Transcript

282:

DIY
Transcript

Originally aired 02.11.2005

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Carl King has a spare bedroom in his house in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, that's filled with court transcripts and police reports. There's a stack next to his bed too, maybe 1,000 pages high. The case that he's working on right now is a murder. And the crime scene photos are hard look at. A young woman, dead and bloody at the back of a store. The police think that she was murdered in a robbery, but Carl has hos own theory.

Carl King

This murder could-- behind certain doors we heard the manager would be doing the operation, the daily operation. So this is certainly someone who knew about the store and the full operation. It has to be an inside job.

Ira Glass

Carl King is not a detective. He's not a lawyer. He's just a guy who takes on cases that the police think they've already solved. Cases where somebody's already been locked away in prison, but where Carl King thinks they got the wrong guy. Like this case.

Carl King

We got this case approximately two years ago. And we're actually re-investigating the case to overturn this conviction, to give this young man back his life, actually. I got involved looking into these type of cases where guys are wrongfully accused based on a friend of mine who was actually in that type of situation where he was accused wrongfully.

Ira Glass

To save his friend, Carl taught himself how to read court records and find witnesses. He has a special gift for convincing people who normally wouldn't talk to the law that it's the right thing to testify. In fact, his lack of official training might be his his biggest advantage in these cases.

Today on our program, the story of how he got into this line of work. How he saved his friend. How a complete amateur cracked a case that the New York criminal justice system, some of the most experienced detectives and lawyers in the world, couldn't crack. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International.

The story you're about to hear today happens in two acts. The first act is tragedy. The second act is redemption. The first half of this story is like this slow motion train wreck. A teenager tells a lie that sets this process in motion where one bad thing happens after another after another, getting worse and worse until an innocent man, a complete stranger to this teenager, ends up incarcerated for years.

In the second half, an unlikely group of people come together and simply decide that they're going to set things right. And teach themselves how. It's really something. We'll get back to Carl King halfway through our story. Let's start with the crime. Our story begins in 1980 in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn among people Carl didn't even know back then. Anya Bourg investigated the story.

Anya Bourg

On April 10, 1980, Martell Hamilton was standing outside his junior high school. He was yelling up at his girlfriend in a school window when a kid named Thomas Charlemagne came riding up on his bike. Thomas was 14 years old. And he was the kind of kid who tagged along with older kids, trying to fit it, eager to be liked. Martell was a year older than Thomas, and remembers it this way.

Martell Hamilton

He called me by my nickname, which is Johnny. So he said, "Johnny, Johnny, your brother got shot. Your brother got shot." And I said what? And he said, "Your brother Mario got shot?" And he said, "Johnny, I saw what happened."

Anya Bourg

Remember those words, I saw what happened. They start a chain reaction that in the end takes over 21 years to undo. And they're completely untrue.

Martell Hamilton

I think he only told me that so that maybe trying to make me feel better. And trying to think that he's being helpful. But he only, instead of being helpful, ended up creating a disaster.

Anya Bourg

Martell followed Thomas Charlemagne and they ran back to the scene of the crime.

Martell Hamilton

So as I got there, I saw my brother bleeding heavily. And I felt like I was outside of my body because I couldn't believe that my brother was really shot. Just bleeding so profusely from his eye and his nostrils. And they asked me, do you know who this is? And I told them, yes that's my brother. They asked me how old he was. And I told them how old he was.

And then the next question was, do you know who would want to shoot your brother? And I said, no I don't. I said my friend here said he saw what happened. And from that moment on, they held onto Thomas Charlemagne as a witness.

Anya Bourg

The police put the boys in the back of the patrol car and they took them to the station. They escorted Thomas Charlemagne to an interrogation room to question him. And they told Martell the news that his brother Mario had died. No one talked to him. No one asked how he was doing. No one told him where his family was. They simply sat him in a chair to wait outside the room where Thomas Charlemagne was being interviewed. Martell remembers Detective Wasser, the lead detective in the case, as a lumbering white guy who yelled a lot. And form where he was sitting, he could overhear Thomas' entire interrogation.

Martell Hamilton

What I heard was he raised his voice at Thomas. "Did you see this guy with a gun?" And Thomas said, "No, I didn't see him with a guy." So he was like "How do you mean you don't see him with a gun. If he shot him, you have to see a gun. Di you see a gun?" And you could hear Thomas' voice quivering like, "Yeah, I guess so. I guess so. Yeah, I did see with a gun. Yeah I did seem him with a gun."

Anya Bourg

In the neighborhood, Martell says, Thomas had a reputation for lying. For instance, he told Martell's friends he was from Jamaica because they were from Jamaica. When, in fact, he was from Haiti. But the police didn't know any of that. And they kept 14 year old Thomas in a room for hours on end, grilled him, showed him photo after photo, until at some point, he did the only thing he knew how to do to end it. He pointed at a photo at random. The unlucky guy whose photo he picked was a man named Collin Warner.

The next day, the police gave the same treatment to Martell. Detective Wasser came by his house and sat him at the kitchen table. Martell was 15.

Martell Hamilton

Then he laid out four photos on the table like how you lay cards out evenly across. And he said, take a look at these photos. Do you know any of these guys? And I said, no I don't. So he said, "You sure you know any of these guys? Look again." And I looked at the photos and I said, no, I don't know any of these guys.

