Samuel Brownridge, then 18, was found guilty of first-degree murder in the 1994 execution-style killing of a 32-year-old man in St. Albans based on two eyewitness identifications, but District Attorney Melinda Katz said the new evidence implicates a violent felon, Garfield Brown, as the actual shooter.
"I don't think one who has never been incarcerated knows how it feels to be locked up, especially when they are innocent," Brownridge said in a statement. "I feel that law enforcement had the opportunity to make this right years ago."
Queens Supreme Court Justice Joseph Zayas used a tissue to wipe away tears during the video conference before granting the motion to dismiss Brownridge's case.
"To many of you, this may look like a victory, but...I cannot help but see all that I lost," Brownridge said. "But I also see hope. Hope for my future. Hope for my family. And hope for reform."
After Brownridge, now 45, served the minimum 25 years of his sentence, he was released in March 2019 on lifetime parole while continuing to fight for justice.
"I sit down sometimes and say to myself, why me?" he said. "My 20s, 30s, and half of my 40s are gone. I sat in a jail cell every night waiting for this day, while others went home to their families, knowing that the system failed and law enforcement did not do what they could to free an innocent man."
During Brownridge's years of post-conviction investigating, attorney Donna Aldea and her legal team found several pieces of evidence that if presented at his original trial would have cleared his name.
"This is a profoundly poignant day for Mr. Brownridge," Katz said. "After decades of voicing his innocence, this man who served 25 years for a crime he did not commit, will finally be unencumbered by this miscarriage of justice."
This is the first case handled by the newly created Conviction Integrity Unit, with the goal of undoing when the justice system makes life-altering errors.
"We must always keep in mind, that when an innocent person is imprisoned for a crime he or she did not commit, the real perpetrator evades justice and is free to commit other atrocities," Katz said. "In this case, Garfield Brown was never held accountable for this violent crime."
Brown was featured on the TV show "America's Most Wanted" in connection with two other unrelated homicides. He was killed in a shootout with police when they were attempting to apprehend him in 2002.
"After years of hard work, investigation and unrelenting persistence in our fight for justice, today, after 25 years, the truth has finally prevailed," Aldea said. "While Samuel Brownridge is deeply grateful for the unwavering dedication of his advocates and supporters during this long struggle, and for the courage and integrity of the District Attorney and her staff in recognizing and correcting this grievous injustice, there is nothing that will restore the 25 years of Sam's life that were taken from him as a result of deep, fundamental flaws in our criminal justice system."
The victim in this 1994 homicide was Darryle Adams, who was shot and killed in his St. Albans neighborhood on the night of March 7, 1994. Adams was confronted by a group of four men, one of whom was in a wheelchair. The man in the wheelchair struck the victim in the head with a bottle and another member of the group then shot him in the head.
There was no apparent motive for the crime.
Several days later, Brownridge was identified as the shooter by a witness who had been threatened by the group only moments earlier and then witnessed the shooting.
Another man who claimed to have seen the shooting from a distance also identified Brownridge, though no physical evidence linked him to the crime.
Brownridge consistently asserted his innocence of the murder and has claimed that he was at home with his girlfriend and child at the time of the shooting.
Katz said the jury that convicted Brownridge did not hear the following evidence that would have changed the outcome of the trial:
--Three men, Darren Lee, Dean Hoskins and Mark Taylor, have admitted that they were present when Adams was murdered and that Garfield Brown was the shooter.
--Garfield Brown was seen by a witness together with Lee, Hoskins, and Taylor on the night of the murder near where Adams was shot.
--Mark Taylor made a statement to two other men on the night of the murder that Garfield Brown had shot someone.
--Garfield Brown confessed to a friend in March 1994 that he committed a murder on a back street in St. Albans and gave details consistent with the crime.
--Garfield Brown was a violent felon who was later killed by police after he appeared on "America's Most Wanted" in connection with other murders in New York and Connecticut.
--Garfield Brown more closely resembled an eyewitness description of a man in his mid-20s with a short fade haircut. By contrast, Brownridge was only 18 and did not have his hair short on the sides.
Katz said there was also new evidence undermining the eyewitness identifications used to convict Brownridge. The NYPD had initially developed two suspects -- one as the shooter and the other as the man in the wheelchair -- and placed them in photo arrays, but later found that they were not involved and voided the arrests.
Despite the fact that these two initial suspects were undoubtedly innocent, both men were identified from photo arrays by one of the eyewitnesses who later identified Brownridge.
There is also reason to doubt the reliability of the second eyewitness, who had obvious intellectual impairments during the trial and gave varying and implausible accounts of what he saw on the night of the murder.
Although he could not be located as part of the new investigation, this witness has since been diagnosed with schizophrenia and has recanted his identification of Brownridge in an affidavit provided by Brownridge's attorney.
Taken together, Katz said this new evidence demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence that Brownridge did not murder Darryle Adams.
Brownridge now lives in Maryland with his son, wife and two stepchildren. Now that he no longer has a criminal record, he is excited about getting a new job and maybe one day becoming a chef.
Watch the full hearing below:
(ABC News' Christina Carrega contributed to this report)
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