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James Louis

Other New Jersey exonerations
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/James_Louis%20with%20atty%20Joseph%20Mazraani.jpeg
At about 3:20 a.m. on March 20, 1994, a group of African-American men and women were standing on the sidewalk in Elizabeth, New Jersey, when a black Acura Legend pulled up and multiple shots were fired. Twenty-one-year-old Jerry Myers was fatally shot and a chain ripped from his neck, and 22-year-old Karon Henderson was wounded.

Police said the shooters were Haitians who were seeking revenge because one of their friends had been shot in an earlier incident. Witnesses said that some of the shots were fired by a man who emerged from the Acura.

On the day after the shooting, police interviewed two witnesses, sisters Belinda and Gwen Myers. Police showed them photographs of Haitian men and they identified 22-year-old Macgoohan Romelus as one of the shooters. Gwen Myers said she knew Romelus because he was a friend of her ex-boyfriend, 21-year-old James Louis.

Romelus, who was Haitian, was arrested soon after and denied involvement in the shooting. However, a few weeks later, detectives questioned him again. The detectives would later concede that they suggested to Romelus that three other Haitians, 22-year-old Duquene Pierre, 22-year-old Jean Dorval, and James Louis, were involved. Romelus gave a statement portraying himself as a bystander while implicating Pierre, Dorval, and Louis. On April 15, 1994, police arrested Pierre and Dorval.

Louis was arrested on July 5, 1994. He denied involvement and said he was with his mother in Irvington that night, about eight miles from Elizabeth. A detective told him that Romelus had implicated him. The detective also said that “several witnesses” had identified him as being at the scene and that he would go to prison for “a very long time.” Louis eventually said he witnessed the shootings and implicated Dorval, Pierre, and Romelus. The account that Louis gave did not have a car pulling up. Rather, he said he “heard bullets flying the air [sic] and I heard people yelling I got shot, I got shot. I then looked and saw Jean [Dorval] and them with guns in their hands, so I ran.”

In July 1994, a Union County grand jury indicted the four men on charges of murder, aggravated assault, robbery, and illegal use of a weapon.

In early 1995, a Union County Prosecutor’s Office investigator questioned Belinda and Gwen Myers. Belinda said she did not see Louis the night of the shooting, but that another witness had told her, “one of the guys in the car looked like [Louis.]” Belinda said that no one in the Acura looked like Louis, so that meant that Louis was probably in a second car—though no other witness said there was a second car.

The investigator pressed Gwen to say that she saw Louis at the scene. After repeatedly saying she did not see or hear him that night, Gwen finally said that a voice that called her name that night might have been Louis’s.

Nine days later, Belinda gave a new statement saying that she was “100 percent certain” that she heard Louis’s voice coming from the second car.

Eleven months after the shooting, police interviewed Kim Minus, who was present at the shooting, but left the police station before she could be interviewed. After viewing photographic arrays, she identified all four men as being involved in the crime.

In July 1995, Romelus was convicted of murder, robbery, and illegal use of a weapon. He was sentenced to 70 years in prison.

In January 1996, Pierre, Dorval, and Louis went to trial in Union County Superior Court. Minus testified for the prosecution that she was 100 percent sure that Pierre was one of the gunmen. Minus also identified Dorval and Louis as being involved.

Eddie Henderson, a relative of Karon Henderson, testified that he was 70 percent sure that Pierre was one of the gunmen who emerged from passenger seat of the Acura—although he admitted that, prior to the trial, he told police he believed Pierre was the driver. Henderson also identified Dorval as one of those involved.

Belinda Myers testified that she heard Louis’s voice coming from the Acura—despite her earlier statement that she heard the voice from the second car.

Gwen Myers, despite her earlier statement that the voice she heard might have been Louis’s, testified that only one man had called her by name—Romelus, who had held her and two other witnesses at gunpoint during the crime.

Gwen also testified for the first time that several days after the shooting, she and a friend had seen Louis, and that Louis told her that he had been at the scene in one of the cars. Gwen claimed that she and this same friend had then gone to a motel with Louis and a few other people.

The defense, however, called the friend as a witness. She said she had not been with either Gwen or Louis and that she had not gone to a motel with them.

The prosecution also called Allison Johnson, who admitted that she made a living by selling drugs. Johnson testified that she was with Pierre and Dorval within hours of the shooting, and that Louis stayed in her apartment for two weeks after the shooting. Johnson’s 13-year-old daughter testified that Louis was in the apartment. Johnson and her daughter also testified that all four defendants were in their apartment on March 22, 1994—two days after the shooting and spent all night there playing cards. Documents showed, however, that Romelus was arrested at 8:30 p.m. and could not have been there all night.

