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Emel McDowell

Other Kings County, New York CIU exonerations
At about 12:25 a.m. on October 27, 1990, 911 operators began receiving calls about shots being fired outside a community center in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.

Paramedics and officers with the New York Police Department responded. Jonathan Powell, who was 19 years old, had been shot in the chest. He was pronounced dead an hour later at Kings County Hospital. Troy Coutrier had been shot in the leg and was taken to Brookdale Hospital.

Two detectives interviewed Coutrier at the hospital that morning. He said he had been at the center with two friends – 17-year-old Emel McDowell and another young man known in court records as JD – when several young men started hitting him. The fight moved outside, Coutrier said, where he was shot.

At about 10:15 a.m., the detectives went to interview McDowell at his home. His stepfather said McDowell wasn’t there, but he would have McDowell call the police. The detectives then interviewed JD, who lived on the same block as McDowell. He said that two young men jumped Coutrier and then everyone ran outside.

At 11:20 p.m., detectives interviewed 14-year-old Divine Thomas, who was Powell’s cousin. Thomas said Coutrier had started a fight with Thomas and Powell that ended with another young man “putting a gun on” Powell and shooting him. Thomas said he didn’t know this person. He gave an audiotaped statement to the police.

At about 11:50 a.m., detectives interviewed Danny Blackman. He described the fight between Coutrier and Powell, which ended with Powell stomping on Coutrier before they were pulled apart. Coutrier and his friends left, and Powell and Thomas followed. Outside the center, McDowell, whom Blackman only knew by his first name, pointed a gun at Thomas, but Powell jumped in front as McDowell fired the weapon. Blackman, who also gave an audiotaped statement, said he knew McDowell from the neighborhood and that they had attended the same junior high school.

McDowell arrived at the 79th Precinct just after 3 p.m. He was read his Miranda rights and then gave a statement. McDowell said he had been in the back of the community center when a friend told him that Coutrier was being beaten up. McDowell said he went outside, heard a shot and ran, accompanied by his girlfriend, Nicole Martin. When they returned to the center, McDowell said, he learned that Coutrier and Powell had been shot.

The interviews continued through the afternoon of October 27. Lawrence Lackey told the police that he had been at the party with McDowell, JD and Coutrier, and that Coutrier had fought with “a bunch of guys.” Lackey said he did not see the shooting but that he had been sitting with McDowell and Martin when it happened.

Martin told the police that she saw Powell “jump on” Courtier, and that she and McDowell ran out of the party and heard gunshots while they were on the street.

At about 4:50 p.m., police interviewed Tikia Jordan, who said she, McDowell, and others ran when a man named “Toto” pulled out a gun. When she returned, Jordan said, she saw Coutrier being placed into an ambulance. She said that she had heard that JD shot Powell.

Raheem Graham told police he saw the shooting and described the shooter as a young Black man, about 18 years old and skinny, wearing a red down jacket and a red hoodie. He said the man fired once at Powell, hitting him near the shoulder.

Prior to Graham’s interview, Graham, Thomas, and Blackman each viewed a live lineup that included McDowell. Graham did not make an identification. Blackman and Thomas each identified McDowell as the person who shot Powell.

At 9:32 p.m., McDowell gave a second statement to police. He said he had been at the party and Coutrier got into a fight. After the fight had been broken up, McDowell left the building with JD, Martin, and some others. Coutrier was in the back.

Outside, McDowell said, it appeared that Coutrier and Powell were getting ready to fight again. Just then, he said, JD walked past Powell and shot him with a small silver gun. McDowell gave slightly conflicting statements about where he was at the time of the shooting, but he said that he had been with JD when JD approached Powell and shot him.

After the shooting, McDowell said, he went to JD’s apartment. JD was hysterical and told McDowell that he had shot Powell. McDowell said he told JD that Powell, whom he knew from school, was “alright” and that JD had not needed to “take it that far.”

Later, McDowell went to a friend’s house. He said that two girls arrived and said that Powell had died. McDowell said he returned to JD’s home, but he wasn’t there. McDowell said he left a message, went home, took a shower, and then came down to the precinct, as the police had asked.

McDowell was arrested and charged with second-degree murder and criminal possession of a weapon.

