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Vernon Horn

Other Connecticut Exonerations
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Between 3:28 and 3:30 a.m., on January 24, 1999, three men wearing ski masks entered the Dixwell Deli, a 24-hour delicatessen in New Haven, Connecticut. One man immediately began firing a pistol, wounding 29-year-old Abby Youssif, a cashier. A customer, 22-year-old Caprice Hardy, was fatally shot in the back.

The other two men went into a backroom where one of them pistol-whipped another employee, Vernon Butler, and took his cell phone. The men then began rifling through cigar boxes, but abruptly all three fled at the sound of an approaching siren. They were in the store for about five or six minutes.

About 20 minutes later, police on the scene began taking the names of people who had gathered outside the deli in the hope of finding witnesses. Among them were 17-year-old Vernon Horn and Zanetta Berryman, who lived in the neighborhood.

The following day, the lead detective, Leroy Dease, interviewed Horn, who voluntarily came to the police station. Horn said that on the evening of January 23 and into the early morning hours of January 24, he was with a friend, 19-year-old Marquis Jackson.

Horn said they went to the Alley Cat bar in New Haven around 12:30 a.m., and left when it closed at 2 a.m. They drove to the Athenian Diner and then went to South Genesee Street, where they picked up Zanetta Berryman. They drove to the deli, where Horn said he bought a can of Pepsi and some loose cigarettes. As he walked out, Horn said he saw Marcus Pearson and two other men sitting in a green Jeep.

Horn told Dease that Jackson dropped him and Berryman off at a house. After Horn and Berryman had sex there, they walked back toward the deli and learned of the shooting.

Because Dease believed that at least one of the perpetrators of the crime had returned to the scene, he focused on Horn and Jackson as possible suspects.

Several weeks later, police determined that there had been five phone calls made from the stolen cell phone. One call was made at 4:14 a.m.—less than an hour after the shooting—to a phone in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Detectives determined the number belonged to Willie Sadler, a drug dealer. During an interview, Sadler said the call came from 16-year-old Steve Brown, who lived in Bridgeport.

Police then conducted a fingerprint check on Brown and matched him to a fingerprint found on a cigar box in the back room of the deli.

Brown was interrogated and, according to police, admitted that he had committed the crime with Horn and Jackson. Brown said he didn’t know their real names, and claimed he had met them at the White Eagle Club in Bridgeport, an assertion that should have been suspicious since Brown, Jackson, and Horn were black and the club was a Polish club with no black members. Brown said he knew them by nicknames of Sun and Tae, although he frequently used them interchangeably, and no one acquainted with Horn and Jackson knew them to have those nicknames.

Brown said they drove to various places and wound up outside the deli. Horn and Jackson put on ski masks, and handed Brown a scarf and a gun before they entered the store. Brown said Horn opened fire, shooting Hardy and Youssif. Brown said that he and Jackson went to the back, where they struck Butler and took his cell phone.

Horn and Jackson were charged with felony murder, robbery, attempted robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, burglary, and illegal possession of a weapon.

By the time they went to trial in March 2000 in New Haven County Superior Court, Brown had made a deal with the prosecution to plead guilty to manslaughter in return for a sentence of 10 years in prison.

The prosecution contended that after the shooting, Horn went back to the scene while Jackson and Brown waited nearby. After Horn left the scene, all three then drove back to Bridgeport.

Brown admitted that he made the first three phone calls on the stolen cell phone. He said he made the first one, at 4:14 a.m., as he, Horn, and Jackson were driving on Interstate 95 back to Bridgeport after the shooting. Brown said he made the next two calls the following day and then gave the phone to Horn.

Marcus Pearson testified that he made the fourth call the following day after he borrowed the phone from Horn.

Three witnesses identified Horn as being at the deli, although their identifications were questionable.

Shaquan Pallet, who was facing nine armed robbery charges, testified that he went into the deli to bum cigarettes from Hardy (who was murdered in the shooting). On his way in, he said, he saw Horn and Jackson wearing ski masks outside the deli. He recanted prior to the trial, and then recanted his recantation at the trial. (A co-defendant of Pallet would, years later, admit that prior to Horn’s trial, Pallet admitted he saw nothing at the deli.)

Regina Wolfinger had identified Jackson and Horn in a photographic lineup, although she said she was only about 75 percent sure. She admitted she had been drinking and smoking crack for several hours before the shooting. She also said that there were only two robbers, when there were three, and that the robbers were light-skinned, when Jackson and Horn were dark-skinned.

Kendall Thompson testified that he had identified Horn in a photographic lineup because the gunman had yellow eyes and he thought Horn did as well. At trial, Thompson insisted he was not identifying Horn as the gunman, but only picked him out because of the similarity of his eyes.

There were at least 10 witnesses who could have testified that they saw Jackson and Horn at the Alley Cat bar, the Athenian Diner, and other locations, but none was called to testify.

