Around 2:00 a.m. on November 18, 1990, a group of young men were passing by two other young men in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, when two of them bumped shoulders. Words were exchanged and the two men were joined by others, one of whom was wearing an orange jacket.
The man in the orange jacket pulled a gun and shot at a nearby building, then handed the gun to a companion who shot into the group, killing Javier Beuno and wounding a man named Rudy Quesada.
The shooters then fled. Police responded to 911 calls and several minutes later took Louis Rojas into custody at a PATH train station on Ninth Street. Rojas, 18, was wearing a reversible jacket colored burgundy on the outside and orange on the inside. Police made him reverse the jacket so that the orange side was on the outside and put him in handcuffs. An eyewitness to shooting was rushed to the station and identified Rojas as the man who had fired the shot into the building and then handed the gun to a man in a green jacket who fired the shots that killed Bueno and wounded Quesada.
Police then took Rojas to the scene of the crime. There police showed him to other eyewitnesses while at the same time allowing the initial eyewitness to repeatedly point at Rojas and tell the others that Rojas was the man who had fired the first shot. These witnesses then identified Rojas. The initial eyewitness and many of the other witnesses had been drinking and were very emotional. Rojas was taken into custody and the following day was put into a line-up along with fillers who were clean cut police academy cadets. Again, he was identified.
Rojas’ lawyer, David Fronefield, met with him once – for 30 minutes before trial—and spent most of the time encouraging him to take a plea bargain.
At trial the prosecution relied on the testimony of eyewitnesses, whose number had grown to seven. Rojas, a high school student from Union City, N.J., with an exemplary record, had told his lawyer that he was waiting to take a train back to New Jersey after having dinner with a friend, but the lawyer failed to present the alibi evidence. When an officer testified about a description that had been given that did not match Rojas, his attorney argued with the officer trying to get the officer to say Rojas was more like the description than the officer was testifying. He referred to the man in the orange jacket, the perpetrator, using Rojas’ name over and over. During his summation he argued that Rojas had been at the scene and had a gun but did not fire any shots.
On February 26, 1992 Rojas was convicted by a jury in New York County Supreme Court of second degree murder and related offenses. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
A retired lawyer, Priscilla Chenoweth, then editor of The New Jersey Law Journal, took an interest in the case after reading an article about Rojas in a New Jersey newspaper. She spoke with his teachers—all of whom believed Rojas was innocent—and went to meet with Rojas at Rikers Island Jail.
Using $50,000 of her retirement savings, Chenoweth hired former police officers to investigate the case. They discovered the key eyewitness had identified the wrong man as the man in the green jacket. They located a new eyewitness who was in a store near the shooting and who said Rojas was not either of the shooters. They timed the run from the scene to the train station and found that it would have been nearly impossible for Rojas to cover that ground in the time between the shooting and the arrest. Finally, they found a police officer at the PATH station who remembered Rojas waiting at the station at the time of the shooting.
On July 20, 1995 Rojas was granted a new trial by the New York Appellate Department based on ineffective assistance of counsel, going so far as to say, “It almost appears, at times, that Mr. Fronefield acted as a second prosecutor.” The appeals court also excluded the identifications made at the scene of the crime and in the lineup based on improper identification procedures.
“The fillers were police cadets, clean shaven, crew-cut and neat, on the way to the academy after a good night’s sleep,” the court wrote. “The suspect, on the other hand, had normal length hair, had been up all night, and (was) no doubt, disheveled and probably looking the worse for wear.”
In July of 1995 Rojas was released on bail. He was tried again and acquitted by a jury in the New York County Supreme Court on October 23, 1998. He later received an $850,000 settlement from the state and repaid Mrs. Chenoweth.
— Michael S. Perry