On the morning of August 2, 1985, as Paul Hawkins was leaving his Manhattan, New York apartment, he noticed blood on the walls outside his apartment and blood leading up the stairs to the apartment above his. He recalled hearing a groan and a “scuffling” noise around 1 a.m.
Police were called and found the mutilated body of Thomas Barnes, the resident of the upstairs apartment. Barnes had been stabbed more than 50 times, his genitals had been sliced off and stuffed in his mouth and his throat had been slit. One knife was protruding from his abdomen and a second knife was found near the body as was a bloodied and ripped tank top bearing the number 12.
After acquaintances of Barnes said he frequented the Rawhide Bar in Manhattan, a nightclub catering to gay men, police began questioning patrons there. One, Lawrence Garvie, said that on the evening of August 1, he met a man at the bar with a trimmed mustache who was wearing a pale yellow tank top bearing the number 12 on the front and on the back. Garvie said the man had a one-syllable Irish surname, was half Italian and half Irish. Garvie also said the man said he lived in Queens where he patronized another gay bar called Billy the Kid’s.
Garvie said that as they talked, they were joined by Barnes, who was Garvie’s friend. Garvie recalled that when the man in the tank top mentioned having a friend in St. Louis, Barnes fell into an “animated” discussion with the man. Garvie said he left Rawhide at about 10:30 p.m. and Barnes and the man were still talking. Another patron, Miguel Erazo, said he saw Barnes leave Rawhide with a man wearing a white tank top bearing the number 12.
Based on the descriptions given by Garvie and Erazo, police arrested 22-year-old Bryan Blake on August 21 and put him in a line-up, although he did not have a mustache and was several inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than the description given by Garvie and Erazo. After Garvie and Erazo identified Blake as the man who was with Barnes, Blake was charged with murder.
Blake went on trial in New York County Supreme Court in December 1985. The prosecution’s case was primarily based on the testimony of Garvie and Erazo. There was no physical evidence linking Blake to the crime.
The prosecution also introduced two statements made by Blake. When he was arrested, Blake told a detective that he was half Irish and half Italian. The detective said that Blake also said he had previously been living with a lover from St. Louis, but then corrected that statement to say his former lover was from Michigan.
Blake claimed he spent the night of August 1, 1985 at an apartment on Christopher Street in Manhattan and the following day visited his sister in New Jersey. Blake said he had been at Rawhide perhaps six months to a year earlier and that he may once have played pool with Barnes. He said he never wore tank tops and had not had a mustache for at least five years.
The second statement was a video-taped interview of Blake made by the prosecutor after his arrest. Blake told the prosecutor he spent the night of the crime in Queens, not on Christopher Street. Blake said he had mistakenly given the wrong information to the detective. On the video-tape, the prosecutor made numerous comments about the evidence suggesting that Blake was lying and that he was guilty.
In one portion of the interview played for the jury, the prosecutor said, “You certainly can’t tell me that that is not your shirt or you don’t have a shirt…like that shirt because there are several people who are your friends who indicate that that’s Bryan’s shirt or one exactly like it.” The prosecutor asserted on the videotape that the state did not need other evidence because police had found “your shirt” in Barnes’ apartment.
The prosecution said the police believed that Blake killed Barnes because Barnes had forced Blake to perform oral sex.
The prosecution—over objection by the defense—presented 22 color photographs of the murder scene.
Two witnesses who frequented Billy the Kid’s said they saw Blake there and that he sometimes wore a tank top. One of the witnesses could not remember whether there were numbers on the clothing, but the other said he remembered Blake wearing a yellow tank top with the number 12.
On December 5, 1985, Blake was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
On appeal Blake’s attorney, Virgil Hervey, argued that the prosecution overstepped its bounds by playing the videotape with the prosecutor’s statements about Blake’s guilt. Hervey also objected to the prosecution’s use of the “gruesome” crime-scene photographs.
In July 1988, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. The court held that some of the prosecutor’s remarks on the videotape may have improperly influenced the jury. The court cited one statement by the prosecutor, who warned Blake in a tone that implied that Blake was lying, that “[t]here are certain things we know about you and other people that it would be foolish for you to hide them.”
The court held that the statements were expressions of personal belief about the strength of the case. “In this close case, it was critically important that the jurors be able to consider the evidence…free of the danger that they would accord undue weight to the prosecutor’s personal expressions of belief,” the court declared.
Moreover, the court held that the introduction of the photographs was unduly prejudicial. “This court has viewed these photographs and finds it difficult to imagine that these photographs would not have horrified even the most impassive of persons,” the court said. “The only question was whether this defendant was the murderer and as to that question, these photographs were absolutely irrelevant.”
Hervey remained on the case and represented Blake at a second trial in February 1989. For the first time, Hervey tracked down a bartender at Rawhide, who testified that he had been called in for a lineup and failed to identify Blake. The bartender said the man who left with Barnes was not Blake.
On February 27, 1989, the jury deliberated 90 minutes before acquitting Blake, who was then released. Blake sought compensation for wrongful imprisonment from the New York Court of Claims, but his claim was denied.
– Maurice Possley