On the evening of December 29, 1979, a group of young people was robbed at gunpoint in a park in Brooklyn, New York. The victims, between fifteen and twenty in all, were gathered in Marine Park, a notorious open-air drug market, when three armed assailants approached and ordered them to lie face down on the ground. As the gunmen rifled through their belongings, two or more of the victims attempted to resist the robbery. Two shots were fired in response, striking and killing a nineteen-year-old male. After the gunfire, the assailants quickly entered a van and fled the scene.
Detectives interviewed the surviving victims and asked them to leaf through computerized images of various locals with criminal records. One of the victims, a fifteen-year-old boy named Robert Tobin, who would himself go on to rack up a considerable list of offenses in the near future, identified a photo of one William Ferro as closely resembling one of the robbers. The police discovered that William Ferro had previously been arrested with a man named Robert McLaughlin. By mistake, the photograph of a different Robert McLaughlin, a man with no connection whatsoever to Ferro, was retrieved from police files where it had been placed after he had been arrested on an assault charge for which he was never convicted.
As he was shown the incorrect Robert “Bobby” McLaughlin’s photo, Tobin was told – according to the interviewing detective’s later recollections – that he saw before him a known criminal associate of Ferro. Encouraged by this information, the victim claimed that McLaughlin’s face looked familiar as well. At a live line-up assembled shortly thereafter, Tobin again identified McLaughlin, this time with a good deal more certainty that he had been one of the gunmen. Seven other victims failed to pick McLaughlin out of line-ups, claiming that there was insufficient lighting in the park to discern any of the attackers’ features. One other victim, Tom Dell’Osso, had, like the slain man, grappled with the murderer. Dell’Osso insisted he had gotten a good view of the attacker and offered a rudimentary physical description of the man who had committed the homicide, a description which differed dramatically from McLaughlin’s in each of its basic elements. Needless to say, Dell’Osso did not select McLaughlin out of the line-up. Nevertheless, on the strength of Tobin's identification, McLaughlin was arrested and charged with murder.
The state’s case against McLaughlin contained little more than Tobin’s eyewitness testimony and the supposed connection between McLaughlin and Ferro. A slight but crucial piece of misinformation was imparted when a detective related the original identification process to the jury. It was falsely explained that an officer had simply typed Tobin’s description of the robber into the police database and the system had immediately narrowed in on an image of McLaughlin, which Tobin then confirmed to be one of the gunman. The actual, far more arbitrary, path to McLaughlin’s face – by way of a name scribbled on the back of the police photo of Ferro – was never mentioned during the course of the trial.
McLaughlin’s court-appointed attorney’s main strategy was to establish her client’s alibi for the night in question. To that end she called four friends to testify that they had spent the later hours of December 29th drinking and smoking marijuana in a parked car and in a neighborhood bar, and that McLaughlin had been present at all times. The testimony of one young woman cast some doubt on the alibi argument when she claimed, contrary to the assertions of McLaughlin’s friends, that she had in fact not come to the bar that night and had no memory of seeing McLaughlin around the time of the murder.
McLaughlin himself did not take the stand, evidently because his lawyer thought it prudent to avoid mention of his earlier arrest. She also chose not to introduce as witnesses the two robbery victims who had been personally acquainted with McLaughlin prior to the crime and who had failed to pick McLaughlin out of police line-ups. Even more damagingly, the trial judge neglected to inform the jury that the prosecution was obliged, by law, to disprove the alibi defense presented by McLaughlin in order for his guilt to be considered successfully demonstrated. Out of apparent carelessness, defense counsel made no effort to remedy this gap in the jurors’ understanding of their responsibilities. Moreover, neither side remarked on the blatant incongruity between McLaughlin and Dell’Osso’s depiction of the murder. (McLaughlin’s representative later claimed she had not been made privy to that depiction; the prosecutor, however, referenced the memo in her address to the jury, strongly suggesting that defense counsel was, or at least had the opportunity to be, aware of that crucial piece of evidence.)
At the close of the trial, most observers assumed that there was not nearly enough evidence against McLaughlin to lock him up for the homicide. A detective, a reporter and the judge herself all made comments to that effect in the days preceding the verdict. To everyone’s surprise, the jury found McLaughlin guilty of second-degree murder and pronounced a sentence of fifteen years to life. (Some commentators later suggested that the verdict might have been the product of a compromise between jurors intent on securing a first-degree conviction and those who believed the case warranted an acquittal.)
