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Shamel Capers

Other Queens County, New York exonerations
On May 18, 2013, a Saturday, 14-year-old D’aja Robinson attended a block party, then went to a friend’s Sweet 16 birthday party at a club in the southern part of Queens, New York.

The birthday party ended prematurely a little after 8 p.m. after someone at the club fired a gun. D’aja and others left and walked to the bus stop a few blocks away. She was shot in the head after boarding the Q6 bus, and she died at the corner of Sutphin and Rockaway boulevards, an intersection that was later renamed in her memory.

Investigators with the New York Police Department recovered nine shell casings and 12 deformed bullets or pieces of copper jacketing. The department’s analysts said that all the firearm evidence that was suitable for comparison indicated a .40-caliber gun fired the shots. The police said the shooting was gang-related and that D’aja was not the intended target.

On May 22, 2013, police brought Terrance Payne in for questioning after he was identified as the person who fired the shot in the club prior to D’aja’s death. Payne described D’aja’s shooter to police and later identified 21-year-old Kevin McClinton, a member of the Snow Gang, from a photo array as “the boy who he saw shoot the gun at the bus that night.”

Testifying before the grand jury on July 9, 2013, Payne said that McClinton was the only shooter at the bus stop. He said McClinton fired 10 shots, five up close and then five more as he was running away.

Police arrested McClinton in South Carolina on June 4, 2013. He was indicted for murder in October 2013. Around this time, McClinton had made several statements, either to police or that officials recorded in his conversations from jail, that appeared to implicate Shamel Capers in the shooting. But the police closed the investigation, in part because these statements appeared to be self-serving and nothing more than blame-shifting. In one conversation recorded at the jail, McClinton told a relative, “You got to tell them … to give up Shamel Capers’s name as the one who was shooting through that bus. They got to give up his name.”

At the time of the shooting, Capers was 15 years old and also associated with the Snow Gang. In video surveillance taken just before the shooting, Capers could be seen at the bus stop with McClinton and about 20 other young men and women.

Early in the investigation, police interviewed 18-year-old Lael Jappa after investigators found his cellphone near the crime scene. He denied seeing the shooter and offered few details about what happened.

After Jappa was arrested in September 2013 for robbery and December 2013 for burglary, prosecutors contacted his attorney and asked to speak with Jappa about the shooting. He agreed to meet but did not provide any more information.

In April 2014, Jappa was stopped in a stolen car and charged in a wider conspiracy case along with other members of the Snow Gang. In a series of meetings with members of the Queens County District Attorney’s Office, Jappa now implicated Capers in the shooting. Prosecutors didn’t record or make reports of these meetings, but they entered into a cooperation agreement with Jappa on July 1, 2014.

Police arrested Capers on July 30, 2014.

McClinton went to trial first, in April 2016, in Queens County Supreme Court. A detective introduced a statement McClinton made to the police, where he acknowledged firing a gun and being in the surveillance video. Payne testified that McClinton pointed a gun at him, asked if he was affiliated with another gang, and then began firing at the bus.

Jappa testified that he stood near the bus at the time of shooting. He said he heard someone yell “blow that,” and that he drew his own pistol, which jammed, and turned around to see Capers firing a gun. McClinton then took the gun out of Capers’s hand and ran away as additional shots were fired, Jappa testified. He said that he did not see McClinton fire the gun.

Raquan Bryant testified that he had met up with McClinton and Capers earlier in the day and that Capers had shown him a gun in the waistband of his pants. He said it looked like a .40-caliber. Bryant testified that Capers shot first, and then McClinton took the gun and kept shooting.

McClinton did not testify. A jury convicted him on May 9, 2016, of second-degree murder and two counts of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon. He received a sentence of 40 years in prison that was later reduced on appeal to 25 years.

Capers went to trial a year later, in June 2017. The state built its case around the testimony of Bryant and Jappa.

Jappa’s testimony differed from his testimony before the grand jury and at McClinton’s trial. Now, he said that he only heard about two shots while he was facing the bus. He said that he saw Capers give the gun to McClinton but never saw either of them fire the weapon.

Bryant’s testimony was consistent between the two trials. He testified about his interaction with Capers earlier in the day and what he said he saw at the time of the shooting. He also testified that McClinton said that Capers fired first when McClinton described the events to other members of the Snow Gang after the shooting. Bryant said that Capers was “right there” when McClinton spoke and did not say anything.

