In April 1996, Joseph Foster was shot and killed in the hallway of his Brooklyn, New York apartment building. One witness said she saw 16-year-old Jonathan Wheeler-Whichard argue with Foster, pull out an object and point it at him. She said she then heard shots and saw Foster fall to the ground, and she claimed that Wheeler-Whichard threatened her as he left the scene through the back door. A second witness testified that Wheeler-Whichard confessed to him as he passed him in the stairwell, and that earlier in the day he had vowed revenge for a fight he had had with Foster years earlier. These witnesses both testified at trial. Wheeler-Whichard’s defense attorney failed to highlight the inconsistencies between the accounts of the two witnesses, and did not cross-examine the witnesses about the inconsistencies between their testimony and earlier statements. Wheeler-Whichard said he was in an elevator in the building with friends at the time of the shooting, but his attorney failed to call any of them to support his alibi. In May 1997, a jury convicted Wheeler-Whichard of second-degree murder and criminal possession of a weapon, and he was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison.
Wheeler-Whitchard lost his initial appeal, but the case continued to bother his appellate attorney. A decade after the conviction, Wheeler-Whitchard personally filed a petition to reopen the case, and a trial court judge reappointed his appellate lawyer to represent him. At a hearing in 2009, she presented evidence that one of the prosecution’s two main witnesses at trial had recanted and that the other had lied, and called alibi witnesses for Wheeler-Whitchard, including a corrections officer. In July 2009, a New York Supreme Court judge found Wheeler-Whitchard innocent of the murder, vacated his conviction and dismissed the indictment.
- Stephanie Denzel