On October 4, 1993, Stilianos Kinousis came home to his 4th floor apartment on 37th Street in Astoria, New York, and found the door off its hinges and locked from the inside with the safety chain. He peered through the crack in the doorway and saw a burglar. Kinousis ran down to the third floor where he roused a neighbor, 78-year-old Frank Hoyt, and asked him to call police.
When Kinousis started to walk back up the stairs, he was confronted by the burglar. They struggled and the man broke free, but Kinousis caught up to him outside the building where the struggle continued. Once again, the man broke loose and fled on foot.
Kinousis, who worked as a dental technician and hygienist, said the burglar was missing his upper teeth. He further described the burglar as a white male with long dark hair, a receding hairline, a bushy mustache, dark eyes, and a big nose who spoke Greek.
A few weeks later, Kinousis viewed a photographic lineup and selected the photograph of 43-year-old Evangelo Vamvakas, a resident of Astoria who worked as a painter. Police brought Vamvakas in for a live lineup and Kinousis selected him. All the participants in the lineup had their mouths closed.
Although Vamvakas had all his teeth, he was arrested and charged with robbery, burglary, criminal mischief, possession of burglary tools and possession of stolen property.
Vamvakas was free on bond until April of 1994, when he was arrested for stealing parking meters and was taken to the Queens County House of Detention. While there, Vamvakas struck up a conversation with another man in custody, who was also Greek. When Vamvakas said he was accused of committing a burglary on October 4, 1993, but didn’t remember the address where the burglary occurred, the man said that he had committed the burglary and that it occurred on 37th Street in Astoria. The other man, Vamvakas noticed, was missing his upper teeth, had long dark hair and a big nose.
Vamvakas, who did not speak English, told his interpreter when he was next in court about the conversation and asked that his lawyer be informed in order to investigate the man he met in jail. Vamvakas wrote his request on a piece of paper in Greek, spelling the man’s name as “Balaros.”
The lawyer did not ask that an investigator look into the claim. But even if there had been an investigation, they would not have found anyone named Balaros in the jail with Vamvakas because the man Vamvakas spoke with was actually named Nick Valaoras. Instead, the defense lawyer told Vamvakas that she intended to win the case by presenting a dental expert who would testify that Vamvakas had all his teeth.
Vamvakas went on trial in Queens County Supreme Court in May 1994. Hoyt identified Vamvakas as the man who struggled with Kinousis. Kinousis also identified Vamvakas. He said that he told police that the burglar was missing his upper teeth because it appeared that way during the struggle, but that he could have been wrong because he really didn’t focus on the man’s mouth when they struggled.
Vamvakas had told police that at the time of the burglary, he was painting a friend’s apartment more than a mile from the crime. Vamvakas’ attorney decided not to call the friend as an alibi witness. The lawyer did call a dentist who said Vamvakas had all of his teeth.
On May 11, 1994, a jury convicted Vamvakas of all charges. He was sentenced to 3½ to 10 years in prison.
Andrew Fine of the Legal Aid Society was assigned to handle Vamvakas’ appeal. Vamvakas told Fine about the conversation in jail with the man he identified as “Balaros.” Fine talked to Vamvakas’ trial attorney who recalled that she found Balaros’ defense attorney. According to the trial attorney, Balaros’ attorney informed her that Balaros was in custody at the time of the October 1993 burglary and therefore Vamvakas’ claim was false.
Fine then hired Joseph Barry, a private investigator, who discovered that that the man Vamvakas had spoken with was named Nick Valaoras. Barry learned that Valaoras was not in jail on the day of the crime, but that he was in the Queens House of Detention on April 14, 1994, the day Vamvakas was taken there.
Barry interviewed Valaoras in prison where he was incarcerated after pleading guilty to four separate burglaries. His plea agreement contained an unusual phrase saying he also admitted guilt to “any unknown burglaries.” Valaoras denied committing the October 1993 burglary and denied ever talking to Vamvakas. Barry noticed that Valaoras was missing his upper teeth.
After Fine determined there was a potential conflict of interest in the case, he referred it to a criminal defense clinic at Fordham Law School. In 1996, the clinic filed a motion in Queens County Supreme Court seeking to vacate Vamvakas’ convictions. The Queens County District Attorney’s office asked for a delay in the case while the office conducted an independent investigation of Vamvakas’ claims.
The District Attorney’s office confirmed the information regarding Valaoras’ missing teeth and his dates of incarceration. Hoyt, the neighbor who saw the struggle, was shown a photographic lineup that included Valaoras’ photograph and Hoyt selected the photograph of Valaoras. Vamvakas was not in the lineup because he had a mustache in all his booking photographs and Valaoras did not have a mustache in his police photo. Kinousis, the victim, was shown the same lineup and he said he was 90 percent sure the burglar was Valaoras. When Kinousis was shown the original photo lineup he viewed in 1993, he again selected Vamvakas and insisted that Vamvakas was the burglar.
Despite Kinousis’ claim, the prosecution concluded that Vamvakas was innocent and in September 1996 requested that the convictions be set aside. On September 18, 1996, the convictions were vacated, the case was dismissed and Vamvakas was released.
Vamvakas sought compensation in the New York Court of Claims, but in 2005, the court denied his claim. The court held that Vamvakas had failed to prove he was innocent since Valaoras still denied that he committed the burglary and Kinousis still believed Vamvakas was the burglar.