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 kind of hard to look at-- a young woman, dead and bloody in the back of a store. The police think that she was murdered in a robbery, but Carl has his own theory.

Carl King

This murder occurred behind certain doors where the manager would be doing the operation, the daily operation, so this is certainly someone knew about this store and the full operation. It has to be an inside job.

Ira Glass

Carl King's 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 has 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 reinvestigating the case, you know, 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 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 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 the 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.

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.

Act One.

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 tags around with older kids, trying to fit in, 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 was 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-- thinking that he's being helpful, you know? But he only-- you know, 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, you know, heavily. And I felt like I was outside of my body because I couldn't believe, you know, that my brother was really shot. He was 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. And they asked me how old he was, and I told them how old he was.

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

Anya Bourg

The police put the boys in the back of a 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 from where he was sitting, he could overhear Thomas's entire interrogation.

Martell Hamilton

What I heard was he raised his voice at Thomas. Did you see did you see this guy with a gun? And Thomas said, no, I don't-- I don't see him with a gun. So he was like, how do you mean you don't see him with a gun? If he shot him, you got to see a gun. Did you see a gun? Like-- and he-- you can hear Thomas's voice quivering, like, yeah, I-- I guess so. I guess so. Yeah, I did see-- I did see him with a gun. Yeah, I did see 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 would 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 don't know none of these guys? He said, look again. And I looked at the photo, and I said, no, I don't know any of these guys.

Now mind you, I was still crying at the time when 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 don't-- 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, you know, 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 a 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 there with my mom 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, asks me, where was you-- 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 and said they wanted to talk to me about a murder. You know, so she told me to call them.

I call them, and I spoke to a Detective Wasser because he left his card. And he tells me all he wanted to do was to talk to me in connection with a homicide that day. And I tell him, what you want to talk to me about when I never kill nobody? I never saw no murder. He said, no, we just want to talk. So I hanged up the phone on him.

Anya Bourg

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

Collin Warner

They came, came up to the apartment, you know, and they want to take me down to the precinct. I said, for what? They said, just for questioning. And they led me-- 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?

Collin Warner

Never came back till 21 years later.

Anya Bourg

The police took Collin 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, Collin 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. They called his friends, who are now his alibis, to question them. But early the next morning, they booked him for murder and sent him to Rikers Island, just north of New York City.

Collin Warner

I don't know, man. It's just-- this just happened out of the blue, and a lot of people saying like, man, you have to have known something. You understand what I'm saying? I said, I don't know nothing. 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 Collin 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 him-- 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.

Collin Warner

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 recognize-- I said, but you know, this guy Norman told me he was going to shoot my brother. And, forget about Norman. Norman has nothing to do with this. I want you 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'd think this would have been good news for Collin, but here's how he heard about it.

Collin Warner

Some time in November I went to court. And when they call our case, it was not-- it was now Collin Warner and Norman Simmonds. So when he went back to the bullpen, I asked him, like, who are you? You know what I'm saying? He said, I'm Norman. You know, they have me for the-- for killing Mario. So I said, I'm here for killing Mario, too. And he said, but how is-- how is that? I said, listen, man. I don't know what the hell is going on. 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 every court date after that, we were together. Didn't see no difference between him or 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. You know I mean-- And 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 say, you're not supposed to ask me that. And years later, when I'm telling other people this story, they say, now 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. No not to this day I didn'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, like, 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 Richenstrick

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 was 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 was just 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 Richenstrick

And I say to him, "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 an open and shut, like Collin's going to walk out the door.

Bruce Richenstrick

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's 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 even had to say, listen, you look-- you sure he's the right guy? And he just glanced at me and, you know, said, yes, Collin Warner is right there. Because he knew he was lying. He know. 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

No, they told us, you know, because they see us coming to court every day. You know what I'm saying? And sometimes they talk to us and some would say, listen, man. You have a good shot, man. You know what I'm saying? That guy's 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. You know, Collin Warner, you know, guilty of murder in the second degree. And Norman Simmonds, guilty of murder in the second degree.

