On August 30, 1971, Juanita Miranda called police and reported a shooting in front of her apartment building in Brooklyn, New York. Juanita said her ex-husband, Felix, had been wounded and that another man, Jose Moreno, was dead. She said the gunman was 20-year-old Larry Gurley.
Later that day, Gurley turned himself in and claimed that he had been attacked by Felix who pulled a gun. Gurley said that Felix was angry at him because he would not give the address of a friend, Robert Stuckew, who allegedly had impregnated Juanita. In fact, Gurley said, about a week earlier, Felix shot him in the right arm for refusing to provide the information. Gurley had been hospitalized and had a cast on his right arm (he was right-handed) stretching from his shoulder to his hand.
On the day of the shooting, Gurley was invited to the apartment of Beulah Gowins, who lived in the apartment above Juanita. While he was there, Felix and another man came in and spoke in Spanish to Gowins, who then told Gurley, “I do not want any trouble in my house. Would you please leave?”
Gurley said that the man with Felix had already left the apartment. Gurley said that he walked down the stairs and saw the other man waiting at the side of the stairs in the lobby. Felix pulled a gun and struck him in the head from behind. According to Gurley, he grabbed the gun and as he and Felix struggled, they fell down a flight of stairs and the gun discharged several times. One of the bullets struck Moreno, who had been outside and was coming into the lobby when he was shot. The other man fled and was never identified.
Gurley said he and Felix continued to struggle and fell into the street. The gun fell to the sidewalk. As Felix was kicking Gurley in the head, Gurley grabbed the gun and shot Felix, who then fled back into the building.
Juanita told police that after Gurley left the apartment, Felix and Moreno went downstairs and confronted Gurley on the street. She said Gurley drew a gun, shot both men and then fled.
Gurley was arrested and charged with murder and attempted murder. He went on trial in Kings County Supreme Court in March 1972. Juanita testified that at the time of the shooting, she was using narcotics at least four times a day and that she was pregnant with her fifth child. Felix was the father of her four children, but was not the father of the child she was carrying at the time. She said that Felix didn’t work, that he was a “stick-up artist” and that he usually carried guns with him. She testified that Gurley shot Felix and Moreno on the street.
The prosecution contended that Gurley had shot both men who were standing in an elevated position on the building’s front stoop. A medical examiner testified that the bullet that killed Moreno entered in the chest and traveled downward. The bullet, he said, was a .25-caliber slug.
The defense called a ballistics expert who testified that the downward path of the bullet supported Gurley’s account—that the bullet was fired down the stairs as he struggled with Felix. However, the prosecution, during cross-examination, forced the expert to agree that a .25-caliber bullet fired in an upward direction could have deflected downward as a result of striking a bone. The expert noted that if the bullet had been a .22-caliber slug, it would have shattered if it had struck a bone and, therefore, it would have to have been fired from a downward angle.
The expert, under cross-examination, also acknowledged that a .25-caliber slug could only be fired from a semi-automatic pistol that could only be fired multiple times—as Gurley said occurred during the struggle with Felix on the stairway—if the slide were physically shoved back and forth each time, an unlikely occurrence given the description of the struggle.
Gurley testified and provided the same account that he had given to police initially—that he was attacked by Felix and during a struggle over the gun—which he said was a revolver—and Moreno was shot. During the fight on the street, Gurley said he shot Felix in self-defense.
On March 27, 1972, a jury convicted Gurley of murder and attempted murder. He was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.
Gurley’s appeals over the next two decades failed. But in March 1991, as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request, Gurley obtained a copy of a ballistics report from the New York Police Department which had never been provided to his defense lawyer. The report said the bullet that struck Moreno was a .22-caliber bullet and the bullet was intact. Because the defense expert said that a .22 caliber bullet would have shattered if it was shot in an upward direction and deflected downward off a bone, the report supported Gurley’s account that the bullet was fired downward as he struggled on the stairs was true, and the prosecution’s theory that the bullet had been fired from the street in an upward direction and ricocheted downward after striking a bone in Moreno’s body was false.
Armed with the report, Gurley filed a post-conviction motion to vacate his convictions. A hearing was held and in May of 1992, Kings County Supreme Court Judge Edward Rappaport granted the motion. The judge held that the report backed up Gurley’s account of the shootings and that the prosecution had failed to disclose it to Gurley’s defense lawyer. Judge Rappaport vacated Gurley’s convictions and ordered a new trial. By that time, Gurley had been released on parole.
The Kings County District Attorney’s office appealed the ruling and in October 1993, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court upheld Rappaport’s ruling. On June 27, 1994, the prosecution dismissed the charges.
Gurley filed a lawsuit in the New York Court of Claims seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction which was settled for over $200,000.
– Maurice Possley