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Taron Hill

Other New Jersey Exonerations
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Just after midnight on September 25, 2004, a gunman approached a handful of people at the intersection of Thurman and Louis streets in Camden, New Jersey, and fired nine shots.

Although the gunman missed his intended target, a drug dealer named Karah Moore, two women were killed: 45-year-old Robin Battle was shot while sitting in a car; 23-year-old Tinesha Lewis was shot while standing across the street.

Harry Cabassa told police that he heard the first shots while driving. He said he turned the corner and saw a man dressed in black shooting a gun. Very quickly, Cabassa saw a “little gray” car drive off. He told police that he did not see the shooter get in the car, but he suspected that he had. Cabassa followed the vehicle about a quarter mile until he saw it parked in front of a house in the 1400 block of Pershing Street.

Police interviewed Moore on October 12, 2004. He said that Cabassa returned to the corner a few minutes after the shooting and told Moore about following the gray car to Pershing Street.

Moore recognized the address as home to two brothers, Taron Hill, who was 18 years old, and his brother, Anthony Hill, who was 19 years old.

Moore said that he had seen Anthony drive past the corner of Thurman and Louis in a boxy gray car with several other people just minutes before the shooting. But he also told police that he believed Taron was the shooter because he said that on the day after the shooting, he saw Taron wearing a hoodie and sneakers similar to those worn by the shooter. He also said that Taron had been involved in the death of his cousin and that he was trying to eliminate Moore as a competitor in the drug trade.

Wakita Saunders, who lived at the intersection of Thurman and Louis, told police on October 15, 2004, that she heard the shots as she was entering her building. She ran upstairs to her apartment and went out on the porch. She said she saw a man running and then stuffing what appeared to be a gun into the waistband of his pants. At one point, she said, the object fell out on the ground, and the man stooped down to pick it up and could see Saunders watching him. Saunders told police that the man got in a gray car.

Saunders told police that she recognized the man from the neighborhood but didn’t know his name. She initially identified him simply as “Angie Moore’s nephew,” which made him related to Karah Moore.

For reasons that aren’t clear in the public record, the police did not create a photo array. Instead, detectives showed Saunders a single photo of Taron Hill, and she identified him as the man she saw running from the shooting. Taron and Anthony were similar in appearance, and the police later showed Saunders a photo of Anthony Hill. Saunders said the men resembled each other, but the man she saw that night was “a lot skinnier” and had “lighter, buggier eyes.” She said her initial identification was correct.

Police arrested Taron Hill on December 1, 2004, and charged him with two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of illegal use of a weapon.

His trial in Camden County Superior Court began in October 2006. While police recovered shells and bullet slugs from the crime scene, no forensic or physical evidence tied Hill to the shooting.

Cabassa testified about what he saw and heard of the shooting. Saunders identified Hill as the shooter, but her testimony came under attack after the defense introduced a notarized letter that Saunders signed, which said in part: “I, Wakita Saunders, on the day in question did not see the individual Taron Hill. I did see a gray car that was parked outside my home. I do not have any recollection of the night in question due to the fact that I was intoxicated.”

Saunders denied the letter’s truth and said that Hill’s father, Anthony Blake, pressured her to sign it. She testified that Blake paid for the notary fee, that she could not read well, that she did not read the letter before signing it, and that nobody read it to her. Blake testified that he didn’t force anybody to sign anything. He said that he had run into Saunders in the neighborhood and that she had insisted that she had identified “Angie Moore’s nephew,” not his son, Taron, as the shooter.

Saunders’s testimony came under further attack when her sister, Diana Anderson, and her niece, Nadira Anderson, each testified that Saunders couldn’t have seen the shooting because she was with them elsewhere at the time of the shooting. But their testimony was clouded after Diana Anderson acknowledged that she had difficulty reading her statement about Saunders’s whereabouts.

Alexis Chaplin, who was related to the mother of Taron Hill’s young daughter, said she saw Hill driving a gray car down a nearby street about five minutes before the shooting.

Cabassa and Saunders each identified a photo of a Pontiac Vibe as being similar to the car they saw. The state presented evidence that Christine Stanley, Hill’s grandmother, had rented a 2005 Vibe a day or so before the shooting. Stanley testified that she drove the car to work on the night of the shooting and had never allowed anyone else to use it.

