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Eric DeBerry

Other Kings County Exonerations
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At about 4 a.m. on July 11, 1999, Kareem Collins was shot four times outside a low-rise apartment complex known as Smurf Village in Brooklyn, New York. A passerby found him bleeding on the sidewalk and called 911. He was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Collins told police that he had been shot during a robbery outside of a nearby bodega, or neighborhood market. But the next day, when police interviewed him at the hospital, he said that wasn’t true. Rather, he said, he had been shot after two men questioned him about whether he was a member of the Crips gang. In this version, he didn’t mention any robbery.

Detectives with the New York Police Department, led by Detective Patricia Tufo, pursued the gang angle. A man who lived nearby named Eric DeBerry became a prime suspect. The exact reasons aren’t clear from court records, but DeBerry, then 23 years old, had a previous conviction for robbery and was affiliated with the rival Bloods gang. Tufo brought a photo array that included DeBerry to the hospital on July 12, but Collins said he was too weak to make an identification.

Tufo continued to interview Collins about the shooting, and on July 23, 1999, Collins went to the 81st Precinct police station and picked DeBerry out of a photo array. On that same day, a bench warrant against Collins for larceny and related charges was vacated and his community service imposed for another offense was waived.

On August 4, 1999, Collins changed his story again. Now he told Tufo that DeBerry had first accused him of being a Crip, based on a blue shirt he said he was wearing, then robbed him of some boots and shot him. Collins picked DeBerry out from an in-person lineup at the precinct. DeBerry was charged with first-degree robbery, first-degree assault, and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon.

Two weeks later, on August 19, police received an anonymous call from a woman who said that they had arrested the wrong man. The caller said the shooter was a man named “Robert Velasquez,” and that he was boasting about the shooting. She also noted that Velasquez and DeBerry looked similar. Tufo did not bring Velasquez in for questioning, but she showed his picture to Collins as part of an array. Collins said he didn’t recognize anyone in the photos.

DeBerry’s trial in Kings County Supreme Court began in January 2000. Prosecutors had no physical or forensic evidence connecting him to the shooting, and their case relied almost exclusively on Collins’s testimony.

In an opening statement, a prosecutor said the shooting was gang-related and referenced the blue shirt that Collins said he was wearing when he was shot. Collins also testified about the blue shirt. But that was false. The clothing recovered from Collins was a white T-shirt and a black and red shirt. Collins’s attorney did not bring up the apparent discrepancy. Several police officers testified about the investigation, and all acknowledged they had no physical evidence that showed DeBerry’s involvement.

Collins testified that he had left Manhattan around 4 a.m. and taken the subway to Brooklyn, getting off at the Utica Avenue stop. He said he was carrying a bag with new shoes and taking a short cut home through Smurf Village when he saw DeBerry and another man. Collins said DeBerry saw his blue shirt and commented that he disliked Crips in his neighborhood. Collins said he kept walking, then heard footsteps and turned around to see DeBerry. He said DeBerry pointed a gun at his head and said, “Do you think this is a game?” He said DeBerry ordered him to drop the bag and leave, which Collins said he did. As he was walking away, Collins said, DeBerry shot him.

DeBerry didn’t testify at trial, although before the grand jury he said he was at home during the shooting, which took place just outside his window. An alibi witness testified at trial, but her account would later be called “inconsistent.”

A jury convicted DeBerry on January 18, 2000, and he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Two years later, on December 12, 2002, Roberto Velasquez came forward. In an affidavit, he said he had shot Collins in self-defense. He said that on the morning of July 11, he was getting some take-out chicken from a restaurant near Smurf Village when he saw Collins watching him. He said he knew Collins by sight from the neighborhood and that Collins was staring at his money while Velasquez paid for his order. He said he left the restaurant and Collins followed him. Velasquez said he went into a nearby apartment building to wait a few minutes, and when he came back out, Collins was waiting and tried to rob him.