Now mind you, I will still crying at the time he was asking me these questions. And he said, "What about this guy right here?" Then he took Collin Warner's photo and pushed it out of the lineup, and let it stick above the other three photos. And he said, "You don't know this guy? You ever seen this guy before?" And I said I might have. I might have seen him before.

And the only reason why I told him that was because he just kept badgering me. And I just wanted him to stop so I told him what he wanted to hear. And he said, "Well that's the guy that shot your brother." And then he took up the four photos. And then he walked out of the house.

Anya Bourg

Thomas Charlemagne's original lie was rapidly becoming the truth. And remember, Thomas was just 14. Once he started lying to the cops, he acted like any kid caught in a lie. He elaborated on his story, which only made things worse. He told the cops that Mario talked to him as he lay dying, that the shooter waved the gun in his face before he ran away. It started sounding like something out of a bad cop movie. But the police believed it. And they rushed several miles down Flatbush Avenue to arrest the guy in the photo, Collin Warner.

Collin Warner

OK, this is the block I used to live on. I used to live 801 Prospect Place.

Anya Bourg

So you were living here with your mom?

Collin Warner

Yeah, I was living here with my mom. It was on the second floor.

Anya Bourg

This is Collin Warner. That day, at the moment he was supposedly shooting Mario Hamilton, he'd been driving around with friends, enjoying one of the first nice days that spring. And later, he played basketball in the park. He got home at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning.

Collin Warner

When I came home, though, my mother answered the door. And she's all red in the face, hysterical, asked me, "Where were you that morning? And what did you do?" And the police was at the house looking for me about half an hour ago. She said they wanted to talk to me about a murder. So she told me to call them.

I called them and I spoke to a Detective Wasser because he left his card. And he told me all he wanted to do was to talk to me in connection with a homicide that day. And I told them, "What do you want to talk to me about when I never killed anybody? I never saw a murder." He said no, we just want to talk. So I hang up the phone on him.

Anya Bourg

Remember Collin was 18, a Rastafarian teenager in army fatigues with dreadlocks down his back. His mom made him call back.

Collin Warner

They came up to the apartment. They wanted to take me down to the precinct. I said for what? They said just for questioning. And they led me down the stairs. And when I came in the car, then they put on the handcuffs. And that was that.

Anya Bourg

You never came back here? I never came back until 21 years later.

The police took Carl to the same station where, hours earlier, Thomas Charlemagne had identified him out of a mug book as the murderer of Mario Hamilton. At the time, Carl had only been living in the States a couple of years. He immigrated from Trinidad with his family in 1978.

He told the police where he'd been all day. He called his friends, who were now his alibis. Questioned them. But early the next morning, they booked him for murder, sent him to Rikers Island just north of New York city.

Collin Warner

I don't know man, this just happened out of the blue. And a lot of people were saying man, you had to have known something. Do you understand what I'm saying. I said I don't know anything. It just happened. One day I was free. The next day I was locked up.

Anya Bourg

Every few weeks, Collin would be dragged in for court hearings he didn't understand. He'd come before the bench, the judge would say a few things in legalese that didn't make it any clearer, and then he'd go back to his cell. It all felt completely random.

Meanwhile, back in Flatbush where the shooting took place, most of the neighborhood knew that Carl was innocent. The kid who died, Mario, was from Jamaica. And so was everybody that he and his brother hung around with. To them it seemed crazy that a Trinidadian like Collin, a Trini as they called them, would have had anything to do with this murder. The groups didn't mix. Mario and his Jamaican friends didn't hang with Rastas like Collin. Collin wasn't even from the neighborhood.

And word on the street was that the kid who died was shot by one of his friends, a guy named Norman Simmonds. Norman hadn't kept his plans much of a secret. The day of the shooting, he saw Mario's brother Martell and told him he was looking for Mario. That he was going to kill him as revenge for the murder of a kid named Spangler.

When Martell was questioned by the police, he told the cops about it. It's in the police report. Here's Martell.

Martell Hamilton

That same night when he laid out those cards on the dining table. And when I was crying, and he was saying to me, "Take a look at these guys. See if you can recognize them." I said, but this guy Norman told me he was going to shoot my brother. "Forget about Norman. Norman has nothing to do with this. I want you to take a look at these guys. Look at these guys and see if you recognize a face." And that was the attitude from there. I didn't want to know anything about Norman.

Anya Bourg

Police reports show that over the next two weeks, two other teenagers also told the police about Norman. And gave them the name of an eyewitness. But it took the police six months to act on the information. Then in late 1980, they finally arrested Norman Simmonds for Mario Hamilton's murder. You think this would have been good news for Collin, but here's how he heard about it.

Collin Warner

Sometime in November I went to court. And when they called the case, it was now Collin Warner and Norman Simmonds. And so when we went back to the bullpen, I asked him, who are you? You know what I'm saying?

He said, "I'm Norman. They have for killing Mario." So I said I'm here for killing Mario too. And he said but how is that? I said, listen I don't know what the hell is going. I'm here for six months now. You understand what I'm saying? And that was it. That was the whole beginning. Every day at court we were together. They didn't see no difference between him and me.

Anya Bourg

It took a year and a half more for the trial to begin. One of the reasons it took so long was that the only witness, Thomas Charlemagne, refused to testify. It wasn't until he was picked up on a robbery charge that he agreed.

