Shamel Capers, 24, entered a packed Queens courthouse on Thursday with his wrists tied to a tight leather belt while three court officials waited nearby. Capers was a convicted killer.
However, his festive green three-piece suit suggested a forthcoming party.
Since his arrest at age 16, Mr. Capers has been incarcerated for a murder he always claimed he did not commit.
Due to the finding of exonerating evidence, his conviction was expected to be overturned after eight years in jail.
Mr. Capers refrained to react in court, but when Justice Michelle A. Johnson eventually overturned his conviction, he rose slowly to his feet and towered over his attorney, Winston Paes.
An investigator removed his shackles and unbuckled the leather belt that bound him. The court officials retreated, and one of them stated to Mr. Capers’ attorneys and family members, “He’s all yours.”
It was Mr. Capers’ first taste of freedom since he was jailed at age 16 for allegedly murdering a 14-year-old honours student, D’aja Robinson, a year earlier when he was only 15 years old.
D’aja was slain in May 2013 after being struck by crossfire during a gang altercation while riding a city bus in Jamaica, Queens, after leaving a party.
Mr. Capers was mostly convicted based on the evidence of a gang member who claimed to have seen Mr. Capers shoot at the bus.
Immediately after being sentenced to 15 years to life in jail, he began attempting to establish his innocence from inside prison, he claimed on Thursday, standing outside the courtroom and seemed almost scared by the possibility of freedom.
Several years ago, Debevoise & Plimpton, a Manhattan legal firm, decided to handle his appeal for gratis when Getting Out Staying Out, an organisation that fights for recently jailed young men, brought the case to their attention.
Mr. Paes, an attorney with Debevoise, said, “Because he insisted he was innocent, we agreed to explore the issue.”
The company started questioning witnesses and discovered a concerning aspect of the case. In return for his evidence, the principal witness against Mr. Capers was promised a considerable sentence reduction for multiple unrelated offences.
Mr. Capers was not arrested until one year after the shooting, for which a friend, Kevin McClinton, had already been arrested. A fresh eyewitness informed investigators that he saw Mr. Capers fire the first few bullets into the bus before Mr. McClinton started shooting.
Lael Jappa was facing many other crimes and was coerced into falsely incriminating Mr. Capers, according to Mr. Capers’ attorneys. His testimony constituted the major connection between Mr. Capers and the shooting.
Later, Mr. Jappa recanted to a defence investigator, and his recantation was substantiated by recorded phone conversations from Rikers Island in which he revealed to his mother in 2014 that he had never seen Mr. Capers fire at the bus.
The Debevoise attorneys contacted the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Queens District Attorney’s Office, which spent two years interrogating scores of witnesses, including Mr. Jappa, who recanted his testimony to them.
Justice Johnson addressed them, adding that she recognised the “loss and emotional agony” associated with the case’s reexamination.
In recent years, the city has spent millions to resolve wrongful conviction and jail complaints. One of the leading reasons of unjust convictions is problematic eyewitnesses.
The city agreed last month to pay $26 million to resolve claims brought by two men whose convictions in the 1965 killing of Malcolm X would be overturned in 2021.
And in July, a state court judge exonerated the three men who had been erroneously convicted of starting a fatal fire at a Brooklyn subway token station.
Mr. Capers exited the courthouse on Thursday, embraced his mother in the corridor, and then stepped out into the chilly Queens Boulevard without a coat.
He seemed to like the cold.
Mr. Capers also said that he wanted to draw attention to a “broken judicial system” and assist the many falsely convicted individuals currently incarcerated.
“There are several men; the list is endless,” he remarked.