Shortly after 4 p.m. on June 14, 1983, John Choi and a friend, Jae Hark Kim, were about to get on the subway at Nostrand and Church Avenues in Brooklyn when a group of black men robbed them at knifepoint. Choi was fatally stabbed in the chest.
A man selling pantyhose outside the subway entrance saw the attackers flee and spotted a knife on the subway stairs. He picked it up by grasping it with a piece of cellophane.
Kim, who was 5 feet, 4 inches tall, told police at first that the man who stabbed Choi was six feet tall and then, in a second interview with a detective, he said the stabber was 5 feet, 9 inches tall.
He also gave a statement to a prosecutor that was tape recorded in which he described the stabber as a “tall guy.”
Several other people who saw men running from the subway gave varying descriptions of their heights, ranging from 5 feet, 5 inches to six feet.
An off-duty cab driver said that about 4:45 p.m., three black men, all of them out of breath, got into his cab a few blocks from the subway entrance and demanded to be driven to Flatbush Avenue because they had “a problem.” When he said he was off-duty, one of them pushed $4 through the slot in the plexi-glass divider and so he drove them to Flatbush Avenue where they got out and walked away. The cab driver told police that the men were speaking Spanish and were all between 5 feet, 8 inches and 5 feet, 10 inches tall.
Another witness told police that he saw three men run from the subway and that he knew them to be pickpockets who worked in that area. He viewed police mug shots and identified Lenny Best, Joseph Ross and Ronald Blanding.
On June 15, police arrested Best and were taking him to a police station when he escaped from their patrol car and they could not find him. No police report of the escape was ever made. Police instead changed their report to show that the witness had identified Ross, Blanding and Eric Tidwell—although it was later shown that Tidwell was in jail at the time of the crime.
Police found Ross and brought him in for questioning. He said he was in the area of the subway station shortly before the crime with Mark Best—the brother of Lenny Best—but that he left before the crime occurred.
On June 16, police picked up Mark Best. During questioning, Best went from being a potential suspect to a witness when he told police he was at the subway station and saw 19-year-old Cy Greene, whom he knew, stab Choi and flee. Best then picked out a photograph of Greene for police and told them where Greene lived.
On June 21, 1983, Greene was arrested, despite his claim that he was in another part of Brooklyn with his sister-in-law at the time of the crime. Larry Williams, who was visiting Greene, also was arrested. While they were in a holding cell, police brought Kim so he could view them prior them being put in a lineup.
Kim then identified both men in a lineup in which all the participants were sitting down.
Williams and Greene were indicted on June 24, 1983 on charges of second degree murder and robbery.
In May 1985, they went on trial and Kim was the sole prosecution witness to identify Greene.
The defense contended that Greene was innocent because he was 5 feet, 2 inches tall—as much as 10 inches shorter than Kim’s initial description. Prosecutors argued that Kim made an error because he was of Korean descent and only understood measurements of height in terms of meters and centimeters.
On May 8, 1985, Greene was convicted of second degree murder and robbery. Williams was acquitted of murder and convicted of robbery. On May 31, 1985, Greene was sentenced to concurrent terms of 15 years to life on the second degree murder conviction and two to six years on the robbery conviction. Williams also was sentenced to prison.
On April 2, 1990, the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division upheld Greene’s conviction.
Greene eventually enlisted the help of attorney Myron Beldock, who had helped exonerate Rubin “Hurricane” Carter of a murder conviction in 1985 and later helped exonerate one of the men wrongfully convicted in the Central Park jogger case.
By then, Williams, who had been paroled in 1994, was in federal custody and later convicted of operating a cocaine distribution ring in the Bronx and sentenced to prison again. He did not pursue an innocence claim for the robbery conviction.
In December 2003, Beldock filed a petition for a state writ of habeas corpus. The petition alleged that prior to Greene’s trial, the prosecution provided the defense with a redacted transcript of Kim’s audio-taped interview which omitted Kim’s statement that the stabber was “a tall guy.”
The petition alleged that prosecutors and police had withheld from the defense that the name of Eric Tidwell had been substituted for the name of Lenny Best after Best escaped the police patrol car, as well as evidence that other witnesses in addition to Kim described the men as taller than Greene, and said that they spoke Spanish—which Greene did not.
The petition also alleged that Greene’s trial attorney had failed to investigate the case to find witnesses who would have testified that the men seen fleeing the subway were all taller than 5 feet, 2 inches.
Subsequently, Greene requested a DNA test on the knife that was recovered at the crime scene. A test detected DNA on the knife that was not Choi’s and was not Greene’s. In addition, Mark Best recanted his identification of Greene in a sworn affidavit.
On January 4, 2006, Judge Michael Pesce set aside Greene’s conviction, ruling that Greene had received ineffective assistance of counsel, and ordered Green released from prison. The prosecution appealed the decision and on February 13, 2007, the trial court decision was upheld. The prosecution’s motion for leave to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals was denied and on June 11, 2007, the Kings County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges.
After the dismissal, Greene filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against police officers and the city of New York. It was still pending in 2012.
– Maurice Possley