The trial went well for Collin. 11 jurors moved to acquit. One held out for a conviction. It was a hung jury. So the prosecution offered a plea bargain, a two- to six-year sentence for Norman Simmonds. And if he accepted, Collin would walk. His story, this story, would end right here. It's a bizarre moment. Norman, who's only 18 and actually guilty, gets to decide both their futures. The fate of the innocent in the hands of the guilty.

Collin Warner

They told Norman to think about it. So they sent us back to the bullpen area in the back. He asked me what should he do. I said, "Listen man. You shouldn't ask me that. That should be your decision."

Anya Bourg

He asked you?

Collin Warner

Yeah. What should he do? I said you're not supposed to ask me that. And years later, when I tell other people this story, they say, nah, you made a mistake. You should have told him what to do. But I'm saying no, that's not my place. He knows what to do. I didn't--

Anya Bourg

Did you think you made a mistake?

Collin Warner

No. Not to this day I don't believe I made a mistake. I mean, if you have the guts to take somebody's life, at least have the guts to take the penalty. But still he was so young that he was still trying to say "Yo, I'm going to beat this."

Anya Bourg

Norman turned down the plea bargain, and a second trial was set. But Collin was optimistic about his chances, as was his lawyer, Bruce Richenstrick.

Bruce

I remember opening to the jury and telling them that this case was a one witness case. And that the one witness they were going to hear was a liar, an unmitigated, pathological liar.

Anya Bourg

In this kind of story, this is usually where you hear that Collin was represented by a drunk who fell asleep at his trial. Or an overworked and inexperienced public defender. Or someone who never handled a murder trial before. That wasn't the case here.

Bruce Richenstrick, Collin's lawyer in both his first and second trial, was a former homicide DA with years of experience. He says he never thought the case would get very far because, as a former prosecutor, he knew the prosecution's evidence was lousy. In fact, there wasn't any evidence tying Collin to the crime. Except Thomas Charlemagne, that 14-year-old kid who told the cops he saw everything and later picked Collin out of a mug book.

But his story kept changing. First he said that Mario was shot in a drive-by shooting. Later, he said the car stopped, and the shooter got out. First he said there were two people in the car. Later, it was four. And most importantly, he initially told the cops that Collin fired the gun that killed Mario. But then at trial he surprised everyone and said Collin the driver. Norman did the shooting.

All this lying was good news for Bruce Richenstrick, Collin's defense attorney. Here he reads from his cross-examination of Thomas Charlemagne at the trial.

Bruce

And I say to Mr. Charlemagne, "When you first spoke to Detective Wasser in this case, did you tell him that Collin Warner was the driver of this car? Answer "yes." "And did you also tell him that the driver of the car was the very same person who shot Mario Hamilton?" Answer "yes."

"So when you first spoke to Detective Wasser and you told him that Collin Warner shot Mario Hamilton, that wasn't true, was it?" Answer "no." Question, "And when you went before a grand jury in reference to this case, you knew in your mind, did you not, that Collin Warner never shot Mario Hamilton. Is that right?" Answer "yes."

Question, "And then you proceeded to tell the grand jury in April of 1980 that Collin Warner shot Mario Hamilton." Answer "yes." Question, "So you lied to the grand jury." Answer "yes."

Anya Bourg

I mean, from reading this transcript, it looks like this is open and shut. Like Collin is going to walk out the door.

Bruce

Yeah, the best thing that could possibly happen for any defendant is to have the only witness agree in front of a jury that he lied.

Collin Warner

One thing I remember about Thomas' testimony was that he never looked me in my eye.

Anya Bourg

Again, Collin Warner.

Collin Warner

Even when he pointed me out in court he said-- he bent his head down and pointed his finger there. And the judge said "Listen, you sure he's the right guy?" And he just glanced at me and said yes, Collin Warner is right there.

Because he knew he was lying. He knew. Everybody knew. When he was giving his testimony, people were laughing. Even the court officers had bets that I was going to win, I was going to win my case.

Anya Bourg

How did you know that?

Collin Warner

They told us because they see us coming to court every day. Know what I'm saying? And some time they talk to us and some would say, listen man, you have a good shot. You know what I'm saying? That guy is lying.

Anya Bourg

The trial lasted less than a week. And according to Collin, the jury deliberated just three hours.

Collin Warner

The day of the verdict, I think the verdict came in at 12 o'clock. They read my verdict first. Collin Warner, guilty of murder in the second degree. And Norman Simmonds, guilty of murder in the second degree.

And after that it hit 12 o'clock. And there are some bells in downtown Brooklyn. They started to ring. So the whole courtroom was quiet because you can't hear when the judge speaks. So everybody was quiet until the bell struck 12 times.

And they are telling you, when that foreperson said guilty, it's like my whole life flashed in front of my face. And my knees just got weak because as I sat down on the chair. I said I can't believe it. Even to this day, I'm saying, how could say guilty listening to the evidence?

Anya Bourg

If this doesn't seem to make much sense, remember that Collin and Norman were on trial together. And the police insisted Collin was involved. So even though Thomas's testimony didn't really add up, to the jury Collin must have had something to do with it.

And Bruce Richenstrick has another theory. He thinks the guilty verdict had more to do with what was going on outside the courtroom than in, The crime rate was soaring. And people were reacting in some pretty extreme ways.