The verdict was appealed all the way to the New York Supreme Court, which found a retrial unnecessary. Among the justifications cited was the failure of counsel to challenge the aforementioned missing jury instruction during the trial. In the opinion of the Supreme Court judges, that failure signified a waiving of McLaughlin’s right to base any appeal on those grounds.
The campaign to free Bobby McLaughlin was the work of a number of people serving a diverse range of roles, but it was undeniably spearheaded and inspired by the efforts of one individual: McLaughlin’s foster father, Harold Hohne. Convinced of McLaughlin’s innocence, Hohne set about amassing exonerating materials as soon as the appeal had been dismissed. One of Hohne’s first major discoveries during his independent review of the investigation was the true nature of the identification procedure that had first brought attention to his foster son as a suspect. According to some later reports, the name he found on the back of the Ferro photograph that had originally implicated his foster son was actually not ‘Robert McLaughlin’ but ‘Robert McLoughlin.’ Although the discrepancy in spelling has been contested, it became clear that McLaughlin did not, in fact, have any connection with William Ferro, and that they had been linked out of a misunderstanding, as the two men had consistently claimed from the beginning.
Despite making substantial progress in undermining the state’s already feeble case against McLaughlin, and even in persuading a Detective Sergeant of the police department’s misconduct in the case, Hohne was unable to interest any judicial or prosecutorial authorities in the miscarriage of justice he had so amply documented. In desperation, he sent out a plea for support in his endeavor to a vast array of governmental, judicial, law enforcement, activist and media figures. He managed to enlist the aid of an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, a prominent columnist for The Village Voice newspaper and a respected New York judge.
After more than five years of ceaseless research and lobbying while his foster son languished in jail, Hohne had finally stirred influential men into action. The reporter, Jack Newfield, began a series of articles lambasting the criminal justice system for its mistreatment of McLaughlin. The NYCLU lawyer began organizing Hohne’s voluminous files into a coherent legal argument for his release. And, perhaps most effectively, the judge – who had sat on the judicial panel that had denied McLaughlin’s motion for appeal – personally petitioned the District Attorney to review the case. In addition to the extremely convincing flaws in the case, which Holme and his newfound allies had already turned up, the District Attorney came across the notes from the initial interview with Dell’Osso, in which he described a killer bearing very little resemblance to Bobby McLaughlin.
The NYCLU attorney was able, after going to great lengths to sway the D.A.’s office, to arrange a meeting with Robert Tobin, the witness who had single-handedly placed McLaughlin behind bars. Shortly after that session, Tobin recanted his trial testimony and subsequently divulged the prodding that had indeed instilled in him the certainty of McLaughlin’s involvement in the crime. The D.A.’s office administered a polygraph examination with Tobin confessing the real nature of the investigation and judged by the results that he was most likely telling the truth
Leads also surfaced on the possible identities of the true robbers. The lawyer of a neighborhood acquaintance of McLaughlin’s, Augie Kanaugh, contacted the D.A.’s office and suggested that Kanaugh could produce information proving McLaughlin's innocence. Although this avenue was never thoroughly explored – largely because Kanaugh was a convicted murderer demanding a lightening of his sentence in return for his contribution – Hohne has speculated that Kanaugh and two of his now deceased associates were the perpetrators of the Marine Park robbery.
More helpfully, the witness from the trial who had done the most to damage the credibility of McLaughlin’s alibi told a different story when approached by the D.A.’s office five years later. Her memory had apparently cleared up in the interim, as she now claimed to recall going to the bar with McLaughlin and his friends.
Lastly, it came to the attention of the investigators that two of the robbery victims had known McLaughlin personally for several years before the crime and denied that he had been one of the gunmen. These witnesses, whom nobody had bothered to interview in detail during the course of the first trial, were now adamant in their view that McLaughlin had been the victim of a mistaken identification.
In light of these multiple developments, a rehearing was ordered on July 3, 1986. Representatives of the District Attorney announced that there was no longer a basis for trying McLaughlin on the murder. The verdict against him was vacated and he was released that day, after six years in prison.
Three years after his official exoneration, Bobby McLaughlin was awarded $1.9 million by the state for his wrongful incarceration. The judge who made this award, New York Court of Claims Judge Adolph Orlando, stated “It’s unlikely that he will ever survive the devastating trauma resulting from incarceration for a crime he did not commit.” An investigation into allegations of suppression of evidence on the part of the prosecuting trial attorney found no proof of punishable misconduct.
In 1991, the story of Bobby McLaughlin’s wrongful conviction was made into a TV movie called Guilty Until Proven Innocent.
– Researched by Jonah Horowitz
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.