Separately, two jailhouse informants testified against Hill. The first, Barrick Wesley, was with Hill at the Salem County Jail. He testified that Hill had confided in him that he accidentally shot the women and that he wondered whether Saunders could be paid to recant her testimony. This informant also testified that he had worked as an informant before and that it was likely he would soon be indicted on more serious charges.

The second informant, Damien Harrell, had been in the Camden County Jail with Hill and said in a statement that Hill admitted firing the shots that killed the women after explaining that someone had promised to pay him $10,000 to kill Karah Moore. He recanted much of this statement at trial.

The jury convicted Hill on October 13, 2006 on all four counts. He was later sentenced to 60 years in prison.

Hill appealed. He claimed that as the jury was deliberating, Anthony Hill made a startling admission that he was the shooter. At an evidentiary hearing on March 2, 2007, Blake said that his son’s confession had occurred after Blake had called Anthony to come to the courthouse to support Taron. Blake said that they spoke for about 20 minutes and that Anthony described the shooting in detail. Taron Hill also testified that Anthony called him just after the jury’s verdict and promised to turn himself in. An aunt, Stacy Hill-Fontanez, testified that she overheard the telephone conversation between the brothers and that Taron’s description was accurate.

Hill also said that Anthony had written letters promising to make things right, but he did not produce those letters at the hearing. Anthony Hill did not testify at the evidentiary hearing.

In addition, a woman named Sonia Still testified that Anthony admitted to the shootings during the trial. She also testified that she had been with Taron from around 8 p.m. on September 24, 2004, to 1 a.m. on September 25, 2004, but that Anthony had been driving his grandmother’s rented Pontiac Vibe.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Thomas Brown Jr. of Camden County Superior Court denied Hill’s motion, stating that this was “a clear case of manufactured evidence, coercion of a witness to recant testimony, [and] a complete lack of credibility [by] clearly biased and interested witnesses.”

Hill appealed that ruling. The Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court denied his appeal on June 17, 2010. It said: “Like the judge, we are satisfied that the testimony of the independent witnesses who testified at trial, and whose credibility was not weakened in any significant respect, was so strong that the unreliable testimony presented at the hearing would not have changed the jury's verdict if a new trial were granted.”

The New Jersey Supreme Court declined to hear Hill’s appeal. Hill filed a second appeal in the New Jersey courts in 2010, stating his attorney had been ineffective at trial. This appeal said the attorney failed to properly secure Saunders’s statement that eliminated Taron Hill as a suspect, allowing the state to claim it was fraudulent. The appeal also said the attorney should have asked for a hearing on whether to admit Saunders’s identification because the police only showed her a single photo. The Appellate Division denied this appeal on June 28, 2016.

On September 21, 2017, Hill filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. The petition restated most of the claims made in his state appeals. Judge Renee Marie Bumb denied the motion on May 9, 2018. Without addressing the merits of the claim, Bumb said that Hill failed to file his petition in a timely manner consistent with federal law.

In April 2019, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal created a statewide conviction-review unit. Hill, now represented by attorney Justin Bonus, brought the case to the attention of the unit, which began its own investigation.

On July 8, 2021, the attorney general’s office notified the courts that it wanted to vacate Hill’s conviction and dismiss his charges. Much of the findings of the state’s investigation were sealed, as prosecutors said there was a re-investigation into the murders by the Attorney General’s Cold Case Network. But the public pleadings said, “there is clear and convincing evidence that Mr. Hill was wrongfully convicted.”

The filing said Saunders’s single-photo identification of Hill was troubling. “Although this evidence was admitted at trial, it is not an investigative best practice under the facts of this case,” the filing said.

Wesley recanted his testimony in 2010, and the filing noted that at the time of Hill’s trial there was insufficient oversight on the use of this type of testimony. In addition, the CRU had obtained post-conviction recordings that supported Hill’s claim of innocence.

Judge Edward McBride Jr. of Camden County Superior Court vacated Hill’s conviction and dismissed his charges on July 9, 2021. It is the first exoneration by the New Jersey CRU.

Hill walked out of the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton that afternoon, greeted by his family, friends and supporters, including his 16-year-old daughter, Taniyah Hill. According to NJ Advance Media, Hill said he was determined to make up for lost time with his family and his community and that he planned to start a nonprofit to help other wrongfully convicted prisoners.

“I left a lot of innocent men behind,” he said. “So I’m not only challenging the conviction review unit, but I’m challenging the entire justice system to get it right.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 7/26/2021
Last Updated: 7/26/2021
State:New Jersey
County:Camden
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:2004
Convicted:2006
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:60 years
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No