Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Donald Raynor

Other Connecticut Exonerations
At about 3:30 a.m. on June 18, 2007, 22-year-old Delano Gray was shot to death with a rifle outside a house on Enfield Street on the north side of Hartford, Connecticut.

His girlfriend, Alisha Stevens, told police that she and Gray were talking on the street, near Gray’s car, when another vehicle approached and then stopped. Stevens said she heard shots being fired and then saw Gray fall to the ground. Stevens was unable to give the police a description of the vehicle or the shooter.

Nearly seven years later, police arrested 27-year-old Donald Raynor and charged him with murder in Gray’s death.

The state’s case was built on the testimony of Jose Rivera, who said he and Raynor were members of a Hartford gang called Money Green Bedrock. (Raynor denied being a member of the gang.)

Raynor’s first trial, in the Hartford Judicial District, ended with a hung jury and mistrial on September 6, 2014. His second trial began on March 11, 2015.

By the time of the trials, Rivera had pled guilty to one murder and—after testifying against Raynor—was prepared to enter a second round of pleas to a second murder charge and other offenses. As part of his arrangement with the state, his sentence for all these crimes would be consolidated into 25 years in prison.

Rivera testified that Raynor told him that Gray, a member of a rival gang called “The Avenue,” had shot at him about a week before the murder. A few days later, Rivera said, he and Raynor were in the Avenue’s territory, and they saw Gray take a picture of them on his cellphone. Rivera said Raynor became upset and said, “That guy has got to go.”

On the day of the murder, Rivera said, Raynor called him up and said he wanted to try out a .223 Kel-Tec rifle on a member of the Avenue. They got the weapon and drove around Hartford until they saw Gray on Enfield Street. Rivera said he drove while Raynor sat in the back seat with the rifle and then shot Gray. Rivera said Raynor hung out the window so the shells would not be ejected into the car.

A year after Gray’s death, police had found a .223 Kel-Tec rifle inside a duffle bag at a garage in Hartford’s North End that was controlled by the West Hell Street gang. A pair of rubber-coated gloves was also inside the duffle bag.

At some point in the investigation, Raynor was reportedly identified as a contributor to DNA found on one of the gloves, but the gloves were lost prior to trial.

In addition, .223 shell casings had been recovered from a shooting on February 16, 2008, on Baltimore Street, about a mile west of Enfield Street. Gerard Petillo, the firearms examiner who performed the testing on the state’s firearm evidence, had died before trial, and James Stephenson, another examiner with the Connecticut State Police Forensic Science Laboratory, testified about his colleague’s findings.

Stephenson testified that 12 of the 15 casings from the Enfield Street murder were “identified to the test fires” from the recovered .223 rifle. For the Baltimore Street shooting, Stephenson testified that 17 of the 22 casings “were positively fired from” the recovered rifle and that the remaining five were “consistent with being fired in that rifle based on the class characteristics of the examination of the cartridge cases.”

Prior to Stephenson’s testimony, Norman Pattis, Raynor’s attorney, asked to hold a hearing on whether to allow Stephenson’s testimony as an expert witness, based in part on reports from 2008 and 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that called into question the reliability of firearm and toolmark examinations.

Judge Hunchu Kwak declined to hold a hearing, relying on an earlier court ruling that said such a hearing was unneeded because this area of forensic science was well-established. Pattis also sought to limit the scope of Stephenson’s testimony and prevent him from testifying with certainty about whether a specific firearm was used. Judge Kwak also denied this motion.

Along with the DNA, the state attempted to connect Raynor to the rifle through the testimony of Debra Parker, one of the apparent targets in the Baltimore Street shooting. Parker testified that Raynor and Zeke Roberts were the two men who shot at her and her partner. (Pattis had also unsuccessfully moved to suppress Parker’s identification and to exclude evidence about the shooting itself as uncharged misconduct.)

Although Parker testified she had known Raynor since he was a child, she also had initially told police she did not know the assailants and could not identify them. In addition, her initial description of the shooter was of a man several inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than Raynor.

At trial, she testified that she realized Raynor was the shooter several hours later, after her son told her about an altercation that occurred at a concert he had attended that night in Springfield, Massachusetts. Parker said she was browsing through photos from the concert on the Internet, came across a photo of Raynor and Roberts, and recognized them as the shooters. She said her son also told her the men were part of the altercation. Parker testified that she told the police this information the next day. (The officer who spoke with Parker testified she made no such statement.) It was only after the shooting death of a family member in 2011 that Parker came forward and formally identified Raynor.