Velasquez said he put down the chicken and reached into his back pocket, as if he was getting out his wallet. But he pulled out a gun and shot Collins, first in the chest, and then kept firing until he ran out of bullets. The two men exchanged gunfire, Velasquez said.

In the days after the shooting, Velasquez told several people, including DeBerry’s brother, about the events. They urged him to come forward and tell the police what happened. But Velasquez said he didn’t because he was afraid of the consequences.

After Velasquez made his statement, DeBerry filed a motion to vacate his conviction. During an evidentiary hearing in 2003, Velasquez testified about the events. But the Kings County Supreme Court denied DeBerry’s motion on June 22, 2004. In the ruling, the court said that Velasquez was untruthful in his testimony that he and DeBerry were only acquaintances. In fact, they were both members of a subset of the Bloods gang. More important, the ruling said that Velasquez’s account deviated too widely from Collins’s testimony. In order for Velasquez to be believed, the court said, “Collins could not have been merely mistaken as to the identity of the perpetrator, but would have to [have been] lying about the whole occurrence.”

Collins recanted his testimony in 2018. He said: “My multiple identifications of DeBerry were false. On each occasion, the identification was the result not of a sincere and honest recollection on my part but rather the result of suggestions to me by a female detective involved in the case, whose name I recall being ‘Tufo.’ On multiple occasions, Detective Tufo suggested that I identify DeBerry as the shooter with promises and threats. The way this happened never sat right with me through the years.”

In his affidavit, Collins corroborated much of Velasquez’s account, including the scene at the chicken restaurant and the botched robbery attempt at Smurf Village.

But the statement also included new evidence on the investigation into the shooting and Tufo’s efforts to get Collins to identify DeBerry. Collins said that Tufo threatened him with arrest on a gun charge based on a weapon found at the shooting. “She told me that I had to cooperate with her and that if I did not, I would get time on the gun.”

He said that while he didn’t know who shot him, “Detective Tufo convinced me he was the shooter and so I went along with her.” Early in the investigation, Collins said, Tufo pointed to DeBerry while Collins was looking at a photo array and said something to the effect: “What about him? This is the guy that shot you.”

DeBerry was now represented pro bono by Samuel Hershey and other attorneys at White & Case. In a motion for a new trial filed in 2019, the attorneys argued that Collins’s recantation lined up with Velasquez’s account and showed that DeBerry was not involved in the shooting. In addition, they said that there was inadequate disclosure at trial of the assistance Collins received in his other criminal cases or of the tactics that Collins said Tufo used to encourage him to choose DeBerry from the initial photo array.

After an evidentiary hearing, Judge Lawrence Knipel vacated DeBerry’s conviction on June 16, 2020. He rejected DeBerry’s assertion of disclosure violations by police and prosecutors, noting that at least one court document disclosed to the defense mentioned Collins’s bench warrants and that DeBerry’s counsel could have asked whether Tufo was involved in the dismissals of those charges. Knipel also said that Collins’s testimony at the evidentiary hearing about Tufo’s conduct was inconsistent and unconvincing.

But, Knipel wrote, the substantial and detailed overlap between Velasquez’s account and Collins’s recantation was powerful evidence of a wrongful conviction.

“It is this consistency that convinces this court by clear and convincing evidence that Collins lied at trial when he identified DeBerry,” Knipel wrote. “While his reason for lying at trial remains unclear, the fact that he did so has at this point become manifest.”

DeBerry was released from prison on June 22, 2020. His charges were dismissed on July 27, 2020.

“My life is so bittersweet,” DeBerry told the New York Post. His daughter was 3 months old when he went to prison, and now she is in college. “I believed in the system, I just knew I would not go to prison for this, and it failed me.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 8/20/2020
Last Updated: 8/20/2020
State:New York
County:Kings
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Additional Convictions:Assault, Gun Possession or Sale
Reported Crime Date:1999
Convicted:2000
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:25 years to life
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:23
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No