After 25 years in prison, N.J. men to walk free as prosecutors drop murder charges

A New Jersey appellate panel said new forensic evidence “powerfully undermines” the government’s sole eyewitness in the case.

Color image of a gavel in a courtroom.

(Alexandru Nika/BigStock)

After serving 25 years in prison for a double murder they say they didn’t commit, two Camden men will soon walk free after local prosecutors announced they would drop the charges against them.

Kevin Baker and Sean Washington, both now 48, were convicted after a two-day trial in 1996 that relied on the testimony of a single eyewitness: a woman high on crack cocaine who said she saw the men flee from the scene of the shooting.

But a three-judge appellate panel tossed their convictions in late December, citing new forensic evidence that “powerfully undermines” the woman’s account and a recently surfaced 9-1-1 recording that seems to be Washington himself reporting the shooting to police.

“Viewed objectively, that material evidence, if it had been presented, probably would have changed the jury’s verdict,” the panel wrote, describing the woman’s testimony as “inconsistent and at times incoherent.”

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The Camden County Prosecutor’s Office announced Tuesday it would not retry the case, setting off a scramble by the men’s attorneys and the prison system to get them ready for their return to society.

“They’re both quite exuberant and looking forward to a new life as free men,” said Lesley Risinger, director of the Last Resort Exoneration Project at Seton Hall Law School that first took up their case nine years ago.

Risinger said the men would likely be released in the next couple weeks, during which time prison officials would help to arrange for IDs, medical coverage and referrals to social services. Temporary housing may be provided by family members, she said.

In a statement, the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office said it disagreed with the appellate panel’s reasoning and defended its handling of the case.

“Notably, the Appellate Division did not declare Baker and Washington ‘actually innocent’ and did not find error with the initial prosecution of this matter or the majority of the rulings made by the trial court during the trial and post-conviction relief hearings,” the office said in a statement.

It said it decided not to retry the case after consulting with the state Attorney General’s Office and concluding that doing so after 25 years had passed “is not feasible in this particular case.”

A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the discussions with Camden prosecutors.

The murders at the center of the case occurred on the morning of Jan. 28, 1995, outside a housing complex in the Centerville section of Camden.

Emergency responders arrived at the Roosevelt Manor Apartments around 6 a.m. to find Rodney Turner, then 35, and Margaret Wilson, 40, lying in a pool of blood.

According to reporting by NJ Advance Media, Baker and Washington were pointed to by several purported witnesses and sources. They were put on trial the following year.

The government’s sole eyewitness was Denise Rand, who testified she saw two men run up to the victims and shoot them in the head. She implied the victims were standing upright when they were attacked.

She also acknowledged she had smoked crack cocaine about two hours prior but was “not to the point where I don’t know what I’m seeing.”

But as Risinger and other attorneys brought to light, ballistics evidence analyzed after the trial suggested that at least one of the victims was lying down when shot. That was more consistent with a deliberate, execution-style killing as opposed to the run-by shooting described by Rand.

Other evidence indicated that one gun — not two as Rand suggested — were used in the shooting, the appellate panel noted. And the voice on the 9-1-1 recording, which only came to light in 2013, could be Washington’s, as the man has maintained for years. The panel said it should be up to a new jury to decide whether they believe his account.

“It is clear from the audio recording that the 9-1-1 caller was distraught,” the panel wrote. “That lends support to the notion that the caller was not the person who just shot Turner and Wilson.”

Both Baker and Washington were originally sentenced to two consecutive 30-year prison terms, meaning they would have been in their 80s before becoming eligible for parole.

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