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In December 1968, George Merritt Jr. was convicted of participating in the killing of police officer John V. Gleason in Union County, New Jersey. Merritt’s conviction was reversed and the indictment against him was dismissed in 1980. This reversal occurred after Merritt’s attorneys obtained previously suppressed evidence showing that the witness who implicated Merritt had significantly changed his story since the time of the crime and had not originally implicated Merritt.
The killing of 39-year-old Officer Gleason occurred in Plainsfield, New Jersey, an area which had been experiencing significant racial rioting in 1967. Gleason, a white police officer, was attempting to arrest Bobby Lee Williams, a black man, on July 16, 1967. Some sort of action by Williams led Gleason to fire at and badly wound him. This shooting caused a mob to gather around Gleason and Williams and beat Gleason to death.
Eleven of the individuals who were arrested for their involvement in the killing of Gleason were tried together. One of the eleven defendants was 24-year-old George Merritt Jr., a black man who was alleged to have struck Gleason with a meat cleaver. Donald Frazier, who had witnessed the beating of Gleason, implicated Merritt in the crime. Frazier had identified Merritt and Donald Jones as two of the perpetrators. However, at trial, Frazier misidentified a different defendant – James Toland – as Donald Jones.
Another prospective witness for the state – Meredith Matthews – was examined by the court while the jury was sequestered. Matthews had signed a statement saying he had witnessed Gleason’s beating. However, it was revealed that Matthews had been in Somerset County Jail on the day of the murder and could not have been a witness. Matthews said he had signed a statement given to him by police because they had promised to let him go free if he signed it.
During the trial, Merritt took the stand. He admitted that he had walked past the scene of the crime at the time when Gleason shot Williams, but said that he was en route to his brother’s apartment at the time and had not stopped. He testified that he had continued walking to his brother’s apartment and had been on the phone with his mother at the time Gleason was beaten. His mother took the stand to corroborate his story. Nonetheless, Merritt was convicted by the jury on December 23, 1968 and sentenced to life in prison. Of those arrested, only one other person was convicted – a 21-year-old woman named Gail Madden. The twelve-person jury was composed of a group that included just one black juror.
Merritt began serving his sentence at Trenton State Prison. However, a failure in the jury instructions at their trial led to the reversal of Merritt’s and Madden’s convictions in June 1971. This reversal was then appealed to the Supreme Court of New Jersey, which confirmed the reversal on July 26, 1972. Both Merritt and Madden were freed on bail until their retrial. In February 1974, the two were retried. Both were convicted and again sentenced to life in prison.
In October 1976, Merritt’s second conviction was reversed because of an evidentiary error that had occurred in his second trial. Madden’s conviction was not reversed because it was not impacted by this error. Merritt was tried for the third time in September 1977 and was convicted again.
In Merritt’s 1977 trial, the prosecutor opened by saying “Now the state rests its case, its proofs against George Merritt on the testimony which you will hear from Donald Frazier. You will not hear anyone else identify this defendant as having participated in that killing.” Following this 1977 conviction, Merritt’s attorneys sought and eventually obtained – for the first time – the original report taken from witness Donald Frazier shortly after Gleason’s death. In this previously undisclosed initial report, Frazier substantially contradicted the story he later told at all three of Merritt’s trials. In this initial report, Frazier described the people involved in Gleason’s beating as a group of “strangers.”
Based on this new evidence calling into question the credibility and reliability of Donald Frazier and his testimony, Federal District Court Judge H. Curtis Meanor reversed Merritt’s third conviction on February 20, 1980. Merritt was then released on bail until the state decided whether or not to retry him for the fourth time. On April 25, 1980, the state dismissed the indictment against Merritt – nearly thirteen years after his arrest.
- Meghan Barrett Cousino
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.