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Derrick Bell

Other New York Robbery Cases
At about 2:30 a.m. on July 16, 1996, 26-year-old Brentonol Moriah was robbed at gunpoint on a street in Brooklyn, New York. The robber was armed with a shotgun and demanded money.

Just after Moriah handed over his valuables, headlights flashed from a nearby intersection and the robber fired once into Moriah’s thigh and fled. When police arrived, Moriah was lying on the street in a large pool of blood.

Moriah told police that he had been robbed and described the gunman as a black man wearing a lemon-colored shirt. Moriah said nothing that suggested he had seen the gunman before and the robber’s identity was listed in police reports as “unknown” and “unidentified.”

Moriah then lapsed into unconsciousness. When he came to on July 28, 1996—12 days later—Moriah told a detective that the robber was 22-year-old Derrick Bell, who had been his neighbor in a rooming house.

Bell, who had no prior criminal record, was arrested on August 14, 1996 and charged with first-degree assault, second-degree assault, fourth-degree grand larceny and two counts of first-degree robbery.

Five days later, on August 19, 1996, Moriah gave a videotaped statement that was shown to a grand jury. In the statement, given from his hospital bed, Moriah identified Bell. He also said he continued to take painkillers every four hours and that he was suffering from memory lapses and dizziness.

Bell went to trial in Kings County Supreme Court in May 1997. Moriah testified that he and Bell shared a bathroom and kitchen at a rooming house for more than a year. Moriah said that he and Bell occasionally spoke, but never argued or fought and that during the robbery he stood face-to-face with Bell for five minutes.

During cross-examination Moriah admitted that he did not name Bell until 12 days after the crime. He also admitted that he did not recall speaking with police officers on the night of the crime. However, Bell’s defense attorney failed to ask Moriah any questions about the medications he was taking while hospitalized and at the time he first identified Bell. And the defense lawyer did not ask Moriah any questions about his memory loss, even though it lasted at least a month after the crime.

Dr. Robert Brewer, the emergency room surgeon who treated Moriah on the night of the crime, testified that Moriah lost 50 percent of his blood as a result of the shooting. While the defense lawyer did ask on cross-examination about the effect of that blood loss on Moriah's consciousness when he arrived at the hospital, the defense lawyer failed to ask about the impact of blood loss on memory or about effect the medications Moriah was given would have on memory.

Richard Edmonds, the landlord of the rooming house where Moriah and Bell once lived, testified about that his relationship with Bell was tumultuous.

Bell testified in his own defense that he left work around midnight to join friends and they played cards until 5 a.m. Three of his friends testified that they played cards with Bell that night during that time frame. The defense attorney did not call an expert to testify about the impact of Moriah’s condition on his memory.

On May 27, 1997, the jury convicted Bell of armed robbery and felony assault. He was sentenced to 12.5 to 25 years in prison.

Bell appealed but his convictions were upheld. He filed a post-conviction petition based on an affidavit from Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, a neuropsychologist, who stated that Moriah’s testimony contained “unequivocal evidence that he suffered from retrograde amnesia for the events predating the loss of consciousness” and that his memory was worsened by the medications he took. Goldberg said that it was unlikely that Moriah had fully regained consciousness when he first named Bell as his assailant. The petition, however, was denied.

In 2005, Bell filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus contending that doubt could easily have been cast on Moriah’s identification based on his medical state at the time, if only his trial defense attorney had called a medical expert as a witness. U.S. District Judge Allyne Ross denied the petition.

In August 2007, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned Bell’s conviction because of his trial defense attorney had failed to adequately challenge Moriah’s identification.

“Given the trauma Moriah endured and the medical treatments he received, Moriah’s memory was highly vulnerable to attack by scientific evidence,” the court declared. Moreover, the court noted that Moriah’s initial description “implicitly but undeniably indicates that the assailant was a stranger.”

And when Moriah emerged from his “sedated, coma-like state” and remained “semi-conscious (at best) for eleven days” he “awakened with cognitive abilities that were in doubt.”

“Armed with the insight and advice of a medical expert, a lawyer could have vastly increased the opportunity to cast doubt on this critical evidence,” the court said.

In November 2007, the Kings County District Attorney’s office dismissed the charges and Bell was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 6/18/2017
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Additional Convictions:Assault
Reported Crime Date:1996
Sentence:12 1/2 to 25 years
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No