On March 12, 1986, 32-year-old Tyrone Julius, an inmate at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, was stabbed while in the prison yard. He died 11 days later.
David Wong, a 23-year-old Chinese immigrant serving time for armed robbery, was charged with the murder after a prison guard believed he was behaving suspiciously near the scene of the crime. Another inmate, Peter Dellfava, claimed to have seen Wong stab the victim.
Wong went on trial in Clinton County Supreme Court in August 1987. Dellfava, who received a transfer to a lesser security prison as well as a recommendation that he be paroled in return for his testimony, told the jury that he saw Wong stab Julius in the neck with a five or six inch blade. The guard testified that he believed Wong was acting suspiciously near the stabbing. Wong was among more than 700 inmates who were in the yard at the time of the stabbing and all wore the same type of clothing.
Wong testified in his own defense, but his attorney agreed to a court interpreter who did not speak Wong’s dialect, leading to confusing testimony from Wong. Four other inmates testified and said they were with Wong at the time of the stabbing and that he was not involved in the murder.
On July 13, 1987, an all-white jury convicted Wong of murder and he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Following his conviction, Dellfava recanted and other witnesses came forward and identified inmate Nelson Gutierrez, who died in 2000, as the actual killer.
Based on the recantation, Wong was granted a hearing on a motion for a new trial. During the hearing, two other former Clinton Correctional inmates testified that Wong did not fatally stab Tyrone Julius. Dellfava testified, “I told them (police and the jury) that I'd seen David Wong go up behind someone and hit him. I didn't see any of it.”
Dellfava said he was in the recreation yard when the inmates became silent and a crowd of men parted. He said he saw the victim lying in the snow.
A few hours later, Dellfava said he was questioned by a guard and at first said the stabber was a black man. “I tried to work it anyway I could. He (the guard) said something like ‘It wasn’t an Oriental person?’ and I said okay it was.”
Asked by Clinton County District Attorney Richard Cantwell why he lied, Dellfava said, “To get the hell out of that prison.”
The defense also discovered that the prosecution had withheld a letter from the defense in which the prosecution recommended parole be granted to Dellfava.
The motion for new trial was denied, but in October 2004, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court overturned Wong’s conviction and granted him a new trial. The charges were dismissed in December 2004. Wong, who had entered the U.S. illegally as a teenager, was transferred to an immigration detention facility and deported to China the next year.
– Maurice Possley