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Ralph Lee

Other New Jersey DNA Exonerations
On April 6, 2018, Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee were exonerated in Passaic County, New Jersey of a 1993 murder and robbery after DNA tests identified the real killer.

Kelley was 28 and Lee was 30 when police said they both confessed to the July 28, 1993 stabbing murder of 22-year-old Tito Merino in a video store in Paterson, New Jersey.

On the day of the crime, Merino, a Peruvian immigrant, was working in Victoria’s Videos, a store owned by his uncle. The store rented videos, and sold cameras, videocassette recorders, car radios, and similar items. Shortly before 1 p.m., Merino was seen standing on a chair tinkering with the store air conditioner. At 1:45 p.m., he was found stabbed to death in a rear area of the store that had been ransacked. The cash register was open and empty.

An inventory showed about $150 in cash was missing, as well as a videocassette recorder, three car radios, and five watches.

The following day, Carmen Paredes told police she stopped in the store at about 1:20 p.m. and almost bumped into a black man wearing a green baseball cap backwards on his head. She viewed a book of police mug shots, but was unable to identify anyone.

Another customer, Majdi Mousa, told police he came to the store at about 1:30 p.m. to return a video. When he first walked in, no one was in sight, but then a black man emerged from the back of the store. He told Mousa to put the video on the counter and leave. Mousa said the man was not wearing a cap, had blood dripping from his ear, and had blood and scratches on his right arm. Mousa also viewed the police photos, but was unable to identify anyone.

That same day, July 29, 1993, Alice Nieves reported to police that she was at a laundromat located near the video store and overheard three women talking about the murder. Nieves said the women said that two black men and a white man were involved in the crime. While she did not know the women, she believed they lived in a nearby apartment building at the corner of Union Avenue and Jasper Street. Police looked for the three women but did not find them.

On July 30, two days after the murder, police said a confidential source reported that two black men and a white man had been in front of the video store at about the time of the crime. The informant said that one of the black men was known as “E.K.” The other was the son of Mr. Lee, who lived on the second floor of the same apartment building at Union and Jasper that the women at the Laundromat described. Detective Richard Reyes went there and found Lee, who agreed to go to the police station to be interviewed. At about the same time, Reyes saw a man approach and then abruptly cross the street. When Reyes stopped the man, he identified himself as Eric Kelley—who was known in the neighborhood as “E.K.”

Lee and Kelley were taken to the police station and put in separate rooms. Their interrogations were not recorded and the detectives took no notes. Ultimately, Detective Reyes typed a six-page statement. The statement said that Kelley went into the video store and Lee followed. A third man—David Hancock, who was white—remained outside as a look out.

In the statement, Kelley said that he had a knife in his hand, and that he attacked Merino as he stood behind the counter. He said that Lee beat Merino in the head, and then they both picked up Merino and took him to the rear of the store.

The statement quoted Kelley as saying they took $150 from the cash register, some videotapes, car radios, and a videocassette recorder. He said the victim was Hispanic and about 22 years old. According to the statement, Kelley and Hancock then went to a nearby Bob’s Supermarket. The owner bought everything except the videocassette recorder, which was covered in blood. After cleaning off the blood, they sold the recorder to a nearby bodega. They bought four bags of drugs, and met Lee at his home where they “sniffed the dope.”

In the statement, Kelley said he was wearing a green and purple plaid cap, and admitted that a cap found at the scene was his. Kelley said he did not see any customers in the store. He said that he got Merino’s blood on his clothes, which he put in a hamper at home, and that he had thrown away the knife.

Subsequently, police went to Kelley’s home, where his mother said she had already done the laundry. Police did not attempt to seize any clothes or the hamper. The supermarket owner and several bodega owners all denied purchasing any stolen goods from Kelley and Hancock.

While Kelley was being questioned, police located Hancock and brought him to the station. Kelley identified him as the look out. According to Reyes, when Hancock said something to Kelley, Kelley said, “Man, just give it up.”

