In the early morning of June 18, 1992, 18-year-old Anthony Yarbough came home to his apartment in the Coney Island neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, and found his 40-year-old mother, Annie, stabbed to death. Yarbough’s 12-year-old half-sister, Chavonn Barnes, and her 12-year-old friend, Latasha Knox, were also stabbed to death.
Yarbough went outside and found his uncle waiting at a bus stop. They returned to the apartment and used a neighbor’s phone to call police.
That same day, police began interrogating 15-year-old Sharrif Wilson and Yarbough. Both youths said they had spent the night along the Brooklyn waterfront and in Greenwich Village and that Yarbough discovered the bodies when he arrived home at about 6:30 a.m.
After several hours, Wilson gave a videotaped confession in which he said that he and Yarbough had stabbed the victims and then tied them up while they were still alive. After 15 hours, Yarbough signed a statement confessing to taking part in the murders with Wilson.
The cases were severed and Wilson went to trial first in January 1994. There was no physical evidence linking Wilson to the murders. The prosecution played the video of his confession for the jury. The prosecution also presented testimony from a medical examiner who said that based on the autopsy, he believed the victims were killed shortly before Yarbough said he discovered the bodies.
Wilson denied committing the murders and said that he falsely confessed because police threatened him and promised that he would be released if he confessed.
On January 19, 1994, Wilson was convicted of three counts of murder. Two days later, before Wilson had been sentenced, Yarbough went to trial. Prosecutors presented a confession signed by Yarbough, who testified and denied he and Wilson committed the crime. Yarbough said he signed the confession after detectives struck him and he was told that Wilson had confessed and implicated him. A mistrial was declared after the jury was unable to reach a verdict.
By the time Yarbough went on trial again a few weeks later, Wilson had agreed to testify for the prosecution in return for a sentence of 9 years to life in prison. Wilson told a jury that he and Yarbough committed the murders together. The medical examiner testified that the victims were killed shortly before 6:30 a.m., when Yarbough said he discovered the bodies. Yarbough testified and denied committing the murders. A jury convicted Yarbough of three counts of murder on February 16, 1994. He was sentenced to 75 years to life in prison.
In 2005, long after Yarbough’s convictions were upheld on appeal, Wilson wrote a letter to Yarbough’s aunt admitting he had falsely implicated himself and Yarbough in the murders and asking that he be forgiven.
In 2010, Yarbough filed a petition for a new trial, citing Wilson’s recantation as well as evidence that the prosecution had provided reports to his defense attorney showing that rigor mortis was found in the three bodies, indicating that they had been killed several hours before Yarbough said he discovered them—at a time when Yarbough and Wilson were miles away. However, Yarbough’s trial lawyer had failed to contact a medical expert or present any medical evidence regarding the time of death.
The motion also claimed that Yarbough’s lawyer had provided a constitutionally inadequate legal defense because she failed to call a witness who was in the victims’ apartment the night before the murders. The witness had been present when Annie Yarbough, who sold narcotics from the apartment, was threatened with death by a customer who said she had cheated him in a drug deal.
Yarbough’s new lawyer also sought DNA testing of crime scene evidence, including scrapings from under Annie Yarbough’s fingernails. In 2013, the DNA tests on the fingernail scrapings identified the DNA profile of a male that was not Wilson or Yarbough. The unknown DNA profile was linked to DNA left at the scene of another murder in Brooklyn in 1999—while Wilson and Yarbough were in prison for their convictions in these three murders.
In September 2013, Yarbough’s lawyer filed a motion to vacate Yarbough’s convictions. On February 6, 2014, following an investigation by the Kings County District Attorney's Convition Integrity Unit, District Attorney requested that the convictions be vacated. The motion was granted, Thompson dismissed the charges and both men were released.
In November 2014, the state of New York agreed to pay Yarbough $3.5 million in compensation. In January 2015, Wilson died of health problems exacerbated by his years in prison. In February 2015, Yarbough filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of New York.
– Maurice Possley