STATEN ISLAND, New York City (WABC) -- A man who spent 23 years in prison for a 1996 murder on Staten Island has had his conviction vacated after a review uncovered numerous credible witnesses who testified to his innocence as well as issues with the investigation.
Richmond County District Attorney Michael McMahon announced Thursday that following an investigation by his office's Conviction Integrity Review Unit, he agreed to vacate the conviction of Grant Williams, who was paroled in 2019 in connection with the homicide of Shdell Lewis.
"I used to tell everybody in prison, I'm innocent," he said. "And they said, 'Ahhh Williams, everybody says that.' I said I'm telling you the truth. One day you're going to see me on the news, and you're going to see that I was innocent. And today is that day."
In addition to the witnesses, McMahon said the review determined that identification procedures used by police at the time did not meet with modern standards or current best practices for ensuring fair and impartial justice.
"A reinvestigation of this case by my office's Conviction Integrity Review Unit uncovered new evidence showing Mr. Grant Williams could not have committed the murder a Staten Island jury convicted him of carrying out in 1997," McMahon said. "Given the overwhelming amount of exculpatory evidence presented for the first time in this review, as well as a totality of the investigative circumstances in this case, which in several instances defy what we now accept as best practices, we now believe Mr. Williams to actually be innocent and conclude that our justice system failed him. Accordingly, we are consenting to the vacating of his conviction and the dismissal of the case."
Williams appeared before Judge Wayne Ozzi Thursday morning in Staten Island Supreme Court, with McMahon consenting to vacate the conviction and dismiss the indictment based upon newly discovered evidence showing actual innocence.
"This is Grant's moment, I want to be very, very clear about that," McMahon said. "But it's also Staten Island's moment, because this is the first time in the history of Staten Island's criminal justice system that a lookback was taken and in injustice was done."
Williams was arrested on October 11, 1996, for Lewis's murder during a shooting outside the Stapleton NYCHA Housing Complex.
The case went to trial before a jury, and on November 25, 1997, Williams was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with eligibility of parole at 25 years.
"Thirteen witnesses we developed in total that were in his favor," Assistant DA Wanda DeOliveira said. "Even an alibi witness, and a confirmation on the alibi as well."
In May 2017, Williams's attorney, Irving Cohen, requested a conviction review of the case against his client and presented new information he had discovered that cast doubt on the identification of Williams as the shooter, including at least a dozen witnesses who gave affidavits attesting to Williams' innocence.
"I believe that once the police obtained an identification, they stopped investigating," Cohen said.
McMahon said the new interviews were especially significant considering that at the time of the incident there was only one independent eyewitness who identified Williams as the shooter. There was no other evidence to implicate Williams, including no confession, DNA or fingerprints, video recordings or cell phone evidence, or any other forensic or independent corroboration of witness identification.
Investigators found and interviewed six new witnesses, most of whom had known Williams at the time, had witnessed the shooting, and told investigators that Williams was not the shooter.
An alibi witness who was also interviewed during the reinvestigation stated that on the day of the Lewis homicide, he had met up with Williams at his mother's house on Cebra Avenue on Staten Island and had driven to the WuTang Clan Recording Studio, where they met up with others and remained all night.
Later that evening, an associate of this witness had even entered the studio and reported that Lewis was killed in Stapleton.
Investigators also interviewed the associate and confirmed that he had also seen Williams in the studio the night of the homicide.
In total, investigators interviewed over 35 fact witnesses and traveled to seven states and five different correctional facilities in connection with the reinvestigation.
Additionally, they found that identification procedures used by police at the time to pursue Williams as the main suspect in the shooting would not comport with today's standards of best practices or proper procedure.
In fact, throughout the reinvestigation, it was determined that what is considered today to be best practices for ensuring fair and impartial justice were not used at various points throughout NYPD's original investigation nor the duration of the prosecution's case against Williams.
"The new DA's office, incredibly good," Williams said. "So I think that from this day forward, we won't have wrongful convictions."
Cohen said he plans to file two lawsuits seeking monetary damages, and Williams said he doesn't harbor any anger and hopes to help others who've been wrongfully convicted.
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