Framed for Double Murders in New York

     MANHATTAN (CN) - Three innocent men spent 18 years in prison after New York Police Department detectives framed them for murders to which they had no connection, the men claim in court.
     Carlos Perez, Michael Cosme and Devon Ayers sued New York City, the New York City Police Department and Dets. Michael Donnelly and Thomas Aiello, in Federal Court.
     The men claim in separate complaints that they were among the six people wrongfully accused and convicted of the unrelated murders of Federal Express executive Denise Raymond and taxi driver Baithe Diop, who were shot in the Bronx in the winter of 1995.
     They claim Donnelly and Aiello, who led the investigations, forced witnesses to give false testimony against them and hid exculpating evidence.
     The plaintiffs were convicted of both murders and each served almost 18 years in prison before the charges against them were dismissed in 2013.
     Two other people, Eric Glisson and Cathy Watkins, were convicted of the Diop murder only, and a sixth person, Israel Vasquez, served time for the Raymond murder. Glisson, Watkins and Vasquez are not parties to the lawsuits.
     "Defendants Michael Donnelly and Thomas Aiello (collectively the 'individual defendants') were the two NYPD detectives who led the investigation that wrongfully implicated plaintiff and the others," Perez says in his lawsuit. "Their intentional misconduct led directly to plaintiff's wrongful arrest, conviction and imprisonment. The individual defendants concocted a conspiracy theory according to which the two murders were related. They manufactured the entire prosecution by coercing and bribing two 'witnesses' to give false testimony that placed plaintiff at the scene of both murders and attributed damning inculpatory statements to him. To overcome the fact that these witnesses' false stories were self-contradictory and implausible, the individual defendants fed them non-public details about the murders to make them seem credible. The individual defendants also suppressed evidence that would have disproven the case against plaintiff, including surveillance footage that undermined the testimony of a third 'witness' and phone records that would have implicated the real murderers.
     "Had the individual defendants followed up on basic leads instead of intentionally framing six innocent people, they would have caught Mr. Diop's real murderers (who have since confessed to the crime) and prevented several heinous crimes that those individuals instead remained free to commit.
     "The case the individual defendants contrived rested principally on the false testimony of three witnesses. First, a troubled 16-year-old named Cathy Gomez claimed she overheard plaintiff and others planning the murders in a secret meeting and then later bragging about their crimes in a local park. Second, a neighborhood drug addict named Miriam Tavares claimed she witnessed the Diop homicide in intricate detail while perched on top of her toilet, peering out through a four-inch crack in her bathroom window in the dead of the night. Finally, Kim Alexander - Ms. Raymond's co-worker - testified that she saw a man named Charles McKinnon, the alleged mastermind of the Raymond murder, harassing and stalking Ms. Raymond as she left her office on the evening she was killed.
     "This 'evidence' was an elaborate farce contrived by defendants Donnelly and Aiello. The testimony of all three witnesses was a product of the individual defendants' imaginations.
     "The individual defendants threatened, cajoled, coerced, and bribed Ms. Tavares and Ms. Gomez to give perjured testimony. They fed the women non-public details about both crime scenes to bolster their credibility and coached them to lie to the Grand Jury and at trial. Ms. Gomez has confirmed this misconduct in sworn testimony.
     "Defendants Donnelly and Aiello also manufactured Ms. Alexander's version of events. Ms. Alexander's account was contradicted by surveillance footage from Ms. Raymond's workplace, which showed Ms. Raymond and Ms. Alexander leaving work together on the night in question - with [Raymond's ex-boyfriend] Charles McKinnon nowhere in sight. Defendants intentionally suppressed that footage to ensure that the prosecution's theory of the crimes would go uncontradicted and plaintiff would be convicted in spite of the truth. Plaintiff learned of this exculpatory evidence for the first time in 2012, after it had been concealed for 17 years." (Parentheses, but not brackets, in complaint).
     The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York reopened the Diop case in 2012 and concluded that two gang members, who were not connected to the plaintiffs, had committed the murder. The Diop murder convictions were vacated, and the plaintiffs were released from prison in early 2013, after the Bronx District Attorney's Office agreed to vacate the convictions for the Raymond murder.
