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Dion Miller

Other New Jersey Exonerations
At around 8 p.m. on January 5, 2003, Romeo Cavero called his family and said he had been attacked and robbed just outside his apartment building in Jersey City, New Jersey. His family arrived quickly, and they found Cavero, who was 74 years old and used a cane, bleeding from the head. There were bloody footprints in the snow, blood on the sidewalk, and a bloody handprint in the building’s vestibule.

The family called the police and talked with 33-year-old Dion Miller, who said he had found Cavero after the attack and tried to help him. Miller and Cavero knew each other well. Miller did odd jobs for Cavero and lived with his grandmother in an apartment on the same floor as Cavero. In addition, Miller’s aunt, known as L.P., had a prior relationship with Cavero.

Eric Santiago, Cavero’s grandson, would later tell police that Miller approached him as the family waited for an ambulance and said that “it wasn’t him.” Santiago also said that Miller smelled of alcohol and was “rambling.”

Cavero told Officer Carmine Disbrow of the Jersey City Police Department that he had been hit on the head and robbed by “a Black male … driving a black vehicle.” He said he did not know his attacker. Disbrow said that Cavero appeared coherent, although a little “shaken and dazed.”

Later, at the hospital, Cavero told another officer that he might be able to identify his attacker, if the officer showed him photographs. The officer asked Cavero to call the police after his release. That didn’t happen. Cavero went into a coma and died on January 9, 2003.

That night, between 11 p.m. and midnight, Detectives Martin D’Angelo and Sean Means, along with two uniformed officers, went to the apartment building. Miller’s grandmother lived on the first floor. The seniors housing complex had a secured entrance, so the officers had to wait until a resident opened the front door before they could go to the grandmother’s apartment. The officers said they asked Miller to come to the police station. Miller would later testify that he assured his grandmother he would be back and left with the officers. He rode, without handcuffs, in the back of the cruiser.

Miller’s interview began at about 12:30 a.m. At around 1:45, according to the police, Miller said that he might know something about the attack. These statements were not written down or recorded, and Means would later testify that at this point, officers asked Miller to sign a statement acknowledging he had been read his Miranda rights.

After a pre-statement interview that was unrecorded and lasted about an hour, Miller gave a taped statement that said he acted as a lookout for a man named “Rock” and another man, and that these men robbed Cavero, hit him on the head with his cane, and left in a black truck. Miller said he stayed behind to help Cavero get inside the apartment building. Police charged Miller with conspiracy to commit murder, robbery, and aggravated assault.

At the time of Miller’s interrogation, it was common practice in New Jersey for law enforcement to record only a suspect’s final statement. Beginning in 2006, police in the state were required to record the entire interrogation of suspects in murder cases.

Rock was the nickname for a man named R.B., who was L.P.’s boyfriend. Police brought L.P., R.B., and R.B.’s teen-aged grandson, C.B., in for questioning on the morning of January 10. They were released a few hours later.

Sergeant William Heaney of the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office told Miller that the three potential suspects had contradicted his account. Miller said he wanted to make a new statement and signed a second Miranda waiver. After another unrecorded pre-statement interview, Miller gave a recorded statement at 2:41 p.m. Now, he said that Cavero said something that “triggered” Miller, and he took Cavero’s cane and struck him three to six times on the head. He said he didn’t take any money. Miller was charged with murder.

The police began the paperwork to move Miller to the Hudson County Jail. That took a few hours, and before the move, Miller gave a third statement. After signing a third waiver, he said that he hit Cavero in the head, took his money, and left to go to the liquor store. On the way, he panicked and dropped the money, then returned to the apartment to check on Cavero.

Miller’s first trial took place in 2005 in Hudson County Superior Court. Prior to trial, Miller’s attorney moved to suppress his statements to the police, arguing that Miller did not intelligently waive his rights and that Miller was effectively in custody from the time the police entered his apartment, requiring a Miranda warning before going to the police station.

At the hearing, Means testified that he and D’Angelo arrived at the apartment building with two uniformed officers. D’Angelo said that at the time, police didn’t have enough evidence to consider Miller a suspect, but D’Angelo didn’t explain why the police didn’t ring the doorbell or simply call the apartment.

Miller testified at the hearing. He said that at around 11:45 p.m. on January 9, he and his grandmother saw someone shining a flashlight through their living-room window. His grandmother called 911. The dispatcher told her the police were already at the building. Then came a knock at the front door.