And after that, like it hit 12 o'clock. And there are some bells 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 bells struck 12 times. And here, I'm telling you, when that foreperson said guilty, it's like my whole life flashed in front of my face. You know, and my knees just got weak-- you know what I'm saying-- because I sat down in the chair because I couldn't believe it. Even to this day, I'm saying, like, how could you 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 Richenstrick

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 four blacks on a subway train and ending up getting a year in jail for possession of a weapon. There is-- 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, that he was 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 to 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 this 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. Bruce Richenstrick says he'd never heard anything like it.

Bruce Richenstrick

I think that Judge Murray was voicing what the overriding feeling was in the courtroom. How did the jury reach that verdict? And there wasn't even anything in the courtroom-- in an atmosphere in the courtroom-- to give us any kind of indication that this result was going to be reached. It was completely a surprise. It was a surprise to me. It was a surprise to Collin Warner. And by the judge's words, which I hadn't heard in a long time, I think it was probably a surprise to him.

Anya Bourg

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. Had me-- had about 50 of us in a shower area, stripped butt naked, you know, sprayed delousing on our arms, you know, on our testicles and then bending over and spraying it in our anus and all that. You know what I mean?

And it was so degrading. You know what I mean? And then I started to cry, you know what I mean, 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-- it's like a mad house, you know? And I'm just trying to like-- you know, where the hell-- 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, you know, my pulse is just racing because I tell myself that, you know, it could have been me. And I felt like it's me because it was actually to see like there's a big whale come and just swallow you up, and nobody can just dig in that whale's stomach. It was-- 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 weren't 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's 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. Collin 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 they managed to get one of the most famous defense lawyers in the country, William Kunstler, 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. 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, like, the rules don't apply to me then because I'm innocent. But that wasn't the case, you know? In their eyes, I was guilty.

Anya Bourg

Eventually, Collin stopped rebelling. He enrolled in classes and work programs. Carl would visit often, 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'd 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 reinvestigate the crime, come up with new evidence and witnesses, do the detective work the detectives 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 investigating a crime over a decade after it's been committed? Carl had no experience. Up till 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 at 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, you know?

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 at the side of the desk, happened to be his wife. After a while, I saw a guy walk by in a towel, so I was thinking it's strange. Well, 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 I mean there was two bedrooms in the back, and then there was, like, a living room, and then the room that I used as an office, and 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, and we kind of 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 sits at his side, she came closer to hear the story. And we sat there for, like, about two, three hours that day when I first tell them about the story. So one day, he told me shortly after, why don't I bring, you know, 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 till 3 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 it.

I mean, 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 are sitting on top of a tank, it would be physically impossible for the murder to have happened the way that the witnesses testified to it 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, but 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 of 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 a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two.

Ira Glass

It's 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. Today's show was first broadcast back in 2005. 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 poured 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, you know, there's Mario, Martell, Norman, Carlton, and all these guys were kind of bonded together in the way that kind of only teenage boys end up bonded together. I mean, the whole story just had that kind of 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 for 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 in the living room floor arranging the papers, and Robedee, preparing the questions.

William Robedee

We had an appointment for him at 3 o'clock. The doorbell rang at 2:00. And I looked outside, and it 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, like, you know, dressed like kind of, you know, a pop star.

Anya Bourg

Shirley Robedee.

Shirley Robedee

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

William Robedee

Yeah I believe, you know-- and I kind of saw enough close enough evidence of 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 was 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 waistband and basically almost at kind of 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 again, you know, why, 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, it was like a dam bursting with Norman. It all just kind of rushed out of him. I believe I hugged him.

Anya Bourg

The most important thing Carl and Robedee got from Norman wasn't his confession. That alone isn't enough to vacate a conviction. What Norman gave them was the names of all the people who'd seen him commit the crime, real eyewitnesses, people who were within feet when he fired the gun, but who'd 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 gave you an address, and I said 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, you know, 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 in 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 mechanic's suit.

Anya Bourg

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

Carl King

Well, a mechanic's suit because I can't really look like I'm just laying around in a strange neighborhood, so I mean people won't really look at you that direct if, you know, you're a tradesman or worker. So I had on this mechanic's suit, and my boots are all dirty. So I was, like, parked, like, 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's 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, like, ahead of him, and he's walking behind. And I'm whistling. So I'm walking up the steps. So it's 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 jingling on the third floor, so then I went up to the fourth floor, stood there for a minute, make sure he's inside, and I came back down, come 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'd lied to the 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 Taheem at a 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 rest down his food and tears came to his eyes. And then he said it's always, like, bothered him where, you know, he thinks he's going to get a nervous breakdown, you know, because he kept thinking about whatever 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's 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'd IDed Collin himself. Taheem knew where he lived, so they mailed a letter.