Ordinarily, Bryant’s testimony about McClinton’s blame-shifting to Capers would be inadmissible hearsay, but New York courts allowed its use under limited circumstances, where a defendant’s silence could be construed as an adoption of the statement. Capers’s attorney lodged a preliminary objection to this evidence, but the judge deferred a ruling until Bryant testified. The defense attorney didn’t raise the objection again.

The defense did not present any witnesses, but Capers’s attorney entered two stipulations into evidence. The first said that Capers had voluntarily come to the police precinct in June 2013 to discuss the shooting. The second said that Capers had surrendered to the police without incident at the time of his arrest.

The jury convicted Capers on June 21, 2017, of second-degree murder and two counts of criminal possession of a weapon. At sentencing, the judge set aside the weapons charges because Capers was 15 years old at the time of the shooting. Capers received a sentence of 15 years to life in prison.

In April 2020, Capers asked the Queens County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit to review his case. He was represented pro bono by Winston Paes at the Debevoise & Plimpton law firm, which had heard about his case from a social worker at Getting Out Staying Out, a nonprofit that works with people who are incarcerated or recently released from jail or prison.

The CIU’s investigation, led by CIU Director Bryce Benjet, included examining Facebook pages from persons associated with the crime and the prosecution. Investigators also listened to more than 1,000 recorded jail calls, and interviewed witnesses, police, prosecutors, and defense counsel.

On November 16, 2022, the parties filed a joint motion to vacate Capers’s conviction. The heart of the motion was a recantation by Jappa, who said that he lied about identifying Capers and did not see who shot at the bus. He initially recanted to an investigator with Capers’s defense team in 2020, then repeated the recantation in subsequent interviews with the CIU in 2022.

Jappa said he created this false narrative from his own knowledge of events, discussions with his attorney, and questions asked during the proffer sessions. He said that he felt his only way to avoid a lengthy prison sentence in his own case was to falsely implicate Capers.

As part of the effort to corroborate Jappa’s statements, the CIU listened to calls he made to his mother in the late summer of 2014. In these calls, Jappa said he was providing false information as part of his cooperation agreement. Copies of these phone calls were in the prosecutor files for Jappa’s unrelated conspiracy case, but they were not referenced in the trial material for Capers or McClinton.

In his interviews with the CIU, Jappa repeated his account of trying to fire his gun after the shooting started. He also said that he suspected Capers had a gun that day and planned to rob him of the weapon. Jappa said he felt remorse for the harm his false testimony caused.

“Jappa’s testimony was crucial to the prosecution and conviction of Capers for murder,” the motion said. “Jappa’s testimony was necessary to support even the decision to charge [Capers] with the murder. His eyewitness account was the only evidence implicating Capers that cannot be directly sourced to a blame-shifting accusation by McClinton.”

Payne did not testify at Capers’s trial. Before the grand jury, he testified he saw only McClinton fire the gun. At McClinton’s trial, he testified to a slightly different account but did not identify Capers as a shooter.

The CIU investigation attempted to learn whether Capers’s attorney received the grand jury testimony. According to a trial transcript, a prosecutor said she turned over this information. The defense attorney said in an interview that he did not receive this material. The motion said the fact that Payne wasn’t called as a defense witness supported the attorney’s claim, but it also noted that the attorney told investigators that he did not have time to review all the documents provided by prosecutors.

Separately, Bryant recanted part of his testimony that he saw Capers with a gun earlier in the day. The recantation was made to a defense investigator in 2019, but the CIU did not interview Bryant.

Judge Michelle Johnson of Queens County Supreme Court granted the motion to vacate and a separate motion to dismiss the charges on November 17, 2022. Capers was released from prison later that day.

“My thoughts today are with D’aja Robinson’s family,” District Attorney Melinda Katz said. “This motion might not be easy for them to accept, but they can take comfort in knowing that the solely culpable individual, Kevin McClinton, will be spending a very long time in jail, perhaps the rest of his life.”

In April 2023, Capers filed a claim for compensation in the New York Court of Claims. In February 2024, Capers filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of New York and several police officers.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 12/21/2022
Last Updated: 7/5/2024
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Weapon Possession or Sale
Reported Crime Date:2013
Sentence:15 to Life
Age at the date of reported crime:15
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No