2009-04-17 / Columnists

It's My Turn

By Jonah Engle, Danielle Friedman, And Vergat Srinivasan Graduate Students, Columbia Journalism School

As part of their studies at Columbia Journalism School, three students were tasked with investigating the Kareem Bellamy case, which has become one of he most controversial homicide cases in Rockaway's history. Their long report on the investigation will be published here over the next several issues.

The news reached him in prison on a mild, rainy Friday. When the call came, he fell to the ground, nearly fainting. But soon Kareem Bellamy was back on his feet, shadowboxing.

On June 27, 2008, after claiming his innocence for 14 years, Bellamy had finally won a round. The murder conviction that sent him to a maximum security prison for 25 years to life had been vacated.

Six weeks later, he was released. "This is the happiest day of my life," he told reporters, smiling broadly. He moved in with his sister on Staten Island with hopes of reclaiming a normal life.

But Bellamy's jubilation was shortlived. In a case of seemingly endless twists and turns, the 41-year-old could soon be sent back to jail to serve out the rest of his sentence. His high-profile defense team - lawyers from one of the country's top law firms, a decorated former FBI agent and a retired NYPD homicide detective - stands accused of fraud. The whole chain of events was set in motion and now hinges on a poor quality tape recording.

"When you finally have faith in the system, it turns around and bites you in the ass," remarked Bellamy's stepfather, Eugene Howard, recently.

The case is being watched closely by lawyers involved in the small but growing field of non-DNA exonerations. The process of exoneration is extremely difficult, criminal lawyers say, even when you have DNA evidence. Without such evidence, exonerating a client is nearly impossible. The client's team has to collect detailed evidence that not only show that the original verdict was incorrect, but often also point out who the real offender is: They need a smoking gun.

Since 1989, thanks to advances in forensic science, DNA evidence has facilitated the exoneration of the wrongfully convicted; from that year through 2003, 150 people were exonerated based on this evidence. Yet DNA is recovered in only 10 percent of violent crimes. Now, a few impassioned lawyers have begun to take on cases where there is no biological evidence (non-DNA cases), which account for the vast majority of the wrongfully convicted.

The stunning reversal in Bellamy's case highlights the tenuousness of convictions that don't have the ironclad proof guaranteed by DNA.

This improbable tale began on a cold April morning in 1994 with James Abbott Jr.'s trip to a grocery store.

Abbott, a 25-year-old truck driver, was returning from a C-Town supermarket in Far Rockaway, Queens, on April 9, when he was accosted by two men at the intersection of Beach 48th Street and Beach Channel Drive, a bleak residential corner near the Rockaway Nursing Home, half a mile (sic) from the Atlantic coast.

Andrew "Angel" Carter saw the scuffle from a distance. He was in a wheelchair - he lost his legs after being shot by police during an attempted robbery - waiting for a bus to go to his mother's house in Jamaica, Queens. Abbott had stopped to make a call at a payphone near the intersection. The two attackers pushed him against a fence by the sidewalk, and punched him. "The little one pulled his knife and started stabbing him," Carter testified.

Abbott fell to the ground as the two kicked him in the chest and face. His bleeding body wound up on the intersection, off the sidewalk. The "little one" stabbed him eight times in his chest, neck, leg and arm, severing his lung, liver and the main artery leading to his heart. Abbott was set to start working with the city transit authority two days later.

Victor Vega, a Rockaway resident who had just dropped his son off at school, was driving back along Beach Channel Drive. He stopped after seeing the body on the pavement. Walking closer, he also saw a man standing on the sidewalk near Abbott. The two made eye contact briefly, before the man fled on foot. The telephone receiver was off the hook, dangling. Shortly after, a police car arrived.

Officers from Far Rockaway's 101st Precinct interviewed witnesses the day of the murder. The assailants were black, said Carter. One was about 5 feet 5 inches tall and wore a green jacket, green hat and had short braided hair, said Linda Sanchez, a 19-year-old cashier at C-Town at the time. The other was taller by about two inches. She had seen two men, presumed to be the attackers, standing in line behind Abbott at the store.

A week later, a woman named Anna Simmons called the precinct saying she'd overheard two men, members of a local gang, bragging about the murder. She said she worked at a laundromat near the C-Town. While the police made a cursory attempt to get her to make a statement, they weren't able to locate her.

"There was a lot of crime at that time," Howard Schwach, editor of the Rockaway Wave, a local newspaper, recalled in an interview. "People didn't stop for red lights, especially in the evenings, out of fear."

