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Leroy Harris

Other New Haven County, Connecticut exonerations
In the early morning hours of May 21, 1983, 36-year-old Sergio Marocco, owner of the Electra Bar, a nightclub in New Haven, Connecticut, was robbed at gunpoint by three men wearing ski masks. The robbers took $40 from him, as well as his green Chevrolet Impala.

The men drove the Impala to a dead end street near a public housing development and waited for people to rob. Less than an hour later, two women, 25-year-old C.S. and 27-year-old D.G., got lost looking for a bar and turned down the dead end street. They were approached by two men, who robbed and raped them while a third man acted as a lookout.

At the time of the crime, 22-year-old Leroy “Jock” Harris lived in Brooklyn and frequently visited family members who lived in New Haven. He became a suspect early on based on street chatter that someone named “Jocko” was involved. In September 1983, four months after the crimes, the victims viewed a photographic lineup that included Harris, but they did not identify him.

New Haven police Detective John Dattilo subsequently reported that an informant had said that two of the assailants were Charles Myers and Jerome Downing. Dattilo’s report did not name the informant.

Subsequently, in 1984, C.S. and D.G. identified Myers as one of the three men and D.G. specifically said Myers assaulted her. Myers confessed but said Downing had assaulted D.G. Myers said a third man, whom he did not know, assaulted C.S. D.G. said she was sure that Myers assaulted her. D.G. also said that she was 80 percent sure that Downing assaulted C.S.

After Downing and Myers were charged with the crimes, Downing implicated Harris as the third participant in the crimes. According to Downing, he—not Myers—had assaulted D.G and Harris had assaulted C.S.

In August 1984, the three victims were called to the police station and viewed another photographic lineup that included Harris. No one identified him as being involved. On September 18, 1984, based on Downing’s statement, Harris was charged with first-degree robbery and first-degree sexual assault.

Harris was not in custody long. When he came to court for his arraignment, another prisoner attacked the judge. During the ensuing commotion, Harris, who maintained he was innocent, walked out of the courthouse. He was not arrested again until May 10, 1986.

Meanwhile, on December 14, 1984, Downing pled guilty to two counts of first-degree robbery and one count of first-degree sexual assault. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but all except for three years were suspended. Myers pled on February 15, 1985 to two counts of first-degree robbery and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In November 1986, Harris was brought to court for proceedings related to the 1984 escape. While in the lockup, three other inmates assaulted and overpowered two sheriff’s deputies and locked them in a cell. Harris used a chair to smash open a glass panel to the guard control center and opened an exit door. All four men escaped. All four were later re-arrested—Harris was taken back into custody in July 1988. He was convicted of the 1986 escape and entered an Alford plea to charges of assaulting a peace officer and kidnapping.

In April 1989, Harris finally went to trial in New Haven County Superior Court on the robbery and rape charges.

Although C.S. and D.G. initially told police that Myers sexually assaulted D.G. and Downing assaulted C.S., the prosecution told the jury that Myers was the lookout, Downing assaulted D.G. and Harris sexually assaulted C.S.

Although C.S and D.G. had initially been unable to identify Harris, both now identified him in court, and both testified consistently with the prosecution’s theory of events. C.S. pointed to Harris, who was the only Black man in the courtroom, and said, “I’m certain of that face…He’s the one who did it to me.” D.G. testified, “It’s him…He was on [C.S.’s] side [of the car].”

When Downing got on the witness stand, he recanted his previous statement. He said he had never seen Harris before. “I don’t know that man,” Downing testified. "I never saw that man before.” He said he falsely implicated Harris because “I, myself, saw it as a way for me to make it lenient for me to try to get out of this with as less time as possible and made an agreement with the…New Haven Police Department.”

The prosecution then called Detective Dattilo, who testified for the first time that the unnamed informant who first implicated Myers and Downing back in 1983 was Harris. During the ensuing six years leading up to the trial, Dattilo had never reported this fact and had not included the information in 1984 when he prepared the arrest warrant for Harris. Dattilo had only referred to the tipster as a “known and reliable informant,” even though there was no evidence Harris had ever been a police informant.

Marocco, who had not identified Harris previously, also identified Harris in court as the man who robbed him. Marocco said he saw the robbers’ “faces clearly.” He also testified that “a face is a face and I remember faces.”

Laura Barrows, an employee of Marocco’s nightclub, testified that she recognized Myers and Downing as being in the club earlier that night and that it was possible that Harris was with them.

Nearly a week after Marocco finished testifying, outside of the jury’s presence, Harris’s defense attorney asked about a reference in Harris’s arrest warrant to another case number affiliated with the case. Prosecutor James Clark objected to turning over the report for that case, saying there was no information in this report that had not already been disclosed in other reports.

Clark said, “I don’t have to give [the defense attorney] police reports unless they contain additional information over and above what is contained elsewhere. The fact is the police report…[does] not contain anything different.”

However, the court ordered the state to disclose the report. It showed that in two separate interviews shortly after he was robbed, Marocco had told police that the best description he could give was Black men in their teens. He said he could not identify any of them because the crime “happened too fast.” All were wearing ski masks, he said.

