On December 21, 1986, four armed men entered Golden City Jewelers in Queens, New York, and robbed the store of $100,000 in jewelry.
Not long after the robbery, a confidential informant told police that three of the men who committed the robbery were George Rivera, Christopher Arthur and Kevin Moore. During the first two weeks of January 1987, all three were arrested and identified in lineups by Larry Taylor, a security guard at the store. After Rivera was identified, he told New York Police detective Phillip Fuhr that the fourth robber was 32-year-old Terrence Mason. Some of the jewelry was recovered in the apartment of Arthur’s girlfriend.
Mason was promptly arrested and Taylor identified him in a lineup. All four were charged with robbery. Rivera, Arthur and Moore pled guilty to robbery. Rivera and Arthur were sentenced to 4 to 8 years in prison while Moore was sentenced to 5 to 15 years.
Mason went on trial in June 1987 in Queens County Supreme Court. None of his co-defendants were called as witnesses. There was no physical or forensic evidence that linked him to the crime.
The store’s owner, Sam Rouhani, and a salesman, Mohammed Weiss, had not been asked to view Mason in a pretrial lineup and both said they could not recall any distinguishing features of the fourth man involved in the robbery. However, both men identified Mason in court. Mason was the only black man at the defense table.
Taylor, the security guard, gave an elaborate account of the robbery. He said that on the afternoon of the crime, Mason and three others came into the store. Mason told Taylor his name was “Gerard” and asked about the cost of a gold nameplate. Taylor said he told Mason the price was $550. When Mason said he only had $20, Taylor said that was not enough to start a layaway plan.
According to Taylor, Mason and the others left the store. Taylor said he went outside and saw Mason go to a public telephone. Mason and the other three men soon returned to the store and Mason said his wife wouldn’t give him any more money. Taylor told Mason that he could give the store owner the $20 and bring in more money later. At that point, Mason and the other three men drew their guns and robbed the store. Taylor testified that he had spoken with Mason for as much as 15 minutes in the two conversations.
The prosecution then called Detective Fuhr, who testified that after Rivera was identified in a lineup, he had a conversation with Rivera. Following the conversation, Fuhr said he arrested Mason. The prosecutor elicited this testimony even though the judge had cautioned the prosecutor against introducing any evidence of statements implicating Mason by the three co-defendants who had pled guilty. Mason’s defense lawyer did not object to Fuhr’s testimony and did not object later on when the prosecution emphasized that testimony in its final argument to the jury.
During deliberation, the jury asked that Fuhr’s testimony be read back, which it was without objection from Mason’s lawyer. After first reporting that they were deadlocked, the jury continued to deliberate. In June 1987, the jury convicted Mason of two counts of robbery. He was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison.
In preparing to appeal the conviction, a different lawyer asked Mason’s trial lawyer why he failed to object to Fuhr’s testimony and why he failed to cross-examine Taylor with a police report which included a detailed description of the robbery that was very different from Taylor’s trial testimony.
The police report, which was based on accounts from the other witnesses, said that the robbers walked in, drew their guns and robbed the store. One of the witnesses said that Rivera had seemed to be in charge of the heist and recalled that the day before the robbery, Rivera came in and placed an order with the store owner for a gold nameplate. There was no reference to any conversations with Mason or that any of the robbers had been in the store, left and then returned.
Mason’s trial lawyer said he “must not have noticed” the police report. He never said why he didn’t object to Fuhr’s testimony. In 1991, the New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division upheld the conviction. In the meantime, Mason filed a complaint with the New York State Bar Grievance Committee citing the lawyer’s failures. The complaint was dismissed.
In 1993, Mason filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, claiming that his attorney provided ineffective legal assistance because he did not object to Fuhr’s testimony and failed to use the police report of the robbery to undercut Taylor’s testimony.
In September 1993, U.S. District Court Judge Edward R. Korman granted the petition, vacated Mason’s convictions and ordered a new trial. The court held that the failure to object to Fuhr's testimony and to the prosecution’s focus on that testimony in closing argument was sufficient to require a new trial. The court also said that the lawyer’s failure to impeach Taylor was a significant error because “all but one of the eyewitness identifications wasn’t worth very much and the one (Taylor) that arguably the jury was more impressed with could have been subject in my judgment to very damaging cross-examination.”
In February 1994, the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld Korman’s ruling. In March 1994, Mason was released on bond pending a retrial. In November 1995, the Queens County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the case.
Mason later filed a complaint in the New York Court of Claims seeking compensation, but the complaint was dismissed.
– Maurice Possley