Horn’s lawyer conceded that Horn had used the phone—as Brown asserted. Both he and the prosecution also contended that records of where the calls were made—the cell towers from which the calls were launched—were not available anymore because they were destroyed 30 days after the calls.

On April 19, 2000, the jury convicted Horn of felony murder, armed robbery, attempted robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, burglary, and illegal possession of a weapon. Jackson was acquitted of the burglary, but convicted of felony murder, armed robbery, attempted robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, and illegal possession of a weapon.

At sentencing, Horn insisted he was innocent. “I never touched that phone. I had never made a call on that phone.” The judge sentenced him to 70 years in prison without parole (the law was changed in 2015 to allow juveniles to seek parole). Jackson was sentenced to 45 years in prison.

In 2006, after their convictions had been upheld on appeal, Marcus Pearson recanted his testimony in a sworn statement provided to defense attorneys and Yale University law students who were working on Horn’s case.

Pearson had testified at trial that Horn lent him the cell phone to make a call the day after the crime. In his later statement, however, he said that he had never used the phone. Police had threatened to charge him with the crime, and fearful of losing his children, he lied. Pearson said that a detective told him that if he didn’t get the phone from Horn, “then you must have got it from the crime scene.”

Horn filed a state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In 2013, at an evidentiary hearing on the petition, Pearson—despite being informed that he could face a perjury prosecution—testified that he had lied at Horn’s trial.

“I know I risk my freedom here today by telling the truth,” Pearson testified. “But I’d rather tell the truth than let him sit in jail if he’s an innocent man.”

In 2014, Superior Court Judge Patrick Clifford granted the habeas corpus petition, citing numerous failures of Horn’s defense attorney at trial. Judge Clifford ruled that the attorney failed to interview or subpoena any of the people who received the calls from the stolen phone. Had he done so, the judge ruled, there would have been “no credible evidence” linking Horn to the stolen phone.

Judge Clifford also ruled that had the trial defense attorney obtained the cell tower location information to determine where the calls had originated, “incontrovertible hard evidence” would have demonstrated “that the phone was never used in New Haven as Pearson testified.”

The judge concluded that the cell phone was “taken by Brown to Bridgeport on January 24, 1999, where it remained. The cell phone never came back to New Haven,” where Horn was alleged to have given it to Pearson.

On July 23, 2014, Horn was released on bond. The state then appealed, contending in part that a witness for the cellular service provider testified that such information was only available for 30 days and that Horn’s lawyer was not appointed to defend him until months after Horn’s arrest.

The prosecution argued that the record was “devoid of evidence” concerning the originating locations of the calls. Absent that information, the prosecution contended that the witnesses—particularly Pearson’s recantation—were not credible.

Nearly two years later, on June 28, 2016, the Connecticut Supreme Court agreed and overturned Judge Clifford’s ruling. The court ordered Horn’s convictions reinstated. In July 2016, Horn, who by the time had married and had a daughter, was returned to prison.

Acting without a lawyer, Horn then filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The Connecticut Federal Defender Office was appointed and commenced a thorough review of the evidence, ultimately spending more than 2,500 hours.

They discovered that an exhibit at Horn’s trial actually contained the record of the cell towers from where the calls from the stolen phone originated. The evidence showed that the call Brown claimed he made in the car on Interstate 95 with Horn and Jackson was actually made in Bridgeport approximately 40 minutes after the crime, and only a few minutes after a police officer first interviewed Horn as he stood outside of the deli.

In 2017, the Connecticut Attorney General’s Office and the New Haven State’s Attorney’s Office agreed to conduct a review of the evidence.

On January 31, 2018, as part of the re-investigation, an investigator from the Federal Defender Office obtained 137 pages of telephone records from a retired New Haven detective. The telephone records, which had never been logged into evidence in the case, included records of every number contacted by the stolen cell phone, as well as the phone records of Pearson, Horn, and Jackson. These records further showed it was impossible for Horn to have been with Brown in Bridgeport given the cell site origination evidence, which confirmed when and where Brown made the first call with the stolen cell phone.

In April 2018, based upon the newly discovered evidence, Horn’s lawyers from the Federal Defender Office, Terence Ward, David Keenan, Kelly Barrett, and Jennifer Mellon, filed a 91-page memorandum that included a power-point presentation.

On April 25, New Haven State’s Attorney Pat Griffin moved to vacate Horn’s convictions. “The totality of information developed to date has sufficiently undermined the state’s confidence in the judgment of conviction such that justice is done by setting the judgment aside,” Griffin said in a statement. The charges were then dismissed and Horn was released.

On May 3, 2018, Griffin filed a motion to vacate Jackson’s convictions, saying he was “honor-bound” as a prosecutor to do so. The motion was granted, Griffin dismissed the charges, and Jackson was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/30/2018
Last Updated: 5/7/2018
State:Connecticut
County:New Haven
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Attempt, Violent, Burglary/Unlawful Entry, Gun Possession or Sale, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:1999
Convicted:2000
Exonerated:2018
Sentence:70 years without parole
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:17
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No