2009-04-24 / Columnists

It's My Turn

The Bellamy Case, Part II
By Jonah Engle, Danielle Friedman, And Venkat Srinivasan Graduate Students, Columbia Journalism School

The sentence was issued on Jan. 16, 1996: 25 years to life in prison. Reiver could not believe the verdict. "This was a case I thought my 10-year-old grandson could win," he said.

Later that year, CourtTV produced an episode of "The System," the station's signature documentary series throughout the 1990s, about the Bellamy case.

The episode questioned whether justice had been served.

In August 1997 and again, in April 1999, Bellamy appealed the conviction to no avail. He continued to reach out to lawyers around the city.

No success.

Not until Thomas Hoffman, an independent Manhattan lawyer, saw his case.

The letter arrived in June 2004.

Sitting in his West 57th Street office, Hoffman skimmed it, then tossed it and the accompanying DVD in the trash. He got a lot of letters from inmates, pleading for help.

This one haunted him, though. Later, he removed the package from the bin.

It was a Xeroxed form note. At the top were Bellamy's name, prisoner number and address at Shawangunk Correctional Facility in upstate New York.

"I am an innocent man convicted of a murder I simply did not commit," the letter began.

"Before you form any opinion I ask that you listen to my story or view the hearings as well as the trial itself was (sic) televised by CourtTV."

Curious, Hoffman played the DVD.

"'You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you,' We've all heard the phrase," the show's host, Michael Ayala, intones. "But Kareem Bellamy didn't remain silent, and his words were used against him."

Footage from the trial is then played as Ayala narrates, breaking down the testimony and evidence. Interspersed are interviews with Corrado, Guy, Reiver, and Bellamy's step-father, Eugene Howard.

Something about this case didn't sit right with Hoffman, who, at almost 60, had nearly three decades of trial experience. The uncertain witnesses, the lack of a motive or murder weapon - to him, it didn't add up to a murder conviction.

Hoffman became a lawyer for one, overriding reason: to fight injustice. Born in Budapest, Hungary, in the early 1940s, he and his family were hidden during the Holocaust by a Christian family. His uncle was a lawyer who fought for Jews in Warsaw, Poland.

Hoffman moved to the U.S. when he was 6 years old. Molded by his early experiences, he would spend his adult life striving to continue the legacy of those who saved and stood up for the afflicted.

Over the course of the half-hour CourtTV episode, Bellamy's case had ignited something in Hoffman. He knew how rare non-DNA exonerations were, but he couldn't turn back. He decided to take on the case.

Before he could begin his investigation, Hoffman needed to secure funding. As an independent lawyer, with more than 50 percent of his cases probono, he didn't have the resources for the case.

With no smoking gun, the defense would have to work rigorously to prove Bellamy's innocence.

Hoffman mailed a letter of his own to "every major law firm" in the city, hoping one would be interested in teaming up on the case. He eventually got a response from Cravath, Swaine & Moore, one of the world's most prestigious firms. A partner in Cravath's litigation department enlisted a team of lawyers to help.

Shortly after, Bellamy's new defense team began the investigation. Their initial goal was to compile enough evidence to warrant a 440 hearing - the process through which a verdict is vacated after a case has gone through appeal.

In October 2006, after two years of investigation, the defense felt it had a winning case.

Their evidence spoke both to flaws with the original trial, and the possibility that Bellamy was, in fact, wrongfully convicted.

Bellamy's case was a morass of "police misconduct, an overzealous prosecutor, a tainted lineup" and "ineffective assistance of trial counsel," Hoffman and Cravath wrote in a memo to the court. In addition, "newly discovered evidence" revealed just how unreliable the case's two star witnesses were.

After getting their hands on the district attorney's file on Linda Sanchez, the defense had learned that, following the trial, she was paid significant compensation from their office: $2,000 to relocate and $250 every two weeks for a year. She claimed the money was for witness protection, yet she moved just a mile and a half from where Abbott was killed. These "rewards" called Sanchez's motives into question, they said. And until then, they had not been disclosed.

The defense team had also reached out to Carter. By then, he was living in a nursing home, unemployed for 20 years. Initially, Carter stood by his trial testimony. But he agreed to meet at Cravath's offices for a rate of $90 an hour, "for his time."

In the meeting, Carter changed his story: "I'd like to get something off my shoulders," Hoffman remembers him saying. "I was never sure it was Kareem." He said he felt pressured by detectives to testify against Bellamy.

Finally, in reopening original police files on the case, Hoffman and Cravath discovered that a handful of reports hadn't been disclosed to Reiver. They revealed that two additional witnesses - including Victor Vega, the Rockaway resident who locked eyes with the murderer after driving his son to school - told police that they saw one of the attackers fleeing. The reports were consistent with the information provided by Anna Simmons - the mystery woman who called the precinct shortly after the crime, naming two suspects. All three witnesses reported that the attackers were wearing hoods.

The court was convinced to re-open the case.

But at every turn, the district attorney's office sharply countered the defense's findings, seemingly determined to keep Bellamy locked up. After nearly a year of presenting 440 material to the court, the defense team wasn't making any headway. Short of DNA evidence, Hoffman and Cravath needed solid proof of someone else committing the murder.

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