In the early morning hours of May 27, 1977, Dr. David Doktor left his home in Paterson, New Jersey, on an emergency call. As he approached his car, he was attacked, beaten with a pipe and kicked and his wallet was ripped from his pocket. Horrified neighbors who heard the assault called police, but Doktor died.
Minutes later, not far away, a man called police to report that three men had robbed him on the street. Police saturated the area and soon arrested 19-year-old Lawrence Simmons, who was spotted walking along the street. Police also arrested two other men in the area—David Wilson and Donald Phillips.
By the next day, Wilson had given a statement to police saying that he and Simmons and Phillips were out looking for a car to steal when they saw Doktor. According to police, Wilson said that he acted as a lookout while Simmons punched Doktor and then Phillips clubbed him with a pipe. Wilson said Simmons kicked Doktor in the head and ripped his wallet—which had no money—from his pocket. Wilson also said that he and Simmons and Phillips were responsible for the other robbery near where Doktor was slain.
Simmons, who had first been arrested at age 9 and had been convicted of robbery and escaped from custody, was charged with Doktor’s murder and the other robbery. He was tried separately from Phillips in Passaic County Criminal Court in the fall of 1977. Wilson was granted immunity and the charges against him were dismissed.
The crime was, at the time, one of the most shocking in Paterson. Wilson provided graphic testimony about how Simmons and Phillips assaulted and beat Doktor to death.
Simmons testified in his own behalf and denied being involved. He said he had spent the night trying to smooth over a quarrel between his sister and his mother. His sister, he said, was living with Phillips. He said that while he was there, Wilson and another man he didn’t know came over and then Phillips, Wilson and the third man left. He said he was walking home when he was arrested.
On November 8, 1977, Simmons was convicted of the murder and the robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison. Phillips was convicted in a separate trial and sentenced to life in prison.
Thirteen years passed before Simmons' case was heard on appeal—a convoluted and tortuous legal journey. Simmons didn’t discover until 1980 that no notice of appeal had been filed. He filed numerous motions in state and federal court seeking permission to appeal. Finally, in 1988, a federal judge ruled that Simmons could appeal his convictions.
But by that time, the transcript in the case was nearly destroyed—eaten by vermin and water-damaged during asbestos removal at the courthouse. The prosecution—rather than appeal the ruling ordering a new trial unless the transcript was reconstructed—set about to get a new transcript together.
Meanwhile, in 1985, Wilson, who had been convicted of an unrelated robbery and sentenced to 60 years in prison, recanted his testimony against Simmons, saying he had lied. Simmons filed a motion for a new trial and an evidentiary hearing was held, where Wilson again recanted. The judge, however, refused to believe the recantation and denied the motion.
Simmons’ appeal of the robbery and murder convictions was finally heard by the New Jersey Court of Appeals in 1990 and the convictions were upheld. Simmons then sought further review in federal court by filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. It was denied.
But in 1995, the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that Simmons had asserted a serious claim that prosecutors had used race-based challenges to dismiss black prospective jurors from his 1977 trial. Because court personnel had been unable to retrieve the jury selection transcript in the reconstruction of the trial record, Simmons was granted a new trial. He declined a plea bargain and insisted he was innocent.
Simmons went on trial for a second time in 1996. Wilson recanted his accusation against Simmons at this trial. But a mistrial was declared when the jury deadlocked with eight jurors voting to convict and four jurors voting to acquit.
Simmons had clashed with his lawyer and asked for new counsel. His lawyer asked to be replaced and a new lawyer came onto the case. Simmons went on trial for a third time in 1998. At this trial, Wilson recanted his recantation. Simmons’ defense lawyer noted that prior to his recanting the recantation, Wilson had written to prosecutors asking for their help in obtaining parole and some money to get back on his feet.
This trial ended in a mistrial on November 6, 1998 after the jury deliberated for 40 hours and again deadlocked. The vote was the same: 8 jurors wanted to convict and four voted to acquit.
Simmons’ lawyer filed a motion to dismiss the murder case and lost. The robbery conviction and the denial of the motion to dismiss were then appealed. On June 7, 2000, the New Jersey Court of Appeals upheld the robbery conviction and dismissed the murder charge in the interest of justice.
The court said, “We think it plain that since the prosecutor has twice, once nineteen years after the crime and once twenty years after the crime, failed to obtain a conviction, there is little likelihood that he will on a third attempt…. (W)e are satisfied that the likelihood of a conviction following a fair retrial is altogether too remote to warrant yet another prosecution almost a quarter of a century after the crime was committed.”
Simmons maintained that he was innocent of the robbery as well and that Wilson falsely implicated him in that case.
“If he is innocent, this protracted incarceration would be tragic and unjust in the extreme,” the Appeals Court said. “If he is guilty, he can be regarded as having served his time. Another trial in all these circumstances is not likely to serve the interests of justice.”
The prosecution declined to appeal the ruling and Simmons was released in 2000, 23 years after his conviction.
– Maurice Possley