Although the report could have been used to impeach Marocco’s identification, the defense failed to recall him to the witness stand.

D.G.'s clothing and rape kit were put into evidence at trial, as was C.S.'s clothing, but not her rape kit, which contained no semen or other evidence. No physical evidence at the time implicated Harris. Blood typing had been attempted in 1983 on D.G.’s rape kit, but the results were inconclusive and not introduced at the trial. C.S.’s blouse was introduced as evidence. She testified that Harris tore it during his attack on her.

During closing argument, prosecutor Clark told the jury, "[I]f you can believe that those two women did not see a person in this courtroom who had done something terrible to them, then you ought to give them some kind of acting award.”

Clark also falsely argued that C.S. had heard someone refer to her assailant as “Jock.” Clark told the jury: “And remember, she’s like this far away from him when she turns and she remembered him startling when somebody says Jock. She couldn't remember any more than Jock…It’s in Jerome Downing’s statement that Jock is one of his names.”

The defense did not object to the arguments.

On April 11, 1989, Harris was convicted of three counts of first-degree robbery and one count of first-degree sexual assault. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison.

Harris tried one time to escape. In 1992, desperate to be free and with his family, he tried to escape Somers Correctional Facility but was stopped by armed guards before he could reach the perimeter of the facility. Harris later recalled seeing “their guns drawn and pointed at me” and “their hands shaking as they yelled at me to get back.”

Harris realized he could have been killed. He later said, “At that point, I knew I had to stop doing stupid stuff, stop trying to go against the system, and start using it. I had to change my mindset and my approach.”

Harris began reading, writing, and researching extensively, with the help of the law library and other inmates. He wrote poetry and songs, creating an outlet to work though his mental and emotional struggles. He became a volunteer for the Literacy Volunteers of America program and tutored other prisoners who were trying to obtain their GEDs. He qualified to work as a barber, and he was invited to take culinary courses and to prepare food for prison staff and administrators.

Harris also pursued his freedom. He researched his case, the law, and the criminal justice system. He filed multiple habeas corpus petitions, challenging his convictions and seeking his release, though none succeeded.

He contacted the Connecticut Innocence Project, which represented him from 2008 to 2011 in an effort to locate forensic evidence in his case that was said to be lost. He also reached out to the Innocence Project in New York, which agreed to take on his case after a two-year investigation. In 2015, with the help of the Innocence Project, Harris successfully petitioned for DNA testing of C.S’s blouse. The testing identified a male profile that did not match Harris. C.S.’s rape kit had been lost.

In 2017, Innocence Project attorney Vanessa Potkin filed a motion for a sentence modification on Harris’s behalf and entered into negotiations with the State. The motion cited the failure to disclose the police report detailing Marocco’s inability to make an identification and the failure of Harris’s attorney to act on that information. It further noted the DNA evidence from the blouse, as well as prosecutor Clark’s improper closing argument. The motion accused Clark of presenting evidence that he should have known was false—Detective Dattilo’s claim that Harris was the unnamed informant in 1983.

The motion also noted that in 2012, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that in court identifications made for the first time at trial–which all the witnesses did at Harris’s trial– “are so unduly suggestive that they implicate due process protections and are therefore inadmissible where identity is at issue.”

At first, the prosecution said it would not defend Harris’s conviction, but then backed off and said it would agree to Harris’s release from prison only if he entered an Alford plea to three counts of robbery and one count of kidnapping. Harris agreed to that demand. On November 21, 2017, he entered the plea in which he maintained his innocence, but conceded that the prosecution had evidence that could support a conviction. He was released nearly 29 years after his conviction in 1989.

In December 2021, attorney David Keenan and attorneys from the law firm of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer filed an application for an absolute pardon with the Connecticut Board of Pardon and Paroles. The 24-page application recited the evidence detailed by the Innocence Project as well as Harris’s personal journey.

“Mr. Harris’s story is one of incredible tragedy and remarkable strength,” the application said. “Despite the absence of evidence to support his conviction and the numerous errors that occurred at his trial, Mr. Harris was convicted and received what amounted to a life sentence. He was torn from his wife, his daughter, his life, and his freedom. Yet he never gave up. Instead, he underwent a journey of tremendous personal growth while incarcerated, committing himself to fighting for his freedom and living a law-abiding and productive life. After suffering wrongful incarceration for decades, and fighting relentlessly for his release, he finally obtained his freedom but was required to enter a plea to other crimes he did not commit. Mr. Harris nonetheless managed to pick up the pieces of his life and rebuild it after his release, and today he is a contributing member of society and a positive force in the lives of others.”

On July 26, 2022, the application was approved, and Harris was granted an absolute pardon. In January 2024, the state of Connecticut agreed to pay Harris $7.5 million in state compensation.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/21/2022
Last Updated: 2/21/2024
County:New Haven
Most Serious Crime:Sexual Assault
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1983
Sentence:80 years
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes