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David Bryant

Other Bronx exonerations
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Police found the body of 8-year-old Karen Smith in the early morning of Saturday, March 29, 1975 in a stairwell on the sixteenth floor of her apartment building in The Bronx, N.Y. Her parents had reported her missing the previous day, which was Good Friday, after she hadn’t come home after playing outside that evening. She had been stabbed ten times and sexually assaulted. All her clothes except her socks and underwear had been removed, and there was blood on the steps and the wall of the stairwell.

The investigation began immediately. Richard Clark was an officer with the New York Police Department whose beat included the apartment complex. He said he had seen 18-year-old David Bryant in the stairwell on several occasions, as recently as a month earlier. At the time, Bryant had had two arrests for sexual misconduct, although both charges had been dismissed.

The police went to Bryant’s apartment at 8:30 that morning and took him to the precinct for questioning. They asked him to put on the clothes he had worn the day before: a gray jacket and sweatshirt, white pants and sneakers. Several witnesses would later confirm that this was Bryant’s attire on the day Karen was killed.

At the police station, Bryant was read his Miranda rights and put into an interrogation room. During the day, a series of officers came and went, asking him about whether he knew the girl and how he had spent the previous day. He said he had been with friends for most of the day, including around the time when Karen was last seen alive.

Sgt. William Brent came into the interrogation room at about 7 p.m. He would testify that he first talked with Bryant about Karen’s death, and shortly thereafter Bryant told him what had happened. In his confession, he said he had seen Karen on the elevator and asked her whether she wanted to have sex. Then, he said, he brought her up to the sixteenth floor, and raped and stabbed her with a knife. At some point he blacked out, and when he came to, he threw the knife into a dumpster a few blocks away. The knife was never found. Bryant said he went home and washed up after he got rid of the knife. Bryant’s confession was not recorded electronically but was taken down by a stenographer. He gave a similar confession a few hours later to an assistant prosecutor and was arrested. On April 23, 1975, he was indicted on second-degree murder, first-degree sodomy, first-degree rape, first-degree sexual abuse, and fourth-degree possession of a weapon.

Bryant’s trial began on July 21, 1976. Along with his confession, the state’s most important piece of evidence was the testimony of 10-year-old Billy Tyler, who also lived in the apartment building and knew both the victim and Bryant. He testified that he had seen the two of them together twice on the night she died. First, he said, Bryant had asked Karen for some candy, and she had said no. Then, after dinner, he said he had seen them both near the corner store across the street. Billy said he went inside and then went back out to find Karen, but he never saw her again.

The state also presented testimony and forensic evidence from a serologist named Alexander Weiner. Despite the brutal nature of the attack on Karen and extensive amount of blood at the crime scene, there was no blood on Bryant’s clothes. An examination of Karen’s clothes found markers for Type O blood present in both the blood and body fluids on the fabric of her underwear. Karen had Type O blood. The testing also found the presence of semen. Wiener testified that it was impossible to state the source of the Type O markers in the fluid residues because it could have been from the girl or her attacker. But he didn’t have the evidence to draw that conclusion. The state never tested Karen’s blood to see if she was a secretor, one of approximately 20 percent of the population whose blood group can be typed from secretions as well as blood itself.

Bryant testified and denied any involvement in Karen’s death. He said that his confession had been beaten out of him by Brent and other officers, that they had thrown him on the floor and kicked him until finally he relented and repeated what Brent told him.

Bryant was convicted by a jury on August 2, 1976. At his sentencing on October 25, 1976, the sexual abuse and weapons charges were dropped, but he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison on the remaining charges. He would be turned down for parole seven times because he would not admit his guilt.

In 2002, Bryant contacted attorneys with Centurion Ministries to work on his case. Because so much time had passed, most of the records of his case could not be located. But eventually, a trial transcript and the serologist’s lab notes were found. In 2010, Bryant had his blood typed. While in prison, he spit into a clean paper towel, let the towel dry, then placed it in an envelope. He put that envelope in another envelope and mailed it to his attorneys. The tests showed he was Type B and a secretor, meaning that his blood type, if his bodily fluids had been present, should have shown up in both the blood and fluid samples tested on Karen’s clothing. They presented those findings to the Bronx County District Attorney’s office, which did its own tests that yielded the same results.