A month later, police got a call from Sanchez. She claimed to have spotted Kareem Bellamy, then 26 years old, standing near the C-Town, pointing and yelling at her. Bellamy lived a few blocks from the store. She said he was one of the people with Abbott before he was stabbed. Sanchez also said that, a week after the murder, Bellamy threatened her at the store. "You fucking bitch - you're next," he said, according to Sanchez.

Following her description, local police sought and found Bellamy - a thin, black man wearing a yellow sweatshirt, about 5 feet 10 inches tall - drinking a 40-ounce beer on the stoop of his housing project. They arrested him for drinking in public.

"This must be a mistake," Bellamy said on the ride back to the precinct. "Somebody must have accused me of murdering someone." The cops hadn't yet reminded Bellamy that anything he said could be used against him in a court of law. Bellamy later denied making the comment. The prosecution never offered a motive.

The investigation moved swiftly after that. Police brought Carter into the precinct the next day, and asked him to identify Bellamy in a lineup. Carter told the police that it was either the man in position one (Bellamy) or two (another man brought in to fill out the lineup). A week later, Carter came back to say he was almost sure one of the assailants was Bellamy. He'd been confused by his hairstyle, he said.

"Are you saying that he had braids in his hair at the lineup?" Kenneth Reiver, the defense lawyer, asked Carter during the trial in December 1995.

"Yes," replied Carter.

"And he didn't have braids in his hair at the stabbing; is that what you're saying?"

"He didn't."

Yet Sanchez contradicted Carter, testifying that Bellamy had "a million braids" the day of the murder. She also claimed she worked seven days a week and never left her cash register, knew the direction in which every customer walked when he or she walked out of the store, and never saw any other CTown customer besides Bellamy who had braids.

A third eyewitness, Veronica Walker, turned out to be an even weaker one for the prosecution. She had gone to CTown to buy groceries that morning and was returning to her car to drive to her hairdresser. She saw a "slim" man with braids, about 5 feet 6 inches tall, join another person fighting with Abbott on the sidewalk. The prosecution asked her if she could identify an assailant in the courtroom during the trial. They were taken aback. "I really can't say," she testified.

The only witness at the trial who vouched for Bellamy was his stepfather, Eugene Howard. He said that Bellamy was at the family apartment between 9:00 a.m. and 10:20 a.m. on April 9. "He was with me at the time that the killing actually occurred," he repeated recently. "We were watching a picture. 'Soul Train.'"

To Reiver, who had already been practicing law for 30 years at the time of the trial, all the unconvincing testimony pointed to Bellamy's innocence. But the prosecutor asserted that "every single witness describes the defendant." And his closing statements bolstered Carter's testimony. "You know he didn't pick out number two," he said. "Number two isn't sitting over there. Number one is sitting over there."

Looking back, Reiver felt the trial was "a miscarriage of justice." He did not see a connection between Bellamy and the crime. Interestingly, David Guy, the prosecutor, didn't either.

"Where is there proof of motive? There is none," conceded Guy in his summation. But the prosecutor was adept at using confusing double negatives to create a smokescreen. "Where is there proof (the) defendant had no motive to kill somebody? I submit there is no proof that he had no motive."

In an interview after the trial, Guy admitted his case was shaky. Parts of it "crumbled" he said, and he needed to "shore up" a conviction. But if he had any doubts at the time, he didn't convey them to the jury in his closing statement.

"I know who committed the murder," he said to the jury, violating rules preventing a prosecutor from expressing personal opinion to influence the jury's verdict. "You know it was an intentional murder and you know there is no rational explanation for why so many people are pointing their fingers at the guy just like the needle of the compass unless he is in fact the right man." Reiver looks back and shudders. "The summation was so horrible," he recalled.

After a month of testimony, three days of deliberation, numerous negotiations, 18 juror notes and 12 read-backs, the jury brought the trial to an end on Dec. 12, 1995. Bellamy was convicted of depraved indifference murder. The jury struggled to deliver a verdict and they cried over the decision, but they felt Bellamy had shown enough evidence of guilt.

"I didn't do nothing," cried Bellamy when the verdict was read. "Shoot me now," he shouted to the court officers.

Geraldine, Bellamy's mother begged Abbott's family. "I'm sorry your son was murdered," she said. "He doesn't know your son. He didn't murder nobody."

"Kill me God," said Bellamy.

Bellamy's family was resolute to get him acquitted. "Oh, baby. I'm not going to stop until I am going to get you out of here," asserted his mother. "I am going to the mayor, to everybody."

As he was dragged out of the courtroom, Bellamy resisted, kicking and screaming.

"I didn't kill your son, lady," cried out Bellamy to Abbott's mother.

More next week.

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