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Ronald Pondexter

Other New York Murder Cases with Mistaken Eyewitness Identifications
In March 1992, two men were robbed at gunpoint in the vestibule of an apartment building in Brooklyn, New York. When one of them refused to turn over his wallet and watch, the gunman shot both men. The man who resisted died. The other victim survived, but he was so drunk that he could not describe the robber.

In April 1992, 22-year-old Ronald Pondexter was arrested and charged with second degree murder, attempted murder, robbery and attempted robbery.

He went on trial in Kings County Supreme Court in February 1993. The surviving victim—despite his initial claim of being unable to recall his assailant—identified Pondexter as the gunman. The prosecution also called 19-year-old Sharon Valdez, a resident of the building where the crime occurred. She testified that she heard the gunshots and looked out her window to see Pondexter leaving the vestibule with a gun in his hand.

In Pondexter’s defense, attorney Michael Baum called Valdez’s mother, Shirley Hudson, who testified that she was awakened by the gunshots and went to check on her children—as she always did when she heard gunfire. Hudson testified that Sharon was asleep in her bed.

Before the case was concluded, Valdez reached out to Baum and said she had lied—that in fact she had not seen Pondexter. Valdez said that Detective Louis Scarcella had shown her Pondexter’s photograph and persuaded her that he was the gunman and coerced her to identify Pondexter.

Baum sought to call Valdez to the witness stand to recant her testimony in court. The judge appointed an attorney for Valdez and when she came to court, she said she would assert her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination in response to any questions. Baum asked that Valdez be required to assert the privilege in front of the jury, but that motion was denied. The judge also denied Baum’s request that Valdez’s testimony identifying Pondexter be stricken from the record.

On February 24, 1993, the jury convicted Pondexter of all the charges and he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

In June 1996, the New York Court of Appeals reversed the convictions and ordered a new trial. The appeals court held that the trial judge failed to conduct a proper inquiry to determine whether Valdez’s testimony should be stricken in light of her refusal to answer questions about her recantation.

“When the court is faced with a recantation of the crux of a key witness's testimony under the circumstances as they evolved in this case, the court must at least explore whether that witness has essentially ‘refused to testify on questions of matters so closely related to the commission of the crime that the entire testimony of the witness should be stricken,’” the Court of Appeals held—but no such an inquiry was conducted.

In May 1997, Pondexter went on trial a second time. Valdez did not testify—only the surviving robbery victim. A jury acquitted Pondexter and he was released.

In March 2013, Detective Scarcella came under scrutiny for coercing false testimony from witnesses in the conviction of David Ranta, who had been wrongfully convicted of a 1990 murder in Brooklyn.

A few months after Ranta was exonerated, The New York Times published an article accusing Scarcella, who retired in 1999, of a variety of misconduct in many investigations: fabricating evidence, coercing witnesses and concealing evidence of defendants’ innocence. The article reported that one witness, Teresa Gomez, a crack addict, had testified as an eyewitness in six separate murder cases. The report prompted the Brooklyn Conviction Integrity Unit to begin to re-investigate 57 cases in which Scarcella was involved.  The inquiry was later expanded to more than 70 cases.
 
On May 6, 2014, Kings County District Attorney Ken Thompson, who defeated Hynes in his bid for re-election in the fall of 2013, announced that as a result of the Integrity Unit’s investigation, the murder convictions of Darryl Austin, Alvena Jennette and Robert Hill—all Scarcella cases—should be vacated and the charges dismissed.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/2/2014
State:New York
County:Kings
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder, Robbery, Attempt, Violent
Reported Crime Date:1992
Convicted:1993
Exonerated:1997
Sentence:25 to life
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:22
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No