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Keyon Sprinkle

Other Suffolk County, Massachusetts Exonerations
On November 16, 1999, 29-year-old Charles Taylor was shot to death on a street corner in the Roxbury section of Boston, Massachusetts.

Detectives with the Boston Police Department questioned Taylor’s wife, Rosa Taylor. She said that on the day of the shooting, she had told her husband that she was leaving him. He demanded she return some personal possessions and that he would be at the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Humboldt Avenue at 5 p.m. to collect these items.

That afternoon, Rosa Taylor was at the apartment of her boyfriend, 25-year-old Clarence Williams, and had gone to the store when she spotted her husband standing outside the apartment. She said she got scared and went to another nearby apartment to stay with 17-year-old Keyon Sprinkle, who was Williams’s cousin and lived with his grandmother. She then talked by telephone with Williams, and Williams and Sprinkle also spoke.

At first, Rosa Taylor told the police that Sprinkle was inside the apartment when Taylor was shot. But as the police persisted in their questioning, Rosa Taylor eventually said that Sprinkle had left and come back after the shooting, removed something from his waistband, and placed it in a drawer.

Police arrested Sprinkle on November 22, 1999 and charged him with first-degree murder and illegal use of a weapon. Williams was later charged on March 22, 2000 with accessory before the fact of murder, under the theory that he had asked Sprinkle to kill Taylor.

Their trial in Suffolk County Superior Court began in March 2002. There was no forensic evidence tying Williams or Sprinkle to the shooting. Taylor testified for the state. She said that prior to the shooting, Williams had given her a cryptic warning about what might happen to Taylor, telling her, “If your baby’s father gets killed, it’s your fault.” She also testified that Sprinkle had asked her whether Charles Taylor carried a gun, and she told him that he didn’t need one.

During cross-examination, Taylor acknowledged inconsistencies in her statements to police. She said she had initially told investigators that Sprinkle was in the apartment when the shots were fired and that he had nothing to do with her husband’s death. She also said that it was only after the police threatened to charge her as an accessory that she said Sprinkle was not in the apartment.

Between the time of the arrests and the trial, the police had found another purported witness, a man named Angel Suazo. Suazo testified that he had seen Sprinkle on the street just before the shooting. He said that Sprinkle lifted up his shirt to reveal a gun and then told Suazo he was headed up the street to take care of something. Suazo said that he heard two or three gunshots and then saw Sprinkle walk past, stating “He got it.”

Suazo’s testimony also came under attack. First, he had come forward only after being arrested on several charges, including violating the terms of his probation. While Suazo initially denied receiving any help from the police, he eventually admitted that an officer had testified on his behalf at a probation hearing and that several other charges were resolved favorably. In addition, Suazo had undergone ankle surgery a week before Taylor’s death, and he was immobilized for 10 weeks, making it unlikely that he was out on the street when he said he was.

A third witness testified that he might have seen Sprinkle near Taylor around the time he was shot but “was not positive at all.” But on cross-examination, the witness testified that Sprinkle was not one of the shadowy figures he saw, and that he placed him near the crime scene only after the police brought up Sprinkle’s name and threatened to charge the witness as an accessory.

Faced with these weaknesses in their case, during the trial, prosecutors offered to reduce Sprinkle’s charge to manslaughter and recommend a 10-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. He declined the offer. On March 27, 2002, a jury convicted Sprinkle of first-degree murder and illegal possession of a weapon. The jury had the option of convicting him as the principal or joint venturer. It chose joint venturer, implying that jurors couldn’t agree that Sprinkle was the actual shooter. Williams was convicted as an accessory. Both men received life sentences.

Sprinkle filed a motion for a new trial in 2005, arguing that the police had intimidated and coerced witnesses. In addition, the motion included a 2004 affidavit from Suazo recanting his testimony. He said he had no first-hand knowledge of the shooting and that he cooperated with the police only after they threatened to implicate him in the crime. Suazo also said there was a very good chance he was not even in Boston on November 16, 1999.

Williams joined that motion, but the case was continued without a formal ruling for many years. One reason was that Suazo could no longer be located. He was eventually found in 2014.

Around 2007, Sprinkle’s attorneys gave prosecutors information about an alternate suspect. The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office investigated the claims with the assistance of the Boston Police Department but would later write that they concluded “that the Commonwealth was not persuaded by the veracity or the credibility of the third-party culprit claim.”

On July 20, 2015, Sprinkle filed a supplemental memorandum in support of the motion for a new trial. Sprinkle’s memorandum asserted that several witnesses had identified another man as the person who shot Taylor. Because many of these witnesses were still afraid of the shooter, the motion didn’t refer to the witnesses by name, and their identities were kept under seal.