Pierre and Dorval presented an alibi defense—a speeding ticket issued to Pierre in Yemassee, South Carolina at 11:34 p.m.—about 750 miles from the shooting, which occurred about four hours later in Elizabeth.

Pierre’s defense attorney presented a record of a collect telephone call made to Pierre’s girlfriend, Yashonda Reid, at 12:32 a.m., from a location in South Carolina south of Yemassee. Reid testified that Pierre and Dorval were traveling to Florida to visit Pierre’s relatives.

The prosecution contended that the driver of the car in Yemassee and the person who made the phone call was not Pierre, but his twin brother, Kirby.

Dorval’s attorney presented a handwriting expert who said that a hotel registration form in Savannah, Georgia had been filled out and signed by Dorval.

On February 15, 1996, Dorval, Pierre, and Louis were convicted of murder, assault, robbery, and weapons offenses. They were both sentenced to 60 years in prison.

After years of hearings and appeals, Pierre’s appellate attorney, Linda Mehling from the Office of the Public Defender, convinced the New Jersey Supreme Court to reverse Pierre's convictions in December 2015. The court held that Pierre’s trial defense attorney had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to call Pierre’s brother, Kirby, and sister, Astrid, to testify that at the time of the crime, Kirby did not know how to drive and did not travel to Florida.

In addition, the defense attorney failed to present the remainder of the record of phone calls made to Reid. Those records showed a series of calls made from locations progressively farther south and finally from Florida. Finally, three of Pierre’s relatives would have testified that Pierre visited them in Florida in March 1994 and the defense attorney contacted none of them at the time of Pierre’s trial.

In July 2016, Pierre went to trial for a second time in Union County Superior Court, represented by a new legal team of Mehling and lawyers Don DiGioia, Frank Krack, and Michael Simon. Prior to the retrial, the defense team noticed that Johnson—the drug dealer who said she was with Dorval and Pierre hours after the shooting—had a history of arrests but no convictions. The defense asked the prosecution whether Johnson was a police informant. The prosecutor subsequently confirmed that Johnson was a police informant and that this information, as well as Johnson’s history of arrests, had not been disclosed prior to the first trial. Johnson was then interviewed by the defense and recanted her testimony at the first trial. Johnson said that prior to the first trial, she went to the police department and “they led me to pick out which mugshots.” She also told the defense attorneys that “these boys should never have gone to jail” and that “the truth needs to be told.”

Johnson and her daughter were not called to testify at the retrial. Both had recanted their testimony. In addition, Johnson said she had known the family of the victim who died and she wanted to see the perpetrators punished. She said that police had coaxed her to incriminate the defendants because police believed they were the perpetrators. So, she said, she went along with the police and said what they wanted her to say.

The prosecution again called Kim Minus and Eddie Henderson to testify. Both, during extensive cross-examination by DiGioia, admitted that they were never sure that Pierre was at the scene of the crime. Minus admitted that when she viewed the photographic lineup and identified Pierre, it was a “guess.” Henderson admitted that in fact he was not only no longer sure that Pierre was at the scene, but that another man in the photographic lineup he viewed was more likely the person he saw. When DiGioia pointed out that this other man was merely a “filler” who was in the lineup but had nothing to do with the crime, Henderson said he really was not sure at all that Pierre was there.

After those two witnesses completed their testimony, DiGioia moved to acquit Pierre. The judge granted the motion and Pierre was released.

In 2016, Pierre filed a claim for compensation from the state of New Jersey. He settled the claim in August 2019 for $950,000.

After Dorval filed a post-conviction petition seeking to vacate his conviction as well, the Union County Prosecutor's Office moved to vacate Dorval’s convictions. On April 30, 2018, the motion was granted, the prosecution dismissed the charges, and Dorval was released.

In April 2020, Dorval filed a state court lawsuit against the state of New Jersey and two officers involved in the investigation seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction. The lawsuit was later moved to federal court.

In the meantime, Louis’s lawyer, Joseph Mazraani, sought to vacate Louis’s conviction and in January 2020, filed a motion to vacate the convictions.

On June 29, 2020, Union County Superior Court Judge John M. Deitch, with the agreement of Union County prosecutors, vacated the convictions, the charges were dismissed, and Louis was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 7/28/2020
Last Updated: 7/28/2020
State:New Jersey
County:Union
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Assault, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1994
Convicted:1996
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:60 years
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No