Miller said that after he and the detectives arrived at the police station, they went into an interrogation room. He and D’Angelo chatted about sports, while Means made coffee. Miller said he asked D’Angelo why he was there, and whether it had to do with Cavero being in the hospital. According to Miller, D’Angelo said, “Yeah … that was correct, but he’s dead, you son of a bitch, and we’re homicide.”

Miller said he told the detectives about his whereabouts on January 5, how he arrived at his grandmother’s and saw blood outside the building. He said he was worried that she was hurt. After he checked on her, he followed the trail of blood to Cavero’s apartment. He knocked on the door. Cavero let him in and said he had already called his family and an ambulance was on its way.

Miller said that at about 1:30 a.m. on January 10, he asked to call his grandfather or a lawyer, but the detectives wouldn’t allow it because they had more questions to ask. They said he knew too much about the crime. Miller said he told them he had read about the attack in the local newspaper. A few minutes later, they handed him the rights waiver and told him to sign it. Miller said they neither read the waiver to him nor explained what he was signing.

Dr. Jonathan Mack, a neuropsychologist, testified at the hearing that Miller had been incompetent to waive his Miranda rights during his interrogation. He said Miller had a long history of alcohol abuse. Miller told Mack that on January 9, he had consumed more than 20 beers and three shots of brandy. Mack said that he listened to the recorded statements and detected “halting speech, slow speech, fairly abbreviated answers to questions … a little bit of slurring.” This suggested that Miller was tired and had been drinking. Factoring in the stressful situation of an interrogation, Mack said Miller was unable to make an intelligent waiver of his rights.

After the hearing, Judge Shirley Tolentino allowed the admission of Miller’s statements, but ruled that Miller’s point of custody began at the apartment, not the police station.

Miller’s attorney also moved prior to trial to allow Heaney to testify about other robberies in Jersey City around the time of the Cavero murder. Heaney testified at a hearing that several of the crimes, including those that led to charges against two other men, seemed similar to the events of the Cavero mugging. He testified that he reported these concerns to his supervisor, who told him to not pursue any further investigation in light of Miller’s statements to the detectives. Judge Tolentino allowed Heaney to testify about this potential third-party guilt.

Miller’s trial ended with a hung jury on June 30, 2005.

Prior to his retrial, now before Judge Paul DePascale, a new suppression hearing and third-party guilt hearing were held. Judge DePascale ruled that Miller’s statements were admissible, although he said that Miller wasn’t actually in custody until the time the detectives said he made his first incriminating statements. Separately, Judge DePascale ruled against allowing Heaney to testify about these other robberies.

The second trial began October 18, 2006. The jury heard Miller’s statements. Cavero’s family testified about Cavero’s relationship with L.P. and said they believed she was taking advantage of him by frequently asking him for money for herself and her teen-aged daughter.

Cavero's blood was found on his cane, and the medical examiner testified that Cavero’s injuries were consistent with being struck with a cane. Police had searched Miller’s apartment while he was in custody on January 10, and taken his clothing as evidence. They didn’t find any bloodstains on the clothes.

Miller’s attorney did not present an alibi defense. The only defense witness was Heaney, and he was barred from testifying about the other robberies. The jury convicted Miller on October 26, 2006, of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and two weapons charges. He received a sentence of 30 years in prison.

Miller appealed, arguing that his statements should have been suppressed because they were the result of an improper “two-step” procedure, where he was in custody but not advised of his Miranda rights until he made an incriminating statement. On August 10, 2010, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey remanded the case to Judge DePascale and asked him to make findings of fact. The appellate court noted that the two trial judges had heard different evidence at their respective suppression hearings and ruled differently about when Miller was actually in custody.

On November 19, 2010, Judge DePascale ruled that Miller’s statements were properly obtained, writing that Miller was initially only a witness when he went with the police to be interviewed on January 9, 2003. The Appellate Division affirmed this ruling on May 23, 2011.

Miller filed a motion for post-conviction relief, claiming that his attorney provided ineffective representation by failing to call four potential alibi witnesses to testify. Miller’s three sisters and his niece testified at an evidentiary hearing that they saw Miller in the hours before the attack on Cavero, and that he had left their house sometime before 8 p.m. to return to his apartment to get his grandmother ready for bed.

