At 9:30 a.m. on April 9, 1994, 24-year-old James Abbott Jr. was beaten, kicked and fatally stabbed seven times shortly after he walked out of a grocery store in Far Rockaway, a neighborhood in Queens, New York.
The sole eyewitness to the murder was Andrew Carter, a 41-year-old man who was confined to a wheel chair because he had been shot years earlier by police while committing and armed robbery. His first description was scant—two black men, one taller, one shorter—and he said both fled on foot. A supermarket bag containing groceries was found by Abbott’s body.
Police went to the grocery store and asked employees if any remembered Abbott, but got nowhere. Linda Sanchez, a 19-year-old cashier, said she didn’t see anything.
But on May 13, 1994, Sanchez called the police to tell them that a person whom she saw with Abbott just prior to the stabbing was standing outside and gave a description of what he was wearing. She remembered, she said, because the man had been trying to buy beer on Sunday, a day when the sale of liquor is prohibited.
That man, 26-year-old Kareem Bellamy, who lived three blocks away from the store and shopped there almost daily, was picked up for drinking a beer in public. During the ride to the precinct, police claimed Bellamy said, “This must be a mistake—somebody must have accused me of murdering someone.”
On May 14, 1994, Bellamy appeared in a live line-up and was identified as the killer by Carter. Sanchez identified Bellamy as one of the people she saw following Abbott just prior to his murder. Bellamy was charged with murder and criminal possession of a weapon.
At trial both Carter and Sanchez identified Bellamy, though Carter admitted he initially picked someone other than Bellamy out of the line-up. He explained the mistake by saying that Bellamy did not have his hair in braids on the day of the murder, but his hair was braided when he was in the line-up.
The comment police said Bellamy made after he was picked up was offered to show that he had been involved in the murder.
Bellamy’s father testified that he was home, watching “Soul Train,” at the time of the crime.
On December 13, 1995, after four days of deliberation, the jury (some of whom where weeping) acquitted Bellamy of intentional murder, but convicted him of depraved indifference murder and criminal possession of a weapon. . He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
The conviction was upheld by the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division on February 2, 1998.
In 2006, Bellamy’s lawyers uncovered a police report that had never been turned over to the defense. The report documented a telephone call from a woman named Anna Simmons telling police that someone else committed the crime.
Simmons worked in the neighborhood where the murder occurred and called the police six days after the murder to say she had information about the crime. According to the police report, she said she overheard two gang members bragging about having killed Abbott. She identified them as Levon “Ishmael” Melvin and Rodney Harris and provided their addresses.
A detective obtained photos of Melvin and Harris and put them in photo line-ups for Carter and Sanchez, but neither witness recognized them. Police made no further attempt to investigate Melvin and Harris.
Bellamy’s lawyers also discovered that police had failed to disclose that Sanchez had initially said she saw nothing, and her statement that she remembered Bellamy because he was trying to buy beer on a Sunday. That second statement would have been valuable impeachment because her memory clearly was wrong—the crime occurred on a Saturday.
They also learned that Sanchez was reluctant to testify at the trial because she realized the mistake. Eighteen months after the crime, she suddenly remembered that Bellamy had come into the store and told her she was “next” if she said anything to police.
Further, they learned that while Sanchez testified she had received only $50 in assistance for housing, in fact, she had been promised a rent-free apartment for life. Ultimately, she received $6,000 in housing payments until the free apartment became available.
They also discovered that police had hidden reports showing that after his arrest, Bellamy said he was with a friend named Terrell Lee. The officers showed Sanchez a photograph of Lee and he identified Lee as the second person with Bellamy. When the officers discovered that Lee had a solid alibi, they discarded him as a suspect, but never told the defense that Sanchez had misidentified him
The lawyers also tracked down Carter, who recanted his identification of Bellamy and said the police officers had promised him a motel room and drugs if he identified Bellamy and then helped him correct his mistake when he first selected filler in the live line-up.
On October 3, 2007, a petition for a state writ of habeas corpus was filed and a hearing began in 2007. After a series of hearings over nine months, Bellamy’s lawyers enlisted the aid of retired FBI Agent Joseph O’Brien and former New York police detective Eddie Henson.
Both men began canvassing the neighborhood where the shooting occurred. Eventually Henson was approached by Michael Green, who had been an informant for Henson in the past. He told them that Melvin killed Abbott.
Green said Melvin, whom he knew for more than 40 years, told him this because Melvin was upset that Harris had been talking to the investigators and said nothing to Melvin. Melvin was concerned that Harris might be “giving him up.” Green said Melvin told him he stabbed Abbott because Abbott was trying to get involved with Melvin’s girlfriend, Yolanda “Yo-Yo” Dove. Green said Melvin also told him he feared Harris might be giving him up since Harris was present at the time of the crime.
Green was called to testify at the habeas hearing and said he had three conversations Melvin, and that the third was tape recorded. Green provided the recording which he claimed contained the voice of Melvin making the confession.
On June 27, 2008, the New York Supreme Court granted the petition and vacated Bellamy’s conviction. On August 14, 2008, Bellamy was released on bond pending a new trial.
The prosecution petitioned for leave to renew their opposition and to reopen the hearing, which was granted. At the renewed hearing the prosecution offered testimony from Green retracting his testimony and admitting that he faked the audio recording as well as testimony from the person who said he had pretended to be Melvin on the tape.
The Supreme Court ruled that the tape had been faked, but credited Green’s original testimony that Melvin had confessed to him in previous conversations. The court did not believe Green’s recantation and on January 14, 2010, the court re-affirmed its earlier ruling vacating the conviction.
The state appealed and on May 24, 2011, the Supreme Court Appellate Division upheld the decision. The appellate court found that Green’s original “unsolicited implication” of Melvin was truthful, regardless of Green’s later recantation of the statements. Particularly, Green’s implication of the same people who were implicated in Simmons’ telephone call—Melvin and Harris—could have raised a reasonable doubt in jurors’ minds, the court ruled.
On September 16, 2011, the prosecution dismissed the charges.
In March 2012, Bellamy filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against New York City and the police officers in the case. The lawsuit was still pending in May 2015 when, separately, the New York Court of Claims awarded Bellamy $2.75 million.
– Maurice Possley