A year later, his attorneys filed a motion to vacate the conviction. They claimed that Bryant’s attorney had been ineffective in two areas. First, he had not questioned Weiner about the failure to determine Karen’s secretor status and how that deficiency impacted his conclusions on the sample as a whole. More critically, the attorney had failed to type Bryant’s blood. Doing the test carried virtually no risk, because even if Bryant had come back as Type O, New York courts at the time didn’t allow matching blood types to be used as inculpatory evidence.

Several evidentiary hearings were held before Judge Seth Marvin of the Supreme Court, Bronx County. The state argued that Weiner’s notes were incomplete and that it was possible the sample was too small to draw definitive conclusions on the presence of other blood types in fluids. It also argued that Auerbach’s inaction was strategic, not ineffective counsel. Auerbach testified at a hearing. He was 80 by then, mostly retired and living in Florida. He couldn’t remember any details of the case but said blood typing hadn’t been on his “radar” back then.

On April 11, 2013, Marvin vacated Bryant’s conviction, and he was released from prison. That freedom was short-lived. The state appealed Marvin’s ruling, and on June 19, 2014, the New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division reversed Marvin’s ruling. It said that because Auerbach couldn’t remember what had happened at the trial, there was no way to infer the reasons behind his decisions not to type his client’s blood or ask more probative questions of Weiner.

After the ruling, Bryant returned to prison on July 1, 2014. His attorneys sought to appeal the appellate ruling, but that request was denied on August 21, 2014.

Bryant’s release in 2013 had generated substantial news coverage. One of the people who read about his case was Billy Tyler, now a grown man. Tyler said he had been haunted for years about what had happened and what he testified had happened on that Good Friday so long ago. Tyler had thought Bryant was now dead. In an affidavit signed on September 24, 2014, Tyler said that he had lied on the witness stand. In his statement, Tyler said he and Karen had been playing outside that evening. Bryant had walked by and asked about some candy, then gone inside. Karen didn’t go to the store, and Bryant hadn’t followed her. A half-hour later, Tyler said, the two children finished playing, and they went inside. Karen took the stairs to her apartment. Tyler wasn’t allowed to use the stairs, so he took the elevator. Tyler said Karen told him that taking the stairs, although longer, would allow her to eat more of her candy before having to share it with her sister.

Tyler said the police showed him a pair of dark pants covered with blood that they said belonged to Bryant. Tyler said he knew that was false; the pants were too large. The police told him he was in danger from Bryant’s family, so he moved to Manhattan to stay with an older brother. As he continued to talk with the police over the next few weeks, Tyler said, his story changed and sharpened as he was told what he needed to say. The police told him he would be a hero by helping put the killer of his friend behind bars.

Armed with that new affidavit, Bryant’s attorneys filed a supplemental motion to vacate his conviction based on actual innocence, as opposed to ineffective counsel. This time, however, on February 11, 2015, the judge ruled against Bryant. He said that even though Bryant’s blood type was different from what was found on Karen’s clothing, it was possible that the sample was too small or the antigens in his secretions were too weak for detection. He also discounted Tyler’s recantation, calling the timing “highly questionable.”

On February 28, 2016, Bryant filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Along with the serology reports, the recantation, and the claim of ineffective counsel, Bryant’s attorneys also submitted testimony from a psychologist, who said that Bryant was highly vulnerable to giving a false confession and that the police procedures increased that risk. At the time of his interrogation, which lasted more than half a day, Bryant was only 18, and testing showed he had an IQ of 71. Underscoring the potential problems with his confession, parts of his statement didn’t match the actual evidence.

Judge Robert Sweet granted Bryant’s petition and vacated his conviction on August 3, 2017. While not ruling directly on Bryant’s claim of innocence, he said Auerbach’s representation, particularly the decision not to find out Bryant’s blood type, was ineffective counsel. If that had been presented at trial, he wrote, it would have severely undermined the state’s case.

Bryant remained in prison while the state appealed. On June 26, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld Sweet’s ruling, and Bryant was released on July 11, pending a potential retrial.

The retrial didn’t happen. The Bronx County District Attorney dismissed the charges against Bryant on March 4, 2019. He left the courthouse a free man.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 3/15/2019
State:New York
County:Bronx
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Child Sex Abuse
Reported Crime Date:1975
Convicted:1976
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:25 to Life
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:18
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No