On June 1, 1970, William Powell and an accomplice robbed an armored truck outside of a check-cashing business on Fulton Street in Brooklyn, New York. Powell fatally shot the truck’s driver, 40-year-old Edward Kargman. Powell’s accomplice knocked a guard, Jose Ruiz, unconscious with a sawed-off shotgun.
Powell was arrested not long after the crime and ultimately pleaded guilty to murder.
Nearly a year after the murder, a drug addict and convicted felon named John Snider, in an apparent attempt to cash in on a reward offered by Kargman’s widow, told authorities that Powell had two accomplices, both of whom he knew. Snider said the man with the shotgun was 30-year-old James Walker. The other accomplice, Snider said, was Melvin Givens.
On April 23, 1971, Walker was arrested and put in a lineup where Ruiz not only failed to identify him, but selected a police officer who was acting as filler in the lineup.
The case took another hit when the lead detective, Robert Powell, and the prosecutor on the case, Paul Zsuffa, discovered that Givens was in jail on Rikers Island on the day of the crime.
Nonetheless, in June 1971, Snider went before a grand jury, where he identified Walker and made no mention of Givens. Walker was then indicted.
At a pre-trial hearing, Detectives Powell and Zsuffa both testified. Powell said he could not recall if Walker was ever in a lineup and Zsuffa denied there had ever been a lineup.
Walker went on trial before a jury in Kings County Supreme Court in October 1971. The prosecution did not disclose the information about Givens, nor did they disclose that Ruiz had identified the wrong man in the lineup.
Snider and Ruiz both testified and identified Walker as Powell’s partner in the robbery and murder. Powell was called as a witness and testified that Walker was not with him during the crime, but he declined to identify his partner by name.
On October 19, 1971, the jury convicted Walker of murder and he was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.
While being held in the Brooklyn House of Detention before and during his trial, Walker met Susan Yankowitz, an award-winning playwright and novelist who was putting on a play behind bars with prisoners doing the acting. Walker played a part in the play (about a ghetto preacher) and afterward, he told Yankowitz he was innocent and asked if he could write to her. That led to a correspondence that lasted for the next two decades and ultimately to Walker’s freedom. During his years in prison, Walker’s wife, mother, father and brother all died.
Seventeen years after they first met, Yankowitz went to visit Walker in prison for the first time since they had worked on the play together in the Brooklyn House of Detention. Yankowitz was so moved by seeing Walker again that she soon found herself describing his case over dinner to a friend’s husband, attorney Douglas Liebhafsky.
Liebhafsky spent the next two years working pro bono on Walker’s case. He discovered how the prosecutor and detective had hidden exculpatory evidence and how Zsuffa had lied during the pre-trial hearing and allowed Ruiz and Snider to give false testimony at Walker’s trial.
In January 1990, Liebhafsky moved for an order vacating Walker’s conviction. On June 27, 1990, the Kings County District Attorney’s Office agreed not to oppose the motion and the conviction was vacated. The case was dismissed and Walker was released.
Liebhafsky later filed a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit against the State of New York on Walker’s behalf. The lawsuit was settled in 1993 for $3.5 million.
– Maurice Possley