Prior to trial, a hearing was held on the admissibility of the lineup identifications. Blackman knew McDowell, and he made his identification within a few seconds. Thomas struggled, unable to decide between McDowell and a filler. According to testimony at the hearing, Thomas was walking out of the viewing room when he said, “Detective, I realize it’s number four now. I am sure of it.” The officer who conducted the lineup did not ask Thomas how he came to this decision. The judge allowed both identifications.

McDowell’s jury trial in Kings County Supreme Court began on February 10, 1992.

Thomas testified about the shooting and the events leading up to it. He said he was not certain if Coutrier was the person who had initially confronted him at the party. Thomas said the lighting in the community center’s courtyard allowed him to see McDowell’s face as he shot Powell. He testified that McDowell was wearing a hooded sweater and a down jacket, which might have been red.

Thomas testified that he had become certain of his identification of McDowell during the lineup after he recalled that the shooter had “pointy ears.”

Blackman testified that McDowell was not involved in the initial fight. He said Powell had confronted several young men in the courtyard after the fight, and that three of these young men, including McDowell, had stopped, turned around, and pulled out guns. Blackman said McDowell was wearing a red hoodie. Blackman said McDowell drew his gun and pointed it at Thomas and Powell, who stepped in front of Thomas and said, “Why y’all pulling out guns, we came here to party and y’all want to start over nothing?”

Someone else asked McDowell what he wanted to do, Blackman said, and then McDowell fired once, hitting Powell.

McDowell did not testify and presented a limited defense. A witness named Jessica Brown, who had thrown the party, testified that she was good friends with Powell. Brown said she did not see McDowell shoot anyone, but she saw a young man in a brown leather jacket pointing a gun at Powell. She said she did not see Thomas or Blackman outside at the time of the shooting.

The jury convicted McDowell on both counts of February 18, 1992.

Prior to sentencing, McDowell’s attorney moved to set aside the verdict based on newly discovered evidence. A man named Jadon Jones said in an affidavit that he had run into JD shortly after the shooting and that JD had tried to give him the gun used in the crime. According to Jones’s statement, JD told him: “I just hit this kid. Take this around the corner.” Jones didn’t take the gun. He said he did not tell McDowell or the police about this interaction because he worried that he might be charged and because he expected McDowell to be acquitted.

The trial judge rejected the motion and sentenced McDowell to 22 years to life in prison.

McDowell appealed, arguing that the trial court sentenced him too harshly and erred in denying his motion to set aside the verdict. The New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division, Second Department affirmed the conviction and the sentence on June 12, 1995.

In 2007, McDowell again moved for a sentence reduction. He also moved for a new trial that same year on the basis of newly discovered evidence and ineffective assistance of counsel. He said his trial attorney had failed to interview potential witnesses. The claims of new evidence built on the 1992 Jones affidavit and included affidavits from several persons who either said they had seen JD shoot Powell, heard JD admit to the crime, or said McDowell wasn’t the shooter.

The motion also referenced a letter JD had written to McDowell in 1991. It said, in part: “Man I’m suffering. I have nightmares, I can’t sleep or eat. Sometimes I just pray for death. I don’t think I deserve to walk the face of the earth because one of my best friends is locked up, for something that he didn’t do. I feel like … if whoever didn’t do what they had to do, all three of us (me, you, Troy) probably would have been dead.”

On August 14, 2009, the New York Supreme Court granted McDowell a hearing to determine whether these affidavits were considered newly discovered evidence.

At the start of the hearing, on December 14, 2009, the state approached McDowell and offered to vacate the murder conviction if McDowell would then plead guilty to manslaughter under a theory of “acting in concert.” He would be released from prison on time served. As part of the deal, McDowell had to acknowledge his role in Powell’s death.

The judge asked McDowell: “Now, is it true that on or about October 27th, 1990, in the County of Kings, you, while acting in concert with at least two others, and you armed with a weapon, were involved in a shooting with the victim—caused the death of [the deceased], who died of gunshot wounds on October the 27th, 1990? Is that true?”

McDowell answered yes.

During the allocution, McDowell said he, JD, and another man had guns when they confronted Powell, but it was JD who fired. McDowell was released from prison on December 16, 2009.