Detectives would later testify that they began giving Lee “little bits of information” obtained from Kelley’s statement. Ultimately, they said, Lee gave a statement saying that Kelley attacked Merino with a knife. When Merino fought back, Lee said, he hit Merino in the head three times with a car radio. He and Kelley then carried Merino to the back of the store. Lee said he tried to wipe blood off the floor behind the counter. He said Kelley and Hancock then left while he stayed looking for more items to steal.

While he was there, Lee said, a woman came in and asked for the owner. Lee told her the owner was not in and she left. Not long after, another man came in to return a video and Lee told the man to leave it on the counter.

Lee, Kelley, and Hancock were charged with murder, robbery, conspiracy, and illegal use of a weapon.

On July 31, Mousa came to the police station and was shown two photographic lineups, one of which included Kelley and the other included Lee. Mousa was unable to identify either Lee or Kelley as the man he saw in the store with the blood dripping from his ear.

On August 4, 1991, Detective Reyes showed two photographic arrays to Paredes. She identified Lee as the man she saw wearing the green cap.

The FBI conducted DNA testing of three cuttings from the inside lining of the green cap. The tests—DQ Alpha—excluded Kelley as a contributor to trace amounts of DNA found on the cap. Lee was excluded as a contributor if the DNA was from one person. If the DNA was a mixture—which could not be determined—then Lee was not excluded.

In 1995, Passaic County prosecutors offered Hancock a deal to plead guilty and receive a seven-year prison term in exchange for his testimony against Lee and Kelley. However, he rejected the offer.

Kelley and Lee went to trial separately. Kelley went first in January 1996. The prosecution’s primary evidence was his statement—which Kelley had recanted prior to trial. Reyes said that Kelley had confessed “almost immediately” after coming into the police station and that the statement was typed up within two hours.

Paredes testified that she had identified Lee as having been in the store, which the prosecution argued supported Kelley’s statement implicating Lee in the crime.

The defense called William Hanley, who testified to seeing Lee and Kelley on the street at the time Merino was murdered. Hanley said that on the day of the murder, he went to St. Mary’s Church to get a free food package. At about 1:10 or 1:15 p.m., he saw Lee, Kelley, and Lee’s father, who lived next to the church. He said that he took the food to Bob’s to try to sell it and then returned at about 1:30 p.m., when he saw Kelley on the street. Lee, he said, arrived a few minutes later.

Kelley’s defense lawyer argued that Reyes had lied about how quickly Kelley had confessed. He told the jury that police had interrupted Kelley’s interrogation to have him identify Hancock. Based on the time of Hancock’s arrest, the defense attorney noted that Kelley’s interrogation had lasted more than three hours.

The defense claimed that Reyes had fed information to Kelley. It was highly unlikely, the defense argued, that Kelley knew the victim was 22 years old and that exactly $150 had been taken from the cash register.

The lawyer also argued that since Parades said the man wearing the green cap was Lee, the man Mousa saw was not Kelley, but Lee. And, the lawyer noted, Kelley’s DNA was not on the cap. Moreover, Kelley and Lee were seen on the street at about the time of the murder and no one saw any blood on their clothing.

The prosecution argued that it was very possible for the men to have committed the murder, robbed the store, sold the stolen goods, cleaned up, and gotten back on the street in less than 30 minutes.

On February 7, 1996, Kelley was convicted of murder, robbery, conspiracy, and illegal use of a weapon. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Lee went to trial in April 1996. The prosecution’s case was largely the same except that Lee’s confession was presented.

Detective Reyes also testified that on July 29, 1993—the day after the murder—he interviewed another witness, James Thompson. Thompson said that he had been in the video store and saw behind the counter a black man whom he had not seen before. Reyes said that Thompson had looked at some photos, but was unable to make an identification. He therefore did not take a statement from Thompson.