Bruce

If you recall, within months of this particular case, the Avenue X murder of Willie Turks had taken place, where a mob beat a black transit worker to death. Within a year or two of that case, we had Bernhard Goetz shooting fours blacks on a subway train and ending up getting a year in jail for possession of a weapon. There was a pervasive, overriding fear in the city, I believe at that time. And I think that, to some degree, that might have had something to do with Collin Warner's conviction. At that time, a black man accused of murder, well, that's all the jury needed.

Anya Bourg

The judge perhaps needed a little more. Judge Albert Murray, who presided over Collin's trial. was one of the few African American judges in New York.

During sentencing, he gave a sort of tortured, apologetic speech in the courtroom. He said quote, "With all my training, or at least what I've gone through, when it comes to a point like this, I realize how inadequate, or how much I rely upon, not pure guess, but upon hope. And how mysterious it is, and how hard it is to understand why the situation exists right now. The system that we have we put in process. Is it perfect? Is this verdict true? I don't pretend to know. I don't have the capacity to actually know." End quote.

Judge Murray had no choice but to sentence Collin. He gave him the minimum allowed by law, 15 years to life.

Collin Warner

The sentence didn't hit me until I got to the reception center for the department of corrections. They deloused me and had about 50 of us in a shower area, stripped buck naked. Sprayed delousing on our arms, on our testicles. And then bending over and spreading it into our anus and all that.

And it was so degrading. And I mean in a way I started to cry because I'm saying like, you can't do nothing about it. You're here at these people's mercy. You know what I mean. And they lock you into a cell where there's a lot of prisoners. It's just like tiers upon tiers of prisoners. And everybody is shouting and it's like a madhouse. And I'm just trying to-- yo, how did I get here? You know what I'm saying? It's like I was transported to another planet.

Anya Bourg

This is where Carl King comes in, the guy you heard at the very beginning of the show. He was one of Collin Warner's oldest friends. They grew up together in a village in Trinidad, got even closer when they moved to Brooklyn.

Carl took up Collin's case, partly because they were friends, and partly because he just couldn't help himself. He's the kind of guy who can devote his life to a cause. And Collin became his cause. He visited Collin regularly in jail, went to his court appearances. Here's Carl.

Carl King

It was a bad feeling. Talking about it now, my pulse is just racing because I tell myself that it could have been me. And I felt like it's me. Because it was actually like seeing a big whale coming just to swallow you up. And nobody can just dig in that whale's stomach. I felt hopeless at that time.

Anya Bourg

Carl and Collin had only just finished high school. Their families had no money. They didn't know any lawyers. And they were politically connected. So Carl made do and he used the connections that he had.

Carl King

Even if you come pick up some garbage, I would really talk to you and tell you listen, I have a friend in jail. And he is innocent. Actually, everybody I encountered. Collin's case was always the issue.

Anya Bourg

Carl and Collin strategized about appeals. Carl raised money on the outside. Carl learned to use the prison law library. He put together the first appeal himself. It was denied. For the second appeal, Carl found a lawyer in the Yellow Pages. Also denied. The next was a real estate lawyer Carl met while he was closing on his house. Denied. And then he managed to get one of the most famous defense lawyers in the country, William Kuntsler, defender of the Chicago Seven, Lenny Bruce, Martin Luther King. That appeal failed as well.

As the years passed, Collin wasn't doing well in jail. He kept getting in fights, mostly with the guards. He spent four of his first 10 years in prison in the box, solitary confinement. 23 hours a day in a small cell, one hour of exercise. It was the fact that he shouldn't have been there at all, he says, that made him such a nightmare inmate.

Collin Warner

Because I'm saying the rules don't apply to me then because I'm innocent. But that wasn't the case. In their eyes, I was guilty. Once you come into their doors, you're a convict.

Anya Bourg

Eventually, Collin stopped rebelling. He enrolled in classes and a work program. Carl would visit office, bringing food, new clothes. One day he brought a friend with him. She and Collin hit it off, and eventually got married. By 1993, Collin had been in prison for over a dozen years.

And he and Carl took stock. All their appeals had failed. Maybe their strategy was wrong. They had focused on legal technicalities at the trial. Had the rules of evidence been followed properly? Was there misconduct by the prosecution? That sort of thing.

Carl wanted to take a new approach. He wanted to re-investigate the crime, come up with new evidence and witnesses. Do the detective work the detective never did.

Carl King

At that point, money was exhausted. And we knew that we have to try to clear Collin's name not based on legal, technical stuff but actually what happened on that day. We were going to try to see how we can go about proving his innocence.

Anya Bourg

But how do you go about re investigating a crime over a decade after it's been committed? Carl had no experience. Up til then he'd done a little construction, drove a cab. But he saw an opportunity when he bumped into his brother-in-law one day with a stack of court documents in his hands.

His brother in law was working as a process server, hand delivering legal papers like eviction notices and subpoenas and filing them in court. Carl thought a job like that would be a good way to learn how the system works and to meet attorneys who might help with the case. So he got his license to start serving papers. He learned how to track people down, how to order court files and how to read legal motions. He took all the legal papers back from Collin's lawyer.

Carl King

And I started familiarizing with the reports as to the police reports, the grand jury minutes, the trial transcripts, and also the motions, the pretrial motions. Started familiarizing with it. Then my clients were attorneys. I started asking them questions.

Anya Bourg

Some of the attorneys seemed sympathetic, but none were ready to jump in and help. Then one day, Carl was standing in front of a downtown Brooklyn courthouse trying to drum up some work, handing out business cards to anyone in a suit holding a briefcase. And he gave one to a lawyer named William Robedee.