Years later, McDowell approached the Conviction Review Unit (CRU) of the Kings County District Attorney’s Office. He said he had not shot Powell, possessed a gun, or acted in concert with others. He said he pled guilty to the manslaughter charge to get out of prison.

The CRU reinvestigated the case, interviewing McDowell and many of the original witnesses and persons who had submitted affidavits on behalf of McDowell. By then, Blackman and Coutrier were dead.

McDowell said the eyewitness identifications were wrong. On the night of the party, he was wearing a blue-and-white Giants varsity jacket. He also said that he had not talked with JD in the hours after the shooting. When he told police that JD was involved, it was based on what he heard from friends.

McDowell also said that he knew Powell from high school and that they got along. Neither JD nor Coutrier knew Powell, and McDowell said that if his friends had come to him in the heat of the moment, McDowell could have possibly diffused the conflict.

Trevare White had previously executed an affidavit on behalf of McDowell. He told the CRU that he saw JD and Powell exchanging words near the door of the community center. He said he heard a gunshot, then saw a flame near JD, and assumed JD shot Powell. He said “Toto” shot Coutrier. White said he told McDowell’s attorney much of this information, but that the attorney didn’t want to use him as a witness because White had a pending case.

In his interview with the CRU, Thomas said no one pressured him to identify McDowell. He said he was certain that McDowell was the shooter.

Raheem Brooks, who had also provided an affidavit in support of McDowell, said that JD had confessed to shooting Powell, describing in detail how he held the weapon. Brooks said that McDowell knew about this confession, but that McDowell did not ask Brooks to “snitch” and testify.

In his interview with the CRU, JD said that McDowell had been causing trouble at the party. He was drunk and pointing a gun at people’s heads. JD said he took the gun away from McDowell. He said McDowell was not present when Coutrier and Powell fought.

After the fight, according to JD, the bouncer told Powell and his friends to leave, and Powell made threats against JD, Coutrier, and McDowell.

Powell had a gun, JD said, and ran at the three young men. McDowell asked JD to pass him the gun, but JD said there wasn’t time to make the exchange, so he shot Powell in self-defense. JD said McDowell never held the weapon during these critical moments, but his behavior had been the source of the trouble that night and put him in the “predicament” where JD had to shoot Powell.

The CRU said that McDowell’s manslaughter conviction should be vacated. The eyewitness testimony by Thomas and Blackman did not withstand the scrutiny of the new information.

McDowell may have been next to JD, but there was insufficient evidence to establish “accessorial liability,” either by holding a weapon or acting in a hostile manner.

The report said, “Defendant did not tell or suggest to JD to shoot the deceased. Indeed, defendant could have been asking for the gun to diffuse the situation and prevent a shooting, as defendant told CRU he believed he could have done.” The CRU report said the police conducted an inadequate investigation, continuing to focus on McDowell even as new evidence suggesting JD’s involvement came to the attention of the detectives.

“Here, police accepted prematurely the theory that defendant was the shooter, and confirmation bias prevented the police from questioning or evaluating Thomas’ hesitant identification of defendant, as well as questioning Blackman’s identification of defendant,” the report said. “It also prevented the police from giving any credence to defendant’s claim that JD was the shooter.”

The report also said that McDowell’s attorney should have investigated JD’s 1991 letter or at the very least shown it to prosecutors, giving the state the chance to reevaluate its case. On March 16, 2023, Justice Matthew D’Emic of Kings County Supreme Court vacated McDowell’s manslaughter conviction and then dismissed his charge.

At the hearing, District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said: “Our legal system failed Emel McDowell when he was wrongfully convicted of murder … and his release years later was conditioned on an admission to a crime he did not commit. A full reinvestigation by our Conviction Review Unit confirmed that another individual fatally shot the victim, as Mr. McDowell has consistently maintained, and today we will ask to give him his good name back.”

Speaking to reporters, McDowell said: “I, as a young man, had believed that the criminal justice system had a way of sorting these things out on its own. So when I went to trial in 1992, I clearly believed that this would work. I said I’m not going to be convicted because I did not do it.”

In April 2023, McDowell filed a claim for state compensation. McDowell filed a federal civil rights case against the city of New York and police officers in August 2023.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 5/1/2023
Last Updated: 1/19/2024
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Weapon Possession or Sale
Reported Crime Date:1990
Sentence:22 to Life
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No