     Denise Raymond was killed in January 1995 in her apartment in the Bronx. The police claimed the killer accosted her as she entered her apartment, dragged her to her bedroom, handcuffed her and shot her twice in the head.
     Two days after Raymond's death, Diop, a Senegalese livery cab driver, was shot to death at the wheel of his taxi.
     NYPD detectives arrested the plaintiffs on murder charges, despite lack of evidence to connect them to the murders, according to the lawsuits.
     The men claim they did not know each other or the other wrongfully accused before they were arrested.
     "On Feb. 10, 1995, plaintiff was sitting on the stoop of his apartment building in the Bronx holding his baby when he was swarmed by plainclothes police officers with guns drawn," Perez's complaint states. "The officers screamed for plaintiff to 'freeze, motherfucker!'"
     Perez says police arrested him for bank robbery and never read him his Miranda rights.
     He claims the detectives referred to him as "Kojak," a nickname he had never heard before.
     The next day, the police told Perez he was accused of murder, and made him participate in a lineup.
     Perez was indicted for both murders on March 14, 1995. He pleaded not guilty, but was convicted in 1997 of second-degree murder and second-degree felony murder in both cases.
     Perez appealed, and the appellate court upheld his sentence of two concurrent terms of 25 years to life.
     The other two plaintiffs met a similar fate, according to their complaints.
     The three men claim that Donnelly and Aiello used a series of unorthodox techniques to incriminate them and other innocent people. Among other things, they had one of the Hispanic witnesses serve as an interpreter for the other during her testimony, threatened to interrogate, jail and deport their relatives, suppressed the footage showing Raymond leaving work on the night of her murder, and told prosecutors the tape did not show anything relevant to the investigation, according to the lawsuits.
     They claim one of the witnesses, Cathy Gomez, did not know the murder had occurred until Donnelly told her about it.
     Even though the witnesses' testimony was incoherent and self-contradictory, the detectives insisted the witnesses were telling the truth, because they knew non-public details about the murders, according to the complaints.
     The plaintiffs claim Gomez has since admitted that the detectives had given her those details, describing specific items stolen from the victims, and crime scene evidence that suggested Raymond's killers had snacked on sandwiches and juice in her apartment during or after the murder.
     "When Ms. Gomez tried to refuse defendants' demands that she give false testimony, they threatened her and warned her that her family would get in trouble if she got 'stupid,'" Perez says in his complaint. "Defendant Donnelly threatened Ms. Gomez that her brother would be accused of the murders if she did not cooperate in the individual defendants' scheme to frame plaintiff and his co-defendants. Defendants Donnelly and Aiello threatened to jail Ms. Gomez and to have her parents deported if she did not provide perjured testimony to further their fabricated theory of the case."
     As for Tavares' testimony, plaintiffs claim it was a "cartoonish farce" that changed several times over the course of the investigation. Donnelly even hand-wrote a statement to be signed by Tavares, who could not read or understand English, according to Perez's complaint.
     When Diop's true killers, two members of a gang called "Sex, Money, Murder," confessed they had killed a taxi driver in similar circumstances, Donnelly's precinct in the Bronx told federal investigators that no file matched the murder the gang members had described. The U.S. Attorney's Office learned of the case in 2012, from Eric Glisson, one of the wrongfully accused, according to the lawsuits.
     The plaintiffs claim the detectives failed to review phone records that would have linked the true murderers, notorious members of a violent gang, to the phone stolen from Diop. Instead, they claim, the detectives chose to frame them and other innocent people, while the killers continued to commit violent crimes.
     The plaintiffs claim their wrongful arrest and conviction was not an isolated incident. An internal investigation in the 1990s concluded that "police perjury and falsification of official records is a serious problem facing the department" that "taints arrests on the streets," according to the lawsuits.
     The men, who were all young when they were arrested, say they spent their 20s and 30s in jail, suffered abusive treatment, physical and emotional injuries, lost employment opportunities and their connections to their families.
     They seek punitive damages for unlawful arrest, malicious prosecution and constitutional violations.
     They are represented by Earl Ward with Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, and Glenn Garber.
     Representatives for the Police Department and New York City's Law Department declined to comment on the lawsuits.