Two men serving life in prison for a 1995 Camden double murder could soon walk free. Prosecutors said Tuesday that they were dropping their criminal cases after an appeals court ordered a new trial.
Kevin Baker and Sean Washington, both 48, have been locked up for nearly a quarter-century in the shooting deaths of Rodney Turner, 35, and Margaret Wilson, 40, outside the Roosevelt Manor housing project on Jan. 28, 1995. They were found guilty after a two-day jury trial in 1996 and were sentenced to life in prison with a 60-year parole-ineligibility period.
A panel of appellate judges last Dec. 26 vacated their convictions and ordered a new trial over evidence unavailable when they were convicted that “probably would have changed the jury verdict.” The judges gave the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office 60 days to appeal their decision to the state Supreme Court.
On Tuesday, acting Camden County Prosecutor Jill S. Mayer said her office would move to dismiss the indictment against Baker and Washington.
Mayer said the Prosecutor’s Office disagreed with the Appellate Division’s reason for vacating the convictions. She noted that the judges made a point of not declaring the men “actually innocent.”
The 81-page appellate opinion states: “We do not, however, declare the defendants to be ‘actually innocent,’ but instead provide the state with the option of pursing a second trial, mindful of the lengthy intervening passage of time.”
Mayer said the Prosecutor’s Office considered the years gone by and how that would impact proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
The case was handled for Baker by attorneys Lesley C. Risinger and D. Michael Risinger of the Last Resort Exoneration Project at Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark. Lawrence S. Lustberg represented Washington on the appeal. Joseph Fortunato represented Washington in post-conviction proceedings in the trial court.
The husband-and-wife Risinger team said Tuesday evening that they were “joyous” upon learning of the case’s being dropped.
They were trying to get the news to Baker and Washington, who are at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. The team had been bracing for good news in recent days, but the men have kept their emotions in check.
“They try not to be too hopeful. It’s been a long road,” Michael Risinger said.
However, he added, “their hopes are not going to be dashed now. Not tonight.”
The appellate decision giving prosecutors a 60-day window included a stay during that time of the release of the men. Thus, release could be in several days, Risinger said.
The Last Resort project took up the case in 2011 and it became the subject of a two-part examination in 2015 by NJ Advance Media, publisher of the Newark Star-Ledger.
In its December ruling, the appeals court cited “newly discovered forensic evidence that powerfully undermines the sole eyewitness’s varying descriptions of the shooting, coupled with non-forensic exculpatory proof of a 911 recording the defense obtained years after the trial.”
Denise Rand, the only eyewitness and a drug addict who told police she had been smoking crack “every two to three hours” around the time of the shootings, gave conflicting accounts of what happened. At an appeal hearing in 2013, forensic experts testified that Rand’s description of how the victims were shot was inconsistent with their wounds.