Shortly after 5 a.m. on October 17, 1987, police were summoned to an assault in progress in front of a Dunkin’ Donuts on College Point Avenue in Queens, New York.
William Clarke, who was white, told officers that as he was walking to his car, he was robbed by four black men, one of whom was wearing dark jeans and a Ninja mask. The man drew a knife, robbed him of his wallet containing $1,500, and fled. Clarke said that before the man fled, he took off the mask, allowing him to see his face. He said that when he came back to his car, he saw three men apparently breaking in and he chased them into the Dunkin’ Donuts and locked the door until police arrived.
Clarke identified the robber as a man he knew only by the name “Screwgie.” The three men in the Dunkin’ Donuts were arrested.
Later that day, an officer in the robbery investigation unit saw the complaint and knew that “Screwgie” referred to Clinton Turner.
Clarke was re-interviewed and gave a different account of the robbery, saying that he was robbed after he saw some men breaking into his car. He said he chased one of them, who was wearing a mask, into a public housing project and confronted him.
Clarke said the man pulled out a knife and demanded his wallet.
Clarke said he kicked the man and his mask came off. Clarke said he then left because there were too many people gathering.
Police brought Turner in and put him in a lineup, where Clarke identified him as the robber. Turner was charged with armed robbery and grand larceny.
Prior to trial, Turner’s lawyer requested from the prosecution the name of any person who was to be called as a witness who was known to have, or with due diligence could be found to have a criminal record. The prosecution failed to respond to the request.
At trial, Clarke gave yet another version. He said that he had parked his car at about 4:45 a.m. to stop in a bar to look for some friends. When they were not there, he returned to his car, but saw someone rooting in the glove compartment. Clarke said the man saw him coming and fled and that he gave chase.
Clarke identified Turner as the man who fled, and said Turner dashed into a building and when Clarke entered, began slashing at Clark with a butcher knife without a handle. Clarke said Turner, who had thrown a hood over his head, grabbed a chain hooked to Clarke’s pants and his wallet and demanded his money.
He said Turner ripped the wallet from his back pocket and ordered him to take off his pants. Clarke said he then kicked Turner in the chest, causing the hood to come off, and that he then left. He said his wallet contained less than $100—not the $1,500 he had originally reported.
When he returned to his car, Clarke said he saw three other men in his car and who fled when he arrived. He said he picked up a pipe and chased them into the Dunkin’ Donuts where he locked the door and called police.
Clarke denied that he had ever been convicted of a crime and denied that he knew Turner.
Turner testified in his own behalf, denying that he had robbed Clarke. He said he had met Clarke in March of 1987 in a park in that neighborhood and sold him drugs. Turner admitted that he was using crack and heroin at the time.
He testified that he knew Clarke’s car because he had been in it on several occasions and had even been to Clarke’s home on one occasion. He said he sold Clarke drugs about three times a week, though he admitted he sometimes substituted bread crumbs or grits and kept the real drugs for himself.
The day before the alleged robbery, Turner said he sold Clarke four vials with crack and four vials filled with fake drugs.
Turner said Clarke confronted him over the fake drugs and he told Clarke that was the way the drugs were sold to him in the first place. He admitted that he had been convicted in the past for stealing wallets and jeans and that he bought the drugs to sell to Clarke through a hole in the door of an apartment in the projects.
During closing argument, Turner’s attorney argued that Clarke was not credible because he had changed his account of the robbery several times. He suggested that Clarke had concocted the incident because he was angry over buying fake drugs.
The prosecution contended that Clarke was credible and Turner—a convicted felon, drug seller and drug user—was not believable.
The jury convicted Turner on August 15, 1987 and he was sentenced to two concurrent terms of 10 to 20 years in prison.
Turner’s conviction was upheld on appeal in 1992.
Not long after, Turner’s wife ran into Clarke and told him that Turner had been sentenced to 10 to 20 years. Clarke told her that the robbery story was not true and that he had tried to avoid testifying, but the prosecution had him under subpoena.
In 1993, Turner filed a post-conviction petition seeking a new trial, based upon newly discovered evidence. He submitted an affidavit from Clarke stating that at the time of the robbery he was addicted to crack cocaine and abused alcohol. He said he had lied when he said he had never been arrested or convicted—in fact, he had been convicted of burglary, possession of a weapon, criminal mischief and car stripping.
Clark admitted that he bought drugs from Turner and that he invented the robbery because of an altercation about drugs. He said he had cleaned up his life and wanted to make amends for his lies.
The state submitted an affidavit from the prosecutor saying that Clarke had said he no convictions. The prosecutor said he had not run a rap sheet on Clarke. On November 15, 1993, Turner’s petition was denied without a hearing.
In 1995, the dismissal was upheld on appeal and Turner filed another petition, this time alleging that the prosecution had failed to turn over evidence of Clarke’s prior convictions.
That petition was dismissed in 1996 without a hearing.
In 1997, Turner filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. He also was paroled that year.
On July 21, 2004, U.S. District Judge Nina Gershon for the Eastern District of New York granted the petition and vacated Turner’s conviction. The judge ruled that the prosecution had violated Brady v. Maryland, which requires that exculpatory evidence be provided to the defense. Further, the judge said the prosecutor had testimony that he should have known to be false.
On January 5, 2005, the charges were dismissed in Queens County Criminal Court.
In 2007, Turner settled a wrongful conviction lawsuit against the City of New York for $187,000.
– Maurice Possley