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Rhian Taylor

Other Queens County, New York exonerations
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In the early morning hours of August 10, 2007, 22-year-old Darian Brown was fatally shot in his car in the Laurelton neighborhood of Queens, New York. A passenger, 23-year-old Wayne Peacock, was shot in the leg and survived.

Prior to the shooting, Brown, Peacock, and two other men—Seprel Turner and Anthony Hilton—were hanging out and decided to drive to a house party at 221st Street and 133rd Avenue in Queens. When they arrived, the party had ended and there were a number of people on the street.

Witnesses said they heard several shots. Brown, who was behind the wheel, was shot, as was Peacock. When Brown tried to drive away, he crashed into a utility pole. Brown died at the scene.

Four days later, 21-year-old Rhian Taylor became a suspect after a witness told Brown’s father that the killer was nicknamed “K.O.” Taylor was among several men in the neighborhood known by that nickname.

Taylor’s photograph was placed in a photographic array, and Hilton and Turner identified him as the gunman. Taylor was then brought in and Hilton identified him in a live lineup. Taylor was then formally charged with second-degree murder, assault, and illegal use of a firearm.

In March 2010, Taylor went to trial in Queens County Supreme Court. Turner and Hilton testified and identified Taylor as the gunman. The prosecution also presented DNA test results that identified Taylor’s DNA on a cigarette butt found near the scene of the shooting. That evidence was of little value, however, since Taylor was a resident of the neighborhood and acknowledged being at the party earlier in the evening.

Hilton, who had a prior conviction as a juvenile for criminal possession of a firearm and menacing with a gun, as well adult convictions for possession of stolen property and disorderly conduct, testified that he had been smoking marijuana for about three years, though he could not remember if he had smoked it that night. He said that Brown was sitting in his car and flirting with a girl who was hanging out on the street.

Hilton testified that he got out of the back seat of the car and told Brown to stop because the girl was like a cousin to Hilton. Brown made fun of him as the girl’s “kissing cousin,” which caused some tension. Hilton then walked away from the car to see if he could find someone to help defuse the situation. He said that as he walked away, he saw a bespectacled man fire several shots at the car. Hilton identified Taylor, who was wearing glasses in court, as the gunman. Hilton said he ran to Turner’s home, where Turner had fled. After a short while, Hilton returned to the scene and saw Brown’s car crashed into the pole.

Hilton admitted he did not come forward until he learned police were looking for him. During cross-examination, Taylor’s defense attorney noted that the police reports did not contain any mention that Hilton said the shooter wore glasses. The lawyer noted that Hilton’s DNA had been found in two specks of blood recovered from the driver’s side of the car and suggested that Hilton was the gunman. Hilton denied being the gunman.

The defense noted that prior to the trial, Hilton had been arrested on a probation violation. Karen Ross, the prosecutor in Taylor’s case, had gone to court and asked that Hilton be freed without bail so he could testify in Taylor’s trial. Instead, the judge had released Hilton and put him back on probation after Hilton admitted to the violation. The prosecutor contended that because her request that Hilton be released without bail was not acted upon, her involvement in the revocation matter did not affect his testimony.

When the defense lawyer asked Hilton about his gun possession conviction, Hilton—who had been convicted at a trial of the charge—claimed he was innocent and had been falsely convicted. The defense presented evidence that Hilton was charged after he admitted he accidentally shot himself. Hilton denied that he shot himself or ever told a detective that he did.

Turner admitted that he had been smoking marijuana two or three times daily for three years, and that he had been smoking marijuana on the day of the shooting. He also admitted smoking marijuana several times on the day before he testified. Turner admitted that six months after the murder, he was arrested in Queens for possessing a handgun. After he was released on that charge, he was arrested in Manhattan for possessing a knife and stolen property.

Facing 15 years in prison, Turner entered into a cooperation agreement with the Queens County District Attorney. In exchange for his testimony against Taylor, he was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge and a sentence of three years of probation.

Turner testified that after Brown asked Hilton if he and the girl were “kissing cousins,” a man walked over and began arguing with Hilton, who was still in Brown’s car. Turner said Hilton then got out of the car and the man began shooting. Turner said the shooter was wearing glasses, and like Hilton, he identified Taylor as the gunman.

Joseph Bey, the detective who handled the case, testified that Hilton and Turner had not mentioned glasses in their descriptions of the gunman.

During closing argument, Taylor’s attorney told the jury that Turner and Hilton had wrongly identified Taylor because they had received help from the District Attorney’s Office on their pending cases.

The prosecutor, Karen Ross, told the jury that Hilton had received no benefit at all, and that both Hilton and Turner had testified “to get the right person” to get justice for Brown. She said that they “had nothing to gain by pinning this on somebody who didn’t do it.”

During deliberations, the jurors asked to see the benefits received by Hilton and Turner. The trial judge allowed the jury to see a copy of Turner’s written cooperation agreement, but the jury never learned of the testimony about any benefits to Turner and Hilton. The judge told the jury that the written agreement was the only evidence of benefits and rejected the defense request that the jury hear a readback of Hilton and Turner’s testimony about the benefits.

On March 29, 2010, after a week of deliberation, the jury convicted Taylor of second-degree murder, assault, reckless endangerment, and illegal use of a weapon. He was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.

On October 27, 2015, the New York Court of Appeals reversed the convictions and ordered a new trial. The court held that trial court “abused its discretion by declining to provide the jurors with information that they plainly wanted and incorrectly characterizing the state of the evidence on the subject of their inquiry.”

On December 21, 2016, Taylor was released on bond pending a new trial. In January 2017, Taylor went to trial a second time. By that time, Hilton had been shot to death, so his testimony from the first trial was read to the jury. Turner again testified and identified Taylor. During cross-examination, the defense team—Joel Rudin, Terri Rosenblatt, George Goltzer, and Haran Tae—presented evidence they had discovered that Turner had since been convicted of perjury in Florida and also had been convicted of pimping out his pregnant girlfriend and another woman who was using Turner’s sister’s identification.

On January 31, 2017, the jury acquitted Taylor.

Taylor subsequently filed a compensation claim in the New York Court of Claims, During a deposition of Detective Bey, he admitted that both Turner and Hilton told him the shooter was not wearing glasses, but he failed to include that information in his report. Bey also admitted that he failed to note that Hilton and Turner also told him that the gunman was clean shaven. At the time, Taylor had a mustache and a goatee.

Bey also admitted that prior to the first trial, Ross discussed with him—but did not disclose to the defense—that Turner was a leader of a notorious street gang, known as the “Snow Gang.” The gang operated in the same general neighborhood where the shooting occurred, and was involved in murders, drug dealing, and prostitution.

Taylor subsequently filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of New York and Bey. The Court of Claims action and the federal lawsuit were still pending in November 2019.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 11/20/2019
State:New York
County:Queens
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault, Other Violent Felony, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:2007
Convicted:2010
Exonerated:2017
Sentence:20 to life
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:21
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No