Both of Miller’s trial attorneys testified that the women’s statements about the events of that evening were not sufficiently specific, making them unhelpful in crafting an alibi defense. The attorney at the first trial said that the gaps in the alibis led him to pursue the third-party guilt angle as the cornerstone of the defense, which resulted in a hung jury. The attorney at the second trial was unable to present that third-party defense.

The Appellate Division affirmed the denial of the post-conviction petition on April 14, 2016, ruling that Miller’s attorneys made a reasoned decision not to pursue an alibi defense.

In April 2019, New Jersey created a statewide Conviction Review Unit (CRU), based in the office of the state’s attorney general. In November 2019, Miller filed a pro se application for the CRU to re-investigate his case. During that investigation, the New Jersey Innocence Project at Rutgers University began representing Miller.

On July 24, 2023, Miller’s attorneys filed a motion for a new trial, joined by a memorandum from the CRU, which said that Miller had suffered a “manifest denial of justice,” and had been wrongfully convicted for a murder he didn’t commit.

CRU investigators interviewed Heaney in April 2023, and he told them about numerous problems with the interrogations. He said that prior to Miller making his second and third statements, the detectives fed Miller information and then had him repeat it back. At one point, Heaney said, the officers called the prosecutor’s office to find out how many times Cavero had been hit in order to square Miller’s statement with the evidence. Heaney said Miller didn’t know how much money had been taken from Cavero until the detectives told him.

Heaney said Miller appeared to be drunk and exhausted as the questioning continued during the 17 hours of interrogation. He said that at one point, even Means appeared to doze off. Heaney said he spoke privately with Miller and asked him if he had attacked Cavero. Miller said no. Heaney said he asked Miller why he was confessing. According to Heaney, Miller said he didn’t want to get hurt.

Heaney said he told the Jersey City detectives about the possible holes in Miller’s statements, but the officers didn’t want to investigate other suspects. It was a “rush job,” he said.

Separately, the CRU interviewed L.P., R.B., and C.B. At the time of the robbery, C.B. and R.B. lived together, and C.B. said the police came to their house and took them both in handcuffs to the police station. His mother was also at the residence, but she was not allowed to accompany C.B.

At the station, the police told C.B. that R.B. and Miller had accused him and that he would be going to prison instead of the prom. C.B. was isolated for several hours. Then his mother showed up, the tone of the officers changed, and he was allowed to leave.

“[C.B.] was saved from further abuse when his mother came to advocate for him,” the CRU’s brief said. “No one came to help Mr. Miller.”

The CRU noted that Miller’s statements didn’t match Cavero’s account. Cavero said the assailant left in a car. Miller never said that. Cavero also never said he was struck with his cane. Most importantly, Cavero told the police he could identify his assailant, but he never identified Miller, even from the safety of the hospital.

The CRU brief also said that there is now a greater understanding of false confessions—and the situations that give rise to them—than existed in 2003 or 2006. Miller’s confessions checked many of the boxes. He was intoxicated at first, and then likely experiencing withdrawal at the end of his interrogation. He also had limited ability to understand the waivers he was given. In addition, his innocence might have worked against him. The CRU cited research suggesting that innocent people sometimes confess because they believe the truth will finally come out.

After the hung jury at the first trial, the state offered Miller a deal: If he pled guilty to second-degree manslaughter, the state would recommend a sentence of four years in prison. At the time, Miller had spent more than two years in pre-trial custody, which would have been credited toward his sentence, reducing his additional incarceration. “Mr. Miller nevertheless refused to accept it,” the CRU brief said. “It is difficult to believe that a guilty person would have turned down this bargain.”

On July 27, 2023, Judge Mitzy Galis-Menendez of Hudson County Superior Court granted Miller a new trial and then dismissed the charges against him. Miller was released from prison.

Attorney General Matt Platkin said in a statement: “Every day throughout our country, our criminal justice system is tested. Many times justice prevails. When it fails, it damages the system’s effectiveness and credibility. It is the responsibility of each of us to acknowledge our mistakes and attempt to right the wrongs that have been done.”

Laura Cohen, one of Miller’s attorneys, said “We hope that the lessons learned from this matter, particularly with regard to the causes and frequency of false confessions, will lead to exonerations of other innocent people and help prevent future wrongful convictions from occurring in New Jersey.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 8/14/2023
Last Updated: 8/14/2023
State:New Jersey
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Weapon Possession or Sale
Reported Crime Date:2003
Sentence:30 years
Age at the date of reported crime:33
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No