Just after midnight on May 10, 1972, 19-year-old Stephonsa Washington and 26-year-old Orvetta Stewart, both of whom worked as prostitutes, were standing on a downtown street corner in Buffalo, New York, looking for prospective customers. Around 12:30 a.m., a blue Buick Riviera pulled up and the occupants of the car picked up the two women.
According to later testimony from Stewart, the passenger in the car moved to the back with Washington, and Stewart took the seat beside the driver. The driver identified himself as “Eddie,” and the man in the backseat introduced himself as “Bob.” Stewart did not know either man, both of whom were black, but she would later recall having seen “Eddie” a few years earlier in Buffalo selling a religious newspaper affiliated with the Black Muslim movement. She said she could not see “Bob” directly because he was in the backseat. The four rode around Buffalo for about 15 minutes before parking on a dead-end street.
Once the car had been parked for about 10 minutes, the two men began berating Washington and Stewart, both of whom were also black, for consorting with white men. The men then attacked the women, strangling and stabbing them. “Eddie” strangled Stewart until she passed out. Stewart said that when she regained consciousness, the men were gone and she was lying in the street with a stab wound in her neck and other injuries. Washington’s body was found down the street; she had been strangled to death.
At the hospital, Stewart provided police with descriptions of “Eddie” and “Bob.” She described “Eddie” as about 5’ 10” tall, with very big hands, wavy hair, and a clean-shaven face, and she said he was wearing a black cashmere coat. She described “Bob” as a very tall, big guy, who was about 30 years old with a mustache and his hair in a “short bush.” He was wearing a green parka with a hood and boots.
Two days after the attack, police showed Stewart photographs of four men, one of whom she identified as “Eddie.” This photograph was of 29-year-old Edward G. McKnight (later known as Ahmad Abd’al Muntaqim), a bricklayer and father of seven.
On May 26, 1972, more than two weeks after the attack, police showed Stewart an FBI album containing approximately 45 photographs of men who were Black Muslims. In the 1970s, African-American Muslim communities were referred to as “Black Muslims” and included some sects that subscribed to black nationalist and black supremacy ideologies.
In viewing the FBI album, Stewart again identified a photograph of Edward McKnight. (It is not known whether this was the same photograph of McKnight as the one she had previously identified). She also identified a photo of 40-year-old Elverton P. Freeland as “Bob.” Freeland was a married autoworker who had never been arrested.
On June 26, 1972, Stewart viewed Freeland in person, standing by himself, through a one-way mirror at the police station. By this time, Stewart had been shown photos of Freeland on at least three occasions. The following day, Stewart identified McKnight and Freeland in lineups, and the men were charged with murder and attempted murder.
Freeland described McKnight as an acquaintance from their local mosque, but he claimed he had not seen McKnight nor been to the mosque in several years. According to Freeland, he celebrated his daughter’s birthday on the night of May 9 and then slept in bed with his wife for the entirety of the night. Freeland said he had never gone by the name “Bob.”
McKnight could not remember for certain where he was the night of May 9, but he believed he may have been driving a friend home earlier in the evening. McKnight’s record consisted of previous arrests for burglary.
Neither McKnight nor Freeland owned a Buick Riviera, and the car described by Stewart was not located. Police also didn’t recover any clothes from Freeland or McKnight that matched Stewart’s description.
Freeland and McKnight were tried jointly before a jury in July 1973 in Erie County Supreme Court. The state’s case relied on testimony from Stewart, who identified both Freeland and McKnight during the trial. Each man took the stand in his own defense and offered witness testimony to support certain aspects of their alibi defenses. Witnesses testified that Freeland never wore a mustache, though Stewart had stated that “Bob” had a mustache. Freeland’s wife and daughter testified to his whereabouts on the night of the crimes. McKnight’s friend testified to his quasi-alibi that McKnight had driven him home the night of the attack.
Freeland and McKnight were each convicted of second-degree murder and second-degree attempted murder. On September 4, 1973, Freeland was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison and McKnight to 25 years to life in prison.
Between the time of Freeland’s conviction in July 1973 and his sentencing in September 1973, Stewart signed an affidavit recanting her identification of him. In the affidavit, executed on August 20, 1973, Stewart said that she was not certain Freeland was the man in the backseat of the car and that she had never been certain. This affidavit was presented at Freeland’s sentencing. However, because the court had determined at a prior identification hearing that Stewart had ample opportunity to observe both attackers and her identification had been untainted by any suggestive police procedures, her identification was allowed to stand.
Both men appealed their convictions, which were affirmed on June 27, 1974 by the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court. On May 7, 1975, the New York State Court of Appeals reversed both convictions and remanded the cases for retrial. The reversals resulted from the trial court’s improper refusal to admit evidence that Stewart had a history of heroin addiction, which went to her credibility as a witness.
Freeland and McKnight were freed on bail while awaiting retrial. During this period, police charged McKnight in four other unrelated murders. McKnight’s retrial was in May 1977 and a jury again found him guilty of Washington’s murder and the attempted murder of Stewart.
Prior to Freeland’s retrial, Stewart again expressed doubt to the prosecutor about whether she had correctly identified Freeland. Stewart’s continued uncertainty may have prompted further investigation by Buffalo police, who soon arrested 39-year-old Willis X. Bryant Jr. as McKnight’s accomplice in the murder and attempted murder. Bryant was indicted in early June 1977 but a jury acquitted him at trial.
The same week as Bryant’s indictment for the crimes, Erie County Supreme Court Judge William G. Heffron dismissed the indictment against Freeland. In addressing the dismissal, newspapers reported that the Erie County district attorney’s office described Freeland as the victim of an apparent case of mistaken identity.
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.