On September 28, 1983, a fire broke out at an illegal gambling parlor in Brooklyn, New York. 20-year-old Evelyn Herrera, who was trapped in the bathroom by a couch blocking the door, died in the fire. Herrera worked at the gambling parlor, and her co-worker on the day of the fire was 29-year-old Miguel Reyes.
New York police officers Evidelia Boyd and Billy David were the first officers to arrive on the scene of the fire. They would later testify that they saw Reyes leaving the burning building. They said that Reyes had burns on his head and hands and that he begged them for help. Reyes was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment. Officers Boyd and David testified that they heard Herrera screaming inside the building, but no one was able to reach her in time to save her.
As the only person seen leaving the burning building by witnesses, Reyes was arrested on March 19, 1984 and charged with Herrera’s death. Reyes claimed that an unknown Hispanic man had entered the building, poured fluid on the floor, and lit it with a match. Reyes’s burns required him to remain in the hospital for a month.
Reyes went to trial in March 1985 in the Brooklyn Supreme Court before Justice Joseph Lombardo. Assistant District Attorney Larry Mumm prosecuted the case, and attorney Paul Sass represented Reyes. Officers Boyd and David testified about witnessing Reyes leave the burning building. Dr. Kildare Clark, the deputy chief of Emergency Services at Kings County Hospital, testified that Reyes’s burns were inconsistent with his account of how another man started the fire. Clark had not personally examined Reyes.
On March 25, 1985, the jury found Reyes guilty of felony and intentional murder. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
In late 1983 and throughout 1984 and early 1985, 19 other fires, three of them fatal, broke out at gambling parlors around New York City. Investigators began linking these fires to members of a gang, known both as “The Corporation” and the “Cuban Mafia,” which was comprised of Cuban immigrants who ran rival gambling establishments. According to investigators, each of these fires was started by a person who walked into the establishment, poured flammable liquid on the floor, and lit it with a match. The three other fatal fires occurred in March, August and October of 1984, all prior to Reyes’s trial. Sass said he showed Mumm a news story about several of the other fires at betting parlors, likely set by a competitor. Sass said he asked Mumm if police had looked into whether the fire that killed Herrera could be tied into this potential takeover war, but according to Sass, Mumm scoffed at the idea.
By September 1985, investigators with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Economic Crimes and Arson Bureau had new evidence from a confidential informant linking 23-year-old Hector Aviles, a member of the Cuban Mafia, to the Brooklyn fire that killed Evelyn Herrera. Based on this information, Brooklyn District Attorney Elizabeth Holtzman sought the reversal of Reyes’s conviction. Reyes’s conviction was vacated and the charges against him were dismissed on September 16, 1985. “It’s scary that this could happen to an innocent man simply because they couldn’t think of anyone else who could have done it,” commented Sass.
Aviles was charged with arson and murder in October 1985. Ten other members of the gang were charges in the fires as well.
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.