Robedee had recently left the DA's office and was starting his own private practice, mainly housing and divorce court. He needed help. So a few days later he called, and Carl arranged to stop by his office.

Carl King

He introduced himself to be William Robedee. And there was a lady sitting on the side of the desk. It happened to be his wife. After a while, I saw a guy walk by in a towel, so I was thinking it's strange. But that happened to be his roommate. They were sharing.

William Robedee

Well at the time, the office was my apartment on 77th Street in Brooklyn.

Anya Bourg

This is William Robedee.

William Robedee

So there were two bedrooms in the back. And then there was a living room. And then the room that I used as an office in the kitchen. And I'd say the first few times he came to pick up work from me, papers that needed to be served, we had a few conversations. We hit it off as friends fairly fast.

Carl King

We started working together. Immediately after, I was telling him, Saturday I'm going upstate to visit my friend. And I told him the story as to how my friend is in jail for something he did not do. And he was pretty much touched.

And then the lady who always sat at his side, she came closer to hear the story. And we sat there for about two, three hours that day when I first told him about this story. So one day he told me, shortly after, why don't I bring some materials over?

William Robedee

He brought it over in a box. It was about a foot and a half, good 18 inches thick of paper. He had the trial transcripts, police paperwork, discovery materials that would have been in possession of Collin's defense attorney at the time of the trial in 1982.

And myself and Shirley sat up probably until three o'clock in the morning that night, just passing papers back and forth around the table. And going through about four pots of coffee. And I would think before we went to bed that night, I was convinced he didn't do.

There was no murder weapon recovered. There were no forensics. And the bullet had a downward trajectory in their own autopsy report from 20 years ago. And the theory of the case was that it was a drive-by shooting, which unless you were sitting on top of a tank, would be physically impossible for the murder to have happened the way that the witnesses testified to at the trial.

Anya Bourg

Carl and Robedee worked out a barter arrangement. Carl would deliver papers in exchange for Robedee's help with Collin's case. It was 1999. Collin had been in jail for almost 20 years, which might seem odd considering that he had a sentence of 15 years to life. But when you come up before the parole board, part of what they're looking for is that you accept responsibility for your crime and show remorse. But for Collin, accepting responsibility would have meant lying.

Reading the minutes of his parole board hearing, you see the awful trap he's in. At one point in the transcript, Collin says he's innocent. Then Commissioner Rafelli, who's conducting the meeting, responds like this. Quote "As far as we're concerned, the parole board, you are guilty of murder. The parole board does not determine issues of guilt or innocence. If you want to continue to fight that issue, by all means get yourself an attorney and appeal it. Take it to the court of appeals. Take it to the US Supreme Court, wherever you will. But until a court of higher jurisdiction tells us you are innocent, as far as we're concerned, you're guilty. And that's all there is to it. So I want you to be aware that your protestations of innocence, as far as we're concerned, fall on deaf ears." Unquote.

After arguing his case for a couple pages, Collin finally gives up. And he says, "Whatever I tell you, you're not going to believe me anyway." Needless to say, his parole was denied. And it was denied every time he went up for parole. Here's the catch. If he lied and said he committed the crime, he would have been released long ago.

Ira Glass

Coming up, getting a murderer to admit to murder. And getting him to help the helpless. Our story continues in just one minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act One.

Ira Glass

Its This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today we're spending our entire program on the story of Carl King, and how he managed to right a 20-year wrong against some pretty amazing odds. Again, here's reporter Anya Bourg.

Anya Bourg

Carl King and attorney William Robedee took to meeting regularly. They'd gather in Robedee's apartment and discuss strategy. They both agreed they had to go back and uncover what actually happened on the day of the murder.

So they pored over the police notes and paperwork from the trial. There were names that kept coming up, Mario the victim, his brother Martell, the real shooter Norman, and the main eyewitness Thomas Charlemagne. They thought this group was a good place to start. Here's Robedee.

William Robedee

I knew that they knew something. I mean there's Mario, Martell, Norman, Carlton. And all these guys were bonded together in a way that only teenage boys end up bonded together. I mean the whole story just had that flavor to it where you just knew that if there was a truth to this thing, then one of these kids knew it.

Anya Bourg

So they decided to start with the most obvious suspect, the real shooter, Norman Simmonds, the guy Collin had been tried and convicted with. In a weird twist, because he was a minor and a model inmate, he'd only served nine years in prison. And he proved surprisingly easy for Robedee to track down.

William Robedee

To be honest with you, I took a stab in the dark that an address that we found on the internet was him. And sent him a letter. Believe it or not, that worked. He called.

Anya Bourg

They arranged that Norman come over the next day to give a deposition. So the following afternoon, they were there waiting. A court reporter at the kitchen table, Robedee's wife, Shirley, lying on the living room floor arranging the papers, and Robedee preparing the questions.

William Robedee

We had an appointment for him at three o'clock. The doorbell rang at 2:00. And I looked outside and there was at that time a brand new S550 Mercedes sedan double parked in front of my house. And I said I think that might be Norman. And he was coming up around the stairs shouting up something to the effect of "Yo, where's the lawyer?"

Shirley Robedee

He was dressed like a pop star.

Anya Bourg

Shirley Robedee.

Shirley Robedee

You know, the Versace suit and laid out and perfect hair. And with the hand inside the jacket pocket.

