At about 9 a.m. on September 12, 1988, 24-year-old Glenn Brown was attacked and beaten behind a public housing project in Newark, New Jersey. Brown was bludgeoned in the head and died two days later.
Brown’s cousin, Dwight Goines, said he had talked to Brown in front of the building moments earlier. After chatting, Brown walked to the rear of the building and Goines heard a gunshot. Goines said he saw a black man about 23 years old, six feet tall and weighing about 160 pounds fleeing on foot. Betty Shells, who saw the attack, said Brown was beaten with a pipe and that the attacker was a black man about 25 years old, six feet tall and of medium build.
Prior to the murder, Marie Robinson, a homeless heroin addict who frequented the neighborhood of the crime, pled guilty to drug charges. At the time she pled guilty, the judge in her case told her that he could sentence her to up to a year in jail and lengthy probation and that it was in her “best interest to tell the probation officer everything you want me to know about you as of a positive nature that will help me decide what should be done in this case.”
Eleven days after the murder, Robinson met with her probation officer and implicated 35-year-old Curtis Knight as Brown’s attacker. She said she had purchased drugs from Knight in the past.
Interviewed by police, Robinson said that she walked into the apartment building at 254 Prince Street and found Brown sleeping on a staircase. She said she woke Brown and he said he was high, had not slept in four days and that someone was looking for him. Robinson said she went outside and engaged in conversation with two other women, whom she knew as Hakima and Ms. Mohamid.
A few minutes later, according to Robinson, two men entered the building, followed by Knight. The two men dragged Brown out and to the rear of the building, where Knight hit him in the head with a pipe three or four times. She said gunshots were fired, Brown fell to the ground and the three men fled.
In March 1989, Knight and another man, Cesar Glen, were indicted by an Essex County grand jury on charges of murder and using a weapon. Knight could not be found and a federal warrant was issued for his arrest.
On October 25, 1989, an FBI agent arrested Knight in Palmdale, California. The agent said that Knight told him he had moved to California shortly after the attack on Brown because he heard word on the street that he was suspected of attacking Brown because Brown had stolen money from him. At the time of his arrest, the agent confiscated a pipe from Knight’s car.
Knight and Glen went on trial in Essex County Superior Court in March 1990. Robinson testified and identified Knight as the man who beat Brown. Prosecutors showed her the pipe that was found in Knight’s car and she said it looked like the pipe used to beat Brown.
The prosecution showed jurors a crime scene photograph of a cap bearing the logo “Pepsi-Cola Teterboro” and argued that it belonged to Knight after a Pepsi employee testified that Knight had worked at the Pepsi facility in Teterboro in 1985 and 1986. No witness, however, ever said the man who beat Brown was wearing a cap at all.
The FBI agent who arrested Knight said Knight told him that prior to the attack, Brown had robbed him. He said he and his girlfriend moved to California after the beating because he had heard friends of Brown were going to kill him because they suspected he had attacked Brown. The prosecution contended that Knight attacked Brown to avenge the robbery.
Goines testified for the defense and said that he rushed to the back of the building after hearing a shot and found his cousin, Brown. Goines testified that he did not see Knight or Robinson.
Knight’s girlfriend testified that after they moved to California, she had gone running and picked up the pipe to ward off a dog. Afterward, she put the pipe in the car and never used it again.
The jury acquitted Glen and convicted Knight of murder and using an illegal weapon. Knight was sentenced to 30 years in prison without parole.
In 1996, the New Jersey Appellate Division reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. The court ruled that the prosecution had withheld evidence favorable to Knight, including a statement by one of the women that Robinson said she was with at the time of the crime, claiming that in fact Robinson was not present. The prosecution also withheld a statement made at Robinson’s sentencing, when she received a sentence of time served and a small fine instead of a year in jail. At the sentencing, a prosecutor had urged leniency because Robinson was a witness against Knight. The prosecution also had concealed a statement from a witness who said that before he was attacked, Brown had killed another man—a statement the defense could have used to suggest that someone other than Knight was responsible for the murder.
The appellate court also ruled that Knight’s statement to the FBI agent should not have been introduced at his trial because Knight was not read his Miranda warnings before the statement was made.
Knight was released on bail pending a retrial. Prior to the trial, Knight reached out to Alvin Spearman, a former Newark police detective who became a private investigator. Spearman agreed to re-investigate the case for free and tracked down Robinson. She recanted her trial testimony and admitted she had not seen the attack on Brown. She said that police had told her what to say in court. She agreed to give a video-taped recantation to John McMahon, an Essex County public defender who was handling the retrial.
When the prosecution learned of the recantation, Robinson was brought before a grand jury—ostensibly to investigate whether her recantation was the result of intimidation by Knight. During her grand jury testimony, Robinson said she had seen Knight several times after his release because they lived near each other. She said that at one point, Knight approached her and asked her why she had lied and urged her to tell the truth at the retrial.
In July 1998, Knight went on trial for the second time. Robinson testified that she had not seen the attack and had no idea who was responsible. The prosecutor attacked her recantation by paraphrasing her grand jury testimony to suggest that Knight had intimidated her to change her story. The prosecution again relied on the hat with the Pepsi logo to link to the attack.
On July 7, 1998, the jury acquitted Knight of murder, but convicted him of aggravated manslaughter. Knight was sentenced to 24 years in prison.
In April 2001, the New Jersey Appellate Division reversed the conviction again, ruling that the prosecution had misled the jury about the contents of Robinson’s grand jury testimony. In fact, the court ruled, Robinson’s grand jury testimony indicated that she was not intimidated at all. The court also ruled that the prosecutor had engaged in improper argument to the jury that included misstatements of the evidence and references to facts that were not in evidence.
On October 17, 2001, the prosecution dismissed the case against Knight and he was released.
Knight later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against police and prosecutors. The lawsuit alleged that when Knight was arrested in California, the Pepsi cap was in his car and confiscated, although never inventoried. The lawsuit alleged that the prosecution and police had taken the hat back to the scene of the crime and photographed it to link Knight to the crime. The lawsuit claimed the hat, which was never offered into evidence, had been destroyed by police and that the officer had falsely testified that he found it at the scene and put it on the stretcher with Brown when he was taken to the hospital. The lawsuit, as well as a subsequent lawsuit filed in state court, was dismissed.
Knight died of a heart attack in 2006.
– Maurice Possley