During closing argument, Pattis urged jurors to view Rivera’s testimony with skepticism, reminding them of his cooperation agreement. “Jose Rivera is a cold-blooded killer ... he wants to get out of prison, he needs your help to do so,” Pattis said.

The jury convicted Raynor of murder on March 23, 2015. He was later sentenced to 60 years in prison.

Raynor appealed his conviction to the Connecticut Supreme Court, which transferred the case to the Connecticut Appellate Court. His appeal said that Judge Kwak erred in not holding a hearing to determine whether to allow Stephenson to testify as an expert witness. The appeal also said that even if Judge Kwak had held the hearing and allowed Stephenson to testify, he should have required Stephenson to say that his conclusions were not certainties but rather more likely than not to be correct.

Underpinning this part of the appeal was the NAS reports from 2008 and 2009, which cast doubt on the ability of firearm and toolmark examiners to identify the gun from which a bullet was fired and to exclude any other weapon, even those made by the same manufacturer.

“In the instant case, Stephenson took a ‘representative sample’ of the casings collected from each shooting incident and compared them to the casings known to have been fired from a particular Kel-Tec rifle,” the appeal said. “Without ever looking at the markings made on casings of similar manufacture when fired from any other Kel-Tec rifles, he concluded that certain characteristics of the markings he saw were uniquely made by the known Kel-Tec rifle. As described above, this methodology does not withstand scrutiny.”

The appeal said the court ruling that Judge Kwak relied on to allow Stephenson’s testimony without a hearing and restrictions was out-of-step with newer research that said toolmark identification was part of a long line of forensic evidence that offered little precision and scientific validity. “When alarming new revelations and criticisms are presented from reputable sources, there is an obligation to review our scientific progress, and consider how it affects the reliability of techniques that were previously accepted. Indeed, multiple methodologies, such as bite mark comparisons, microscopic hair comparisons, and comparative bullet lead analysis, have been previously welcomed by courts, only to be later limited after developments in science revealed them to be unreliable.”

The appeal also said Judge Kwak should have barred the state from presenting evidence, including Parker’s testimony, about the Baltimore Street shooting. It said Parker was an unreliable witness, and her testimony allowed the state to portray Raynor as an “unhinged killer” who “hunted human beings.”

The Connecticut Appellate Court affirmed the conviction on May 8, 2018. It said the ruling used by Judge Kwak is “controlling precedent on whether the science of firearm and toolmark identification is well established, and thus binds our resolution of this claim.” The appellate court acknowledged the NAS reports, but said they “do not overrule or otherwise abrogate the existing case law in this state.” The ruling also said Judge Kwak ruled properly in allowing the uncharged misconduct to be presented at trial.

Raynor appealed. On December 4, 2020, the Connecticut Supreme Court granted Raynor a new trial. It said Judge Kwak and the appellate court had disregarded the progress of science and applied the existing case law with too much rigidity.

“The gatekeeping function of the trial court requires, at a minimum, that judges consider any new evidence that a defendant presents when deciding whether to grant or deny a motion for a … hearing,” the court said. “To hold otherwise would transform the trial court’s gatekeeping function—which requires judges to regulate carefully which categories of scientific evidence are sufficiently reliable to present to the fact finders—into one of routine mandatory admission of such evidence, regardless of advances in a particular field and its continued reliability.”

Because of COVID-19 and other issues, Raynor’s retrial was delayed for several years, and he remained in prison. His retrial began in mid-March 2024. Now represented by Trent LaLima, Raynor was acquitted on March 12, 2024. Rivera again testified, and LaLima was able to undermine his credibility and also present new evidence challenging the state’s forensic evidence.

Raynor was freed after the acquittal. He said he wanted to be an advocate for people who were falsely accused of crimes and also work on jury reform. He told the Courant, “I’m going to try to get people together and talk to people who sit on juries. I’m going to try to start with talking to the communities about the importance of having people who look like you in the jury people … or not even people who look like you, people come from the same walks of life.”

“Somebody from Avon cannot understand the dynamics of the streets of Hartford,” Raynor said, referring to a nearby suburban town. “That’s not a jury of my peers. If you’re someone in Avon … you don’t know what it’s like to walk down the streets of Hartford at night.”

– Ken Otterbourg

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 5/8/2024
Last Updated: 5/8/2024
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2007
Sentence:60 years
Age at the date of reported crime:21
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No