William Robedee

Yeah I believe-- and I saw it up close enough-- evidence that every time he's moved his jacket, that he was sitting in my living room well armed.

Anya Bourg

So Robedee, his wife Shirley, and a now slightly freaked out court reporter, all sat down and listened as Norman Simmonds walked them through what happened on the day of Mario's shooting. Since you can't be tried for the same crime twice, he told them the story candidly. At times, too candidly.

William Robedee

He actually demonstrated on me physically. He asked me to stand up and play Mario Hamilton while he came up behind me with his finger and his thumb and showed me exactly how he shot him. Norman basically used me as his demonstration dummy. And where he put his finger on my neck is exactly where that bullet went in on that autopsy report, which is utterly consistent. As opposed to the story that was told at the trial, which was utterly inconsistent.

What Norman had given us was the actual story of how the murder actually happened. He stated to us that, to make a long story short, that himself and a person named Mossep-- who we later learned was named Dayton Morgan-- were walking basically behind Erasmus Hall High School, which is on Flatbush Avenue. And they spotted Mario Hamilton. And they walked up behind Mario Hamilton. Norman took a pistol from his waist band and basically almost at a point blank range, shot Mario through the top of his neck. That sequence of events, we had never actually heard before.

Anya Bourg

There was no car. There was no driver. And most importantly, there was no Collin Warner. Norman said he'd killed Mario in revenge for the death of a friend the week before, just like the neighborhood kids told the cops at the time. By the end of the deposition, Robedee had only one question left.

William Robedee

So after we had stopped, I said to him, why did you let this happen? Why did it go on so long? And his answer to that question began with, "I was only 15."

And he got very, very emotional. He was physically crying. The only way I can explain it is it was like a dam bursting with Normal. And it all just rushed out of him. I believe I hugged him.

Anya Bourg

The most important thing Carl and Robedee had got from Norman wasn't his confession. That alone isn't enough to vacate a conviction. What Norman gave them were the names of all the people who had seem him commit the crime, real eyewitnesses, people who were within feet when he fired the gun but who had never testified in court. There were two of them. Now Carl had to find them, to be a detective.

One of the eyewitnesses had gone into the Marines. And Carl tracked him down through a guy in the neighborhood. The other was Dayton Morgan, also known as Mossep. He wasn't as easy to locate. Carl started with a process server trick. He ran a DMV search and found an address Mossep had given the court when he appeared for a traffic violation. The only problem was, when Carl went up to the Bronx neighborhood to find the address, it didn't exist.

Carl King

The street sense came in there. I thought, if I give you an address, and I say to you I live at 915. And there's no 915 on this block. That means that I know this block that well to give you a wrong number. I knew at that time he had to know that block.

Anya Bourg

Carl started casing the neighborhood. He talked to people at the deli, the guy selling odds and ends on the street, neighborhood folks. He tried not to look out of place, But sometimes he took it a little far.

Carl King

One day I was dressed up in a mechanics suit.

Anya Bourg

Wait, you are going up there and hanging around the neighborhood. And figuring out where he is. Are you going in a costume?

Carl King

Well a mechanics suit because I can't really look like I'm just laying around in a strange neighborhood. So I mean people will really look at you directly if you are a tradesman or a worker.

So I had on this mechanic suit. And my boots are all dirty. So I was parked two cars away. So I saw him coming across the street to approach the building. And I just wanted to verify the apartment and if he was staying in that building.

So he's going to open the door, open it like that. So I just slide in. So I'm walking ahead of him. And he's walking behind. And I'm whistling. So I'm walking up the steps. So there are four floors in that building. So I'm saying, I hope it's not the last floor that he's going to because I don't know who I'll be knocking. Because I want to see the apartment he's actually staying in.

Fortunately, I heard the keys jangling on the third floor. So then I went up to the fourth floor, stood there for a minute, made sure he's inside and I came back down. Came out the building.

Anya Bourg

Carl says in an investigation, there are all sorts of advantages that someone from the neighborhood has that an outsider doesn't. This seemed especially true in the case of Taheem Allen, one of the teenagers who had lied to police and the grand jury in the original investigation. Taheem was kind of a street character, not the type who'd open up to just anyone. And also, a guy somebody official would have a hard time finding.

But here, Norman Simmonds was a help. After he gave his tearful deposition to Carl and Robedee, admitting he was the lone murderer, he told them he knew Taheem, knew where he hung out. So Carl got in Norman's Mercedes S550, the one with the tinted windows, and drove with him to see to Taheem restaurant in a really tough Brooklyn neighborhood.

When they walked in it was dark, but Norman pointed Taheem out in the corner. Carl introduced himself. And it didn't take much more than that.

Carl King

The guy was eating some food, actually. And when he heard the name Collin Warner, he just actually rested down his food and tears came to his eyes. And he said it always bothered him where he thinks that he's going to have a nervous breakdown. Because he kept thinking about what ever happened to this guy. And he said, "Listen, is there any way I can help you because I was part of sending an innocent man to jail?"

Anya Bourg

By this time, Carl was spending every spare moment working on Collin's case, between 50 to 100 hours a week, he says. It was coming between him and his friends and family. It was one of the reasons he and his girlfriend, the mother of his kids, split up.

By 1999, he and Robedee were making progress with the case, but there were still some problems. The key eyewitness, Thomas Charlemagne, the 15-year-old who first chose the photo of Collin at random, had been killed in Haiti years before. And Carl and Robedee knew the witnesses they had weren't enough to convince a judge. Norman was protected by double jeopardy. And Taheem had perjured himself before, so why wouldn't he do it again?