Reyes testified that on July 31, Thompson came back to the station and looked at the two photographic lineups containing the photos of Lee and Kelley. Reyes said Thompson said he did not see the man he saw in the store.

Paredes again testified about her identification of Lee. During cross-examination, however, she said that Reyes told her before she looked at the lineups that a suspect had been arrested.

Lee testified and denied involvement in the crime. He said he confessed because someone had threatened him the morning after the murder. As a result, he was fearful for his life and the lives of his family members. He also said he had been beaten by police at the station.

Lee told the jury that police told him the details of the crime and he agreed to what they said. During cross-examination, Lee admitted that he told police he saw Kelley stab the victim, but that the statement was a lie. Lee also testified that Kelley was mentally impaired as the result of a head injury suffered in a car accident. After the accident, Kelley was so changed that “anybody can influence him to say anything,” Lee testified.

Several witnesses testified that Lee was at the church where food was being distributed and that he had no blood on his clothes.

During closing argument, Lee’s lawyer contended that the confession was the result of police feeding information to Lee and that it conflicted with the crime scene evidence. There was no evidence that Merino had been attacked behind the counter—no blood was found there—nor was there evidence that Merino had been carried to the rear of the store. The defense lawyer noted that the detectives admitted telling Lee information about the crime.

On April 9, 1996, the jury convicted Lee of murder, robbery, conspiracy, and illegal use of a weapon. He was sentenced to life in prison.

The charges against Hancock were subsequently dismissed.

In 2010, Lee, represented by Centurion Ministries, a nonprofit organization in New Jersey that investigates wrongful convictions, and Kelley, represented by the Innocence Project, obtained a court order for DNA testing of the cap using the improved technology developed since 1994 when the original DQ Alpha testing was performed.

In 2014, Forensic Analytical Sciences reported that a DNA profile on the hat had been isolated, and that Kelley and Lee had been excluded. When the profile was entered into the FBI database, it was linked to Eric Dixon. Dixon was a resident of Paterson, and had been previously convicted of a similar crime committed in 1989 not far from the video store where Merino was killed.

In that crime, Dixon, then 24, pulled a knife, confronted the owner of AfroKing, and threatened to kill her unless she turned over the money from the cash register. When customers entered the store and interrupted the crime, Dixon fled. He was chased and caught, and pled guilty in 1990.

He was released from prison three months before Merino was stabbed to death in a robbery less than a mile from AfroKing.

Based on the test results, Vanessa Potkin, Innocence Project lawyer for Kelley, and Centurion Ministries lawyer Paul Casteleiro for Lee, filed a motion for a new trial. The motion also noted that Mousa not only failed to identify the attacker when he viewed the photographic lineup, but that he told Detective Reyes that he recognized Lee and Kelley from the neighborhood.

In September 2017, following nine days of evidentiary hearings, Passaic County Superior Court Judge Michael Portelli granted the motion for a new trial. On November 8, 2017, Lee and Kelley were released on bond.

The prosecution appealed. On March 12, 2018, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior court upheld the order vacating the convictions and granting a new trial.

“Our system of criminal justice fundamentally depends upon the soundness of the evidence presented to jurors at trial,” the appeals court said. “When, as here, the soundness of that evidence and the resulting verdicts is seriously undermined by newly-obtained DNA evidence of third-party guilt, we cannot turn a blind eye to the revelation and the probability that (Lee and Kelley), who have been incarcerated since 1996, would have been acquitted.”

The appeals court noted that Judge Portelli “did not err in granting them another opportunity, with the insight of new DNA results, to make the state prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Simple justice requires no more, and no less, than that.”

On April 6, 2018, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

Kelley and Lee subsequently filed a lawsuit in Superior Court and settled in 2021 for $1 million each. They also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit that remained pending in 2021.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/18/2018
Last Updated: 7/26/2021
State:New Jersey
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Illegal Use of a Weapon, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:1993
Age at the date of reported crime:30
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes