2009-05-08 / Columnists

It's My Turn

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

"The court was duped," said Leventhal during the proceedings. "This court should be incensed." He wanted the judge to reinstate the original verdict and send Bellamy back to prison. But Blumenfeld denied that fraud had been proven. Rather than send Bellamy back to jail over a fake tape that no one alleged he had anything to do with, the judge allowed him to remain out on bail, now with a tracking device.

Hoffman denied that he'd told Green about Melvin's involvement in the murder.

"The information on that tape was the same information that Mr. Green gave in a sworn statement to us on Jan. 12. On that day, we had never known of Mr. Green." He didn't deny giving Green money but emphasized that it happened after the recording. Green told him he feared for his life and needed assistance to relocate. Hoffman provided about $2,000, and notified Cravath, the D.A. and the judge at the time.

Henson says this doesn't make Hoffman guilty of fraud. "Hoffman's biggest crime right now is being naive to the Michael Greens of this world." Green, says Henson, "is a scammer, he's a con man and he's a street person."

Whether or not Henson and O'Brien knew about the fraud, the D.A. said Henson, who had spoken to Melvin in the past, had to have known that it wasn't his voice on the tape.

Along with the bad quality of the recording, Henson said, his poor hearing made it impossible for him to positively identify the voice. "I have hearing aids," said Henson. "I don't wear them, they drive me nuts. My whole mother's side of the family is stone deaf."

Melvin, like Green, has a deep, distinct, gravelly voice. At a recent hearing, Jonathan Tatum, the man who played Melvin on the tape, sat on the witness stand recounting his role in the fraudulent recording. The prosecution played the tape. Despite the very poor audio quality, it sounded like Tatum - and nothing like Melvin.

"This case is going to end up in some bar exam in a few years," the judge said during a recent court hearing.

While Blumenfeld considers whether Bellamy's defense team and the investigators acted improperly, the latest twist has been devastating to Bellamy. The judge ordered Hoffman and Cravath off the case, since they were now potential witnesses. Bellamy, who was being represented by one of the top law firms in the country along with Hoffman, his most passionate defender, is now in the hands of a single public defender, Steve Silberblatt, who has had to quickly get up to speed on a very complicated case.

For Hoffman, the latest development in his four-year saga is a devastating blow. His face is ashen. When he talks about the case, deep furrows line his brow, and his eyes have a far away look of despair. He points to a collection of 43 black, red and blue binders that fill an entire row above a massive bookshelf. Only 20 percent of the paper work, he says, adding that he's worked on the case for "five hours a day, seven days a week, for the last four years."

If Hoffman is heartbroken, Henson is livid.

"It borders on slander at the least, and defamation, what he's done to me and Hoffman and O'Brien," said Henson. "He's just destroyed my name. It's really a disgrace." (In January of this year, both he and Hoffman testified in court hearings, denying the prosecution's allegations of fraud.)

Henson said that Brad Leventhal is more interested in upholding the 1994 verdict than pursuing the truth. The Queens D.A. has been negligent throughout the process, he said. When reached for comment, the D.A.'s office said they could not comment on a pending case.

"I think Mike Green told 100 percent the truth that day," said Henson, referring to their original January encounter. He hoped Leventhal was going to follow it up. "He didn't do a thing, he did zero due diligence," said the former detective, his voice rising.

"I'm begging Brad Leventhal, please go grab Ishmael Melvin or Rodney Harris," he said. "He jerked us off…had no intention of doing anything."

In early November, Green went to the offices of the Rockaway Wave. He didn't like the way he was being portrayed in the media. He wanted to set the record straight. He was worried people in the neighborhood were starting to think of him as a "snitch." The paper's editor, Schwach, a lifelong Rockaway native, had been following the case closely since Bellamy's surprise release that summer.

"They say I'm some kind of informant," Green told Schwach. "My friends…. say 'I don't want nothing to do with you no more.'"

At the Wave, Green came up with a third version of the story. "He had fired me from a job," he said of Melvin. "I was a little upset about the job, so I had made up a story." He bumped into Henson in the projects who told him about the wrongful conviction of Bellamy, and his search for Simmons. Henson and O'Brien never mentioned Melvin, he said. And he never mentioned Melvin, either. He claimed all he told them was, "I heard a conversation."

The detectives then took him to Hoffman, he said, who convinced him of Bellamy's innocence and told him about Melvin's possible guilt. Green said he recorded the staged conversation and took the opportunity to milk Hoffman for money. "It hurts me very bad to do what I did," he told Schwach. "I let money came (sic) between me and my friend."

If this is true, it undermines the case against the defense team. The wrecking ball that was Mike Green has swung the other way: Just as he sabotaged Bellamy's defense team, he now threatens to be an unreliable witness for the prosecution.

But while Green absolved Hoffman, Henson and O'Brien of any prior knowledge of the hoax, he insisted that Henson had to have recognized that it was not Melvin's voice on the tape. "Eddie Henson done talked to Ishmael millions of times," said Green. He also says that when he came clean to Hoffman after Bellamy was released, Hoffman failed to act. "Instead of doing what he had to do, he told me to disappear," said Green.

As accusations fly, Howard Schwach at the Rockaway Wave feels the case has become too personal for all sides. "You get into a lot of trouble that way," he says.

Bellamy's plight now drags into another year, as Silberblatt and Leventhal continue to present their cases and Judge Blumenfeld is faced with sorting through the tangled web.

On Thanksgiving eve, Eugene Howard, Bellamy's stepfather, readies his apartment, clearing out dishes. A Crime Victims Assistance Program sticker is mounted on their refrigerator. Geraldine and Howard live in the Ocean Bay Apartments, just down the street from where the murder occurred. Two blocks away, at Beach 54 Street and Beach Channel Drive, an NYPD watchtower with numerous security cameras keeps an eye out on the corner.

For the first Thanksgiving in 14 years, their son will be at home with them. The family is in limbo though, worried about being separated again forever.

"We are dying," says Howard, struggling to breathe as he speaks, his arms folded across his gold shirt. He has a chronic respiratory disease. Geraldine, his wife, walks with difficulty after suffering a stroke two years ago. "I just don't want to die with my son in prison," says Howard. Geraldine says her son told her about all the places he wants to take her. "'I'm not going to give up, mom,' he said."

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