In addition, the motion alleged that one of the investigating officers committed perjury during his trial testimony, when he said that he had played an insignificant role as a witness at Suazo’s probation-revocation hearing, simply answering a single question from the judge. In fact, a transcript showed Suazo’s attorney extensively questioned the officer during the hearing. When confronted at Sprinkle’s trial with the transcript, the officer continued to assert that his involvement had been minimal, stating, “I did not testify.”

Sprinkle’s motion said that the state’s prosecutors had suborned perjury “and did nothing to correct these lies from one of its lead detectives in the investigation into the Taylor murder.”

Williams joined Sprinkle’s motion, arguing that “given that the Commonwealth’s theory of the case against Williams was that Sprinkle shot Mr. Taylor at the behest of Williams, the dismissal of charges or the granting of a new trial for Sprinkle based on doubt that Sprinkle was guilty of murder would logically undercut the premise upon which the Commonwealth based its prosecution of Mr. Williams.”

Judge Janet Sanders of Suffolk County Superior Court held two days of evidentiary hearings on July 16 and September 16, 2019. Two new witnesses said the actual shooter had confessed to them. One of the witnesses said he didn’t tell anyone about the conversation because of a fear of being labeled a “snitch.” In addition, an attorney for another man involved in the shooting, known in court filings as “the accomplice,” said his client had acknowledged a role in the shooting during a 2008 conversation about whether to tell investigators about the Taylor murder to obtain consideration in an unrelated federal case. The attorney said the accomplice, who was now dead, didn't want to come forward then for fear of his family’s safety.

Williams and Sprinkle each testified at the hearing. Williams’s testimony was largely consistent with statements he had made to the district attorney’s office in 2011 when it had reinvestigated the case.

Williams said that he was surprised and alarmed when Rosa Taylor called and told him that her husband was outside his building. He said he did call Sprinkle to check on the situation, and then Sprinkle went outside and called him back and confirmed Taylor’s presence.

But Williams said he had also spoken to the shooter earlier that day to arrange a marijuana purchase. While Taylor was outside, the shooter called Williams and asked why he hadn’t come out to buy the marijuana. Williams explained the situation with Taylor, but there’s nothing in the evidentiary record that suggests Williams asked the shooter to take any action. A few minutes later, Williams heard gunshots and saw the shooter walk by. A week later, the shooter confessed to Williams, telling him that “Taylor shouldn’t have been out there” and “everyone knew this was going to happen” because of Williams’s relationship with Rosa Taylor.

Williams said nothing about this conversation during his trial. He would say later that he was “jammed up” and didn’t want to be labeled a “rat” and that he thought the police investigation would eventually lead to the real shooter. Sprinkle testified that he learned about what really happened a day or two after his conviction when he asked Williams to tell him “Who am I here for?”

Sanders granted the motion for a new trial on January 29, 2020. She noted that the evidence used to convict Sprinkle and Williams was very weak and circumstantial and that the witness statements about other men confessing their involvement would have made a difference during jury deliberations. In Williams’s case, Sanders wrote, the confessions were not new evidence; Williams knew the identity of the real shooter at trial but chose not to say anything. But “If Sprinkle is entitled to a new trial, then it necessarily follows that Williams is also,” Sanders wrote. “The Commonwealth’s theory at trial was that Williams was guilty as an accessory before the fact because he allegedly encouraged Sprinkle to kill Taylor … If there is new evidence suggesting that Sprinkle did not participate in the shooting in any way, then that theory is no longer viable.”

Sprinkle and Williams were each released from prison on February 6, 2020.

On May 11, 2020, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges against both men. It said in its filing that “The challenges that existed in the original 2002 trial will now be exacerbated by difficulties inherent in the passage of twenty years, further inconsistencies in witness accounts, and the likely admissibility of the third-party culprit evidence (credible or not) at any new trial. The Commonwealth’s ability to prove the charges in the indictments beyond a reasonable doubt is therefore significantly compromised.”

Working through the New England Innocence Project, Sprinkle was represented by a pro bono team of attorneys, including his trial counsel, Peter Parker; Joseph Savage and Ashley Drake of Goodwin Law; and Chad Higgins of Bernstein Shur. Williams was represented by Steven Weymouth.

“We are thrilled that this nightmare is finally over for Mr. Sprinkle,” said Radha Natarajan, the executive director of the New England Innocence Project. “Over the last 20 years, Mr. Sprinkle has never stopped fighting to prove his innocence. Now he can enjoy his freedom with his family.”

Sprinkle filed a lawsuit seeking compensation from the state of Massachusetts and in 2021, he settled the claim for $980,000.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 5/22/2020
Last Updated: 9/21/2021
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1999
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No