In August 1976, a police officer arriving at a check cashing agency in Newark, New Jersey during an armed robbery was shot and killed.
The robbers, who had been holding three people inside at gunpoint, then fled in a getaway car that was later found near the river. Inside the car police found several articles of clothing, one with blood matching that of the dead officer, and a .38 caliber shell. Two guns were recovered from the river, including the murder weapon.
Police arrested four men based on descriptions provided by witnesses and the guns found, including Vincent James Landano.
One of the other men arrested, Allan Roller, was identified by a witness as one of the robbers. Roller implicated Landano and a third man who had already been arrested, and testified against Landano in exchange for a deal with the prosecution to plead guilty to reduced charges.
A truck driver who saw the getaway car driving away from the scene identified Landano as the driver, but another witness who saw the car was unable to identify Landano. Despite Landano’s alibi evidence and differences between his appearance and that of the killer as described by witnesses, a jury convicted him of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and other related charges in June 1977 and he was sentenced to life in prison.
In 1981, his wife learned that the three men who had been arrested with Landano were suspects in additional armed robberies.
Landano enlisted the aid of Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based non-profit that investigates wrongful convictions. Centurion discoverd a report never shown to the defence that revealed the only eyewitness had identified someone else as the killer.
Interviewed by Centurion, the truck driver recanted his identification of Landano and admitted that he initially chose someone else from a photo array, but changed his identification after the prosecutor pressured him to identify Landano.
In July 1989, a federal district court judge granted Landano’s habeas corpus petition because the state’s failure to disclose exculpatory evidence denied him a fair trial, but the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision.
A subsequent Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI revealed additional exculpatory information that the prosecution had failed to disclose.
In 1994 the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court reversed Landano’s 1977 conviction and ordered a new trial. Landano was retried on the murder charge only and was acquitted by a jury in July 1998.
- Stephanie Denzel