr. Jones’s lawyers did not investigate a crucial other lead, thus providing ineffective counsel. The motion also cited the recantation of two key witnesses.
The prosecutors pushed back, requesting that any hearing be limited to the credibility of the witnesses’ recanted statements. But Justice Joseph A. Zayas went further, allowing the scope of the hearing to include possible misconduct by law enforcement officials, as well as other claims.
The shooting occurred Sept. 10, 1994, in Far Rockaway. Ms. Purser-Gennace testified at the trial that she saw the killing from her second-story window, but she now insists that she could not identify the gunman.
At a nearly six-hour hearing, presided over by Justice Zayas, Ms. Purser-Gennace, 57, who now lives in Rosedale, Queens, described how she came to falsely identify Mr. Jones as the man who killed Mr. Stone. She testified that two Queens police detectives, led by Gerard Weiser, harangued her, visiting her home nearly 10 times with a photo of the man she said they directed her to implicate.
She said the detectives made threatening comments about her husband and children, and hinted that her immigration status could come into play. And when she tried to tell an assistant district attorney, Debra L. Pomodore, that she could not identify the gunman, she said Ms. Pomodore became enraged.
In a written response in July to the defense motion, the district attorney’s office called the affidavits in the motion “incredible,” and dismissed the notion that law enforcement officials had conspired to frame Mr. Jones as bizarre. “It is fantastic that an experienced prosecutor and the police conspired to frame defendant for this homicide,” the 39-page response said in part.
Another witness in the original trial, which was presided over by Justice Robert C. McGann, said he saw a man flee on a bike matching one owned by Mr. Jones. Like Ms. Purser-Gennace, that witness, Philip Engelbert, is expected to recant that testimony in the coming days.
After the hearings conclude, Justice Zayas will decide whether to set aside Mr. Jones’s conviction and order a retrial.
Outside the courtroom, Mr. Jones’s sister, Gertrude Jones-Pinnock, 38, was overcome with emotion speaking about the sibling who was incarcerated when she was just a child. “His life has been stolen, 20 years,” she said. But she said she felt no vehemence toward the woman who helped convict him. “I’m not angry with her, I feel sorry for her; they threatened her too, threatened her children, threatened her husband,” she said. “I am so grateful that she is coming forward to tell the truth.”
Thomas Hoffman, another lawyer assisting in Mr. Jones’s defense, said that Ms. Purser-Gennace was courageous in coming forward all these years later, noting that she was testifying without immunity in admitting she had lied under oath.
“It was eating me up inside,” Ms. Purser-Gennace said, as an assistant district attorney, Robert J. Masters, cross-examined her, pressing her about her motive for taking the stand: Was she hoping the truth, which she alleged she was now telling, would set the man she helped convict free?
“The truth,” she said, her voice raising to a shout, “to set me free!”