Carl and Robedee knew that to really make their case, they needed someone from the victim's family, someone who'd have no reason to help Collin get out of prison. And it's at this point that a rather surprising person reappears in the story, Martell Hamilton, the brother of the kid who died. The one who ran to the scene of the crime and saw his brother bleeding on the sidewalk.

Martell, remember, had been there when Thomas first identified Collin from the mug book. And he had ID'd Collin himself. Taheem knew where he lived, so they mailed a letter.

It was a hard letter for Martell to read. He had spent 20 years trying to put the murder of his mind. The last thing he wanted to do was get back into it with some lawyer he didn't know. He tried to ignore it, but he found he couldn't. So a week later, he came up with a solution of sorts.

Martell Hamilton

It was more just a cop out. I tried to call the attorney Robedee's office. I thought it was an actual office that most attorneys would have. And I sad I'm calling late so he can't say I didn't return the call. So I figured I would get an answering machine. And then I'd say, OK, I did my part. Now I'm done with it. But it came as a surprise that the answering machine came on. And I said, "Hello, my name is Martell Hamilton. I'm the brother of Mario Hamilton. And I received this letter. I'm just only returning your call. Goodbye." And then I heard somebody say, don't hang up, don't hang up, don't hang up.

And then he said "Mr Hamilton, you don't know how much this means to me that you called me. And I would like for you to come down and just look at some of the documents and evidence that we have to show that there's absolutely no way your brother could have been killed by my client. I represent Collin Warner."

And boy, that just drew me right back to 1980, April 10 of 1980. And it just felt like somebody just stuck a knife in my stomach. And I keep remembering those who said this guy had nothing to do with it.

Anya Bourg

Martell's family was against him talking to Robedee. They didn't see any reason to get involved. They didn't want to dredge up the past. But Martell hadn't admitted to them his doubts about Collin's guilt, how his friends always told him that Collin had nothing to do with it.

Keep in mind, Martell's brother had been his hero. They were incredibly close. They shared a room. And he'd seen him bleed to death in front of his eyes.

Even today, he carries Mario's picture in his wallet. So after a couple of days, he went over and looked at all the evidence Carl and Robedee had gathered. By the end, he was convinced enough to give a deposition, to tell them about how Detective Wasser bullied him into saying he'd seen Collin around the neighborhood.

But it was really rough. Several times they had to tell the court reporter to stop typing so Martell could take a break, get a tissue. It took hours to get through.

Anya Bourg

Why did you feel compelled to speak out in Collin's behalf.

Martell Hamilton

I just couldn't let it rest. And I was trying to let it rest. But because of that doubt, I said I have to do this. I have to do this. Plus for years I searched for some type of relief from this because if you think I'm emotional now, before 2000, I couldn't mention anything about it. I didn't walk close to Lott Street where he was killed. I couldn't see blood without panicking. And I'm pretty sure that's what it was. It was my doubts within the case.

Anya Bourg

Martell says he was amazed to learn that Collin didn't hate him. Everyone was just grateful that he came in. And after his deposition, Martell offered to help in any way he could. And basically joined what by this point was a small and unlikely team of investigators. Collin the inmate, Carl the process server, Robedee the housing lawyer working out of his apartment, Taheem, occupation unknown, and now Martell.

What's particularly unusual is that 20 years before, they'd been on opposite sides of the courtroom. Carl was on the side of the accused and Martell on the side of the victim. It's Martell who finally got Mossep, an eyewitness, to tell the story of what he saw.

Martell drove with Carl to the Bronx to the apartment building Carl had been staking out in his mechanics uniform. Mossep walked past. Martell followed him inside.

Martell Hamilton

Then he turned around. And I said, "Mossep." And he turned around and said, "Who are you?" And I said, "Mossep, do you remember me?" He said no. I said "Mossep, look at me real good. Remember me."

"Tell me who you are man." And I said, [DIALECT] Do you remember Mario? Cannot forget Mario, man. [DIALECT] He said, "How could I not remember Mario? Mario is the first friend I had when I came to New York. And he's the first friend I ever had to be killed in front of me."

Throughout that conversation, I really couldn't look at him. It just felt like someone just socked me right in the stomach. And then I literally bowled over because my stomach was hurt. And cringed so bad. So then I asked him, "so why couldn't you do something?

And he said, "Brethren, how you expect me to do something? I live amongst them. They were sending threatening notes. They threw bottles through my window. And you have to remember Johnny, now we're big. Now we're men. But we weren't men. We thought we were men. But we were still kids."

Anya Bourg

By January of 2001, three years after starting their reinvestigation, Carl and Robedee were ready to go back to court. They had tracked down and interviewed two eyewitnesses who hadn't testified at trial, two other witnesses who recanted their trial testimony, they'd gotten a confession from the real killer and sworn affidavits from three alibis. They gathered the new deposition and all the paperwork together in a brief so big, the court clerk laughed when Carl brought it in.

Robedee gathered everyone in his office slash apartment and told them not to expect anything to happen for a while. It would take months to get a response from the court. But just four days later, Robedee's phone rang. It was Judge Leventhal in the state Supreme Court, asking him to come in immediately for a conference. A couple minutes later, Barry Schreiber, the assistant district attorney, called to ask the same thing.

