On March 26, 1988, Danny Josephs, a cocaine dealer, was fatally shot in a second-floor apartment of a building known as "The Plaza" in Brooklyn, New York.
Fourteen months later, police were questioning two crack cocaine addicts named Thomas Edwards and Shorn Green about a different murder when both implicated Lamont Branch in the murder of Josephs. They said that Branch had forced his way into the apartment and shot him.
When arrested, Branch, 23, told police that he had been told there was a problem at the apartment and when he approached the door, he heard a gunshot. He said he entered the apartment and found Josephs had been shot. He said he yelled for someone to call 9-1-1 and left the apartment.
By the time Branch went to trial in April 1990, members of Branch's family had told his defense lawyer that the killer was Branch's brother, Lorenzo, and that Lorenzo had admitted to the killing. One family member, a sister, said she had concealed a weapon at Lorenzo's request.
At trial, Green and Edwards identified Lamont Branch as the killer. Although Branch's lawyer told the jury in his opening statement that witnesses would testify that his brother was the killer, by the time the prosecution rested, all of the family members had either refused to testify or disappeared. The jury deliberated for two days—announcing twice it was deadlocked—before convicting Branch of second degree murder, second degree burglary and criminal possession of a weapon.
Branch was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
It was then that his family members became pro-active in trying to show that Lorenzo Branch was the killer. Requests to vacate the conviction were denied, however, in March 1993 and May 1994.
In July 1994, Lorenzo Branch, in the presence of his mother, gave a statement to a Legal Aid attorney that he had tried to enter the victim's apartment, but was refused. Ultimately, Josephs opened the door and pointed a gun at Lorenzo. A struggle ensued and the gun went off, killing Joseph, Lorenzo said.
Lorenzo provided a more detailed version that was video-taped in December 1994, though he refused to give it under oath. In 1997, Lamont Branch obtained another post-trial hearing, but Lorenzo invoked his right against self-incrimination and refused to testify.
The motion for a new trial was denied.
In October 2001, one of the original trial witnesses, Shorn Green, recanted and said she had lied to implicate Lamont Branch. Green told the New York Times that she had been given $20 in compensation each time she came to the police station for questioning. She said she had not been at the scene at all.
In March 2002, at another post-trial hearing, Lorenzo Branch finally testified under oath and admitted he had killed Josephs. Thomas Edwards, the other prosecution witness who had implicated Lamont Branch, also recanted.
On September 10, 2002, Justice James Starkey vacated Lamont Branch's convictions and then Branch pleaded guilty to possession of a gun. He was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison, given credit for time served and released.
At the sentencing hearing, Lamont Branch testified that he and his brother were both drug dealers and that Lorenzo and another man, John Green, had begun dealing with Josephs until a dispute arose over $5,000 worth of cocaine. On the night of the shooting, Lamont Branch said, a neighbor came to him and said that Lorenzo and Green were pounding on Josephs' door.
Lamont Branch said he grabbed his own pistol and went there only to hear a shot as he got to the door. The door then opened and Lorenzo Branch and Green ran out.
Lorenzo Branch was not prosecuted.
– Maurice Possley