It was a hard letter for Martell to read. He'd spent 20 years trying to put the murder out 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 or less a cop out. I tried to call the attorney Robedee's office. I thought it was an actual office, like most attorneys would have, and I said, I'm going to call him late so he can't say I didn't return the call. So I figured I would get an answering machine, and then I said, OK, I did my part. Now I'm done with it. But came to my surprise, the answering machine came on, and I said, hello, my name is Martell Hamilton. I am the brother of Mario Hamilton, and I received this letter. I'm just only returning your call. Good bye.

And then I heard something said, 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, you know? And I would like for you to come down and just look at some of the documents and the evidence that we have to show that there's absolutely no way your brother could been killed by my client. I represent Collin Warner. And boy, that was-- that just drew me right back to 1980, April 10 of 1980. And it just felt like somebody just, you know, like stuck a knife in my stomach. And I keep remembering those who said, you know, 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'd 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 for Collin, on Collin's behalf?

Martell Hamilton

I just-- I just couldn't let it rest. And I was trying to let it rest, but that-- because that doubt, you know, 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 the 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 up to the Bronx to the apartment building Carl had been staking out in his mechanic's 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-- I said, Mossep, do you not remember me? He said, no. I said, Mossep, look upon real good. Remember me. He said, brethren, tell me who you is, man. Tell me who you is, man. Do you not remember Mario? Do you remember Mario? So, cannot forget Mario, man. Mario my brethren. Mario the first [SPEAKING JAMAICAN PATOIS] when I come to New York and the first man to get killed in front of me. He said, how could I not remember Mario? Mario was 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, you know, I really couldn't look at him. You know, it just felt like someone just socked me right in the stomach, and then I literally bowled over because my stomach was hurting and cringed so bad, you know? So then I asked him, so why couldn't you do something, you know? He said, brethren, how you expect me to do something? I live amongst them. You know, they was sending threatening notes. They threw bottles through my window. And you got to remember, Johnny, you know, now we're big. Now we're men. Well, 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 depositions and all the paperwork together in a brief so big the court clerks laughed when Carl brought it in.

Robedee gathered everyone in his office/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 from the state Supreme Court asking him to come in immediately for a conference. A couple of minutes later, Barry Schreiber, the assistant district attorney, called to ask the same thing.

William Robedee

And so I got to court about 4 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. I mean, 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, you know?

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 like at each window, yo, Collin! Yo, good luck! That feeling was so incredible, Anya. It was incredible because my wife always tells 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 imagined life outside, everything was clean and beautiful, and it was a little startling to discover that the outside world can 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 had these big dreadlocks down and the white garment, the beard, a little moustache. I mean, looking everything in the world like Jesus off a stained 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-- some tears fell. And he said, brethren, oh, it feels so good seeing you.

Collin Warner

I hugged Martell because in the end, he did came 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 like a connection. And he said, I want to tell you, you know, I didn't know-- I didn't know your brother, but I knew him spiritually afterwards. He said, there was 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, you know, certainly not in my real life with real people with real situations. It's something you hear about in books about saints doing it 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 Charlemagne'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 will be no forensic evidence. It's not that uncommon that the only witness you'll have will be a career crackhead. 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 their job right. The same thing could be said for a homicide detective. I mean, 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, she's a producer at Frontline. Collin now lives in Georgia with his wife and daughter. Carl's still in New York still working cases to exonerate the falsely imprisoned. A film was just released about their story. It's called Crown Heights, directed by Matt Ruskin, starring Lakeith Stanfield and Nnamdi Asomugha. [MUSIC - SINGLE MINDED PROS]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program today was produced back in 2005 by Alex Blumberg and myself with Diane Cook, Wendy Dorr, Jane Marie, Sarah Koenig, and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer for this episode was Julie Snyder. Production help from BA Parker. Our technical director is Matt Tierney. The music with the bells in today's program was produced for our show by DJ Rude 1. Single Minded Pros. Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Special thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.