William Robedee

And so I got to court about four o'clock in the afternoon. And Justice Leventhal called us up to the bench, and Barry Schreiber was there. And he said look Judge, we're not going to oppose the motion. As far as we're concerned, he didn't do it.

And I had no idea. I certainly wasn't prepared to win four days after I filed the motion. So I said-- so the judge looked at me and said, "Do you have an order prepared?" "No, Judge, I'm not even sure what one's supposed to look like." He's like, well write one.

Anya Bourg

The next day, Carl, Collin's wife, Robedee and Shirley drove up to the prison and watched Collin emerge a free man.

Collin Warner

They took me to the gate. Everybody was at each window. "Yo Collin. Yo, good luck." That feeling was so incredible, Anya. It was incredible because my wife always told me that she had a dream. And she dreamed that she was with me at the prison gates. And I told her, well that dream is not going to come true. There she is waiting at the prison gates for me.

Anya Bourg

After 21 years, of course, it's not over when you walk out of the prison gates. It took Collin almost a year to leave the house alone. He says he still feels more comfortable in small places with the door locked behind him. To this day, all his dreams still take place in prison. And if not, they end up there. While he was locked up, his father died. His sister got married. Everyone had kids. He says he feels like he was born in prison. He literally has no memory of his life before. And he says that in prison, when he'd imagine life outside, everything was clean and beautiful. And it was a little startling to discover that the outside world could be pretty grimy.

He spent a lot of time trying to understand, why did this happen to him? Why did the universe choose him to suffer so arbitrarily? He still hasn't figured it out.

Two days after Collin's release, his family planned a party for him. There was music, tables full of food, a lot of people Collin hadn't seen for over 20 years. And one person he'd never met, Martell Hamilton, whose brother's murder started this whole story. And who told the cops what they wanted to hear and helped them build their case against Collin.

When Martell walked in, a hush came over the room. Here's William Robedee.

William Robedee

Collin was still within this religious period of purification where he was wearing white every day. So he have these big dreadlocks down and the white garment, the beard with a little moustache. I mean looking everything in the world like Jesus off of a stain glass window. And Martell literally broke down and started crying. And Collin went over to him and put his arm around him. And Collin was the one comforting him.

Martell Hamilton

Collin hugged me. And I hugged him back. And some tears fell. And he said, "Brethren, boy, it feels so good seeing you."

Collin Warner

I hugged Martell because in the end, he did come forward and tried to rectify what he knew was wrong.

Martell Hamilton

Even though before his release we never spoke to each other, we somewhat had a connection. And he said, I want to tell you, I didn't know your brother, but I knew him spiritually afterwards. He said there were many nights in bed I said, "I don't know why am I here. And what did I do? But I used to pray to Mario and hope Mario was at peace."

William Robedee

It was something I had never seen before other than-- certainly not in my real life with real people with real situations. It's something you hear about in books about saints doing or something that Collin was able to do what he did. And that Martell actually had the courage to walk in there and ask him for the forgiveness.

Anya Bourg

Carl King likes to tell you, and anyone who'll listen, that individuals can make a difference, that justice is the only thing worth fighting for. That the little man can fight the system and win. And in this case, he was right. It just took a long time. There was a lot to fix. The police, for whatever reason, ignored the witnesses who said Collin had nothing to do with the murder and rushed to make the arrest stick. The DA looked past the contradictions in Thomas Charlegmagne's testimony and proposed a theory of the murder that didn't match the forensic evidence.

Maybe everyone was overburdened. Maybe they just didn't care. There's nothing unusual about cases with so little evidence, says William Robedee.

William Robedee

It's not that uncommon that you won't have a murder weapon. It's not that uncommon that there'll be no forensic evidence. It's not that uncommon that the only witness you'll have will be a career crack head.

People watch CSI, for example. And they think that's what goes on every time there's a murder. That these amazing teams of scientists swoop down out of everywhere and spend every possible hour and expend every possible dollar to make sure they have the right guy. That doesn't happen. And it should.

You can't have a situation where an assistant district attorney has 80 or 90 felony prosecutions to be responsible for at any given moment because they will not have the time to spend on doing a job right. The same could be said for a homicide detective.

The last comment I'll make about this is that if Collin Warner had lived in Texas, or Florida, or Louisiana, he would have been dead a long time ago. And that would have been the end of it.

Anya Bourg

So why did it take an amateur detective, a murderer, a housing lawyer working out of his apartment, and a bunch of grown-up kids from the old neighborhood to see that justice was done? In the end, perhaps the one thing Carl was willing to invest that police and lawyers and the overburdened criminal justice system weren't was time. Nobody wants to see an innocent man in prison. But only Carl King was willing to spend 21 years to get him out.

Ira Glass

Anya Bourg in New York City.

[MUSIC -- SINGLE MINDED PROS]

Act Two.

Ira Glass

Well our program was produced today by Alex Blumberg and myself with Diane Cook, Wendy Dorr, Jane Feltes, Sarha Koenig and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann, Kevin Clark, Seth Lind and Steven January.. The music with the bells in today's program's was produced for our show by DJ Rude 1. Singled Minded Pros. Their website is singlemindedpros.com.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website www.thisamericanlife.org where you can listen to our programs for absolutely free or buy CDs of them. Or you know you can download today's program in our archives at audible.com/thismamericanlife.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our show by Torey Malatia. I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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