Freed Man Accuses Police of Mishandling Evidence

     NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – An innocent man spent 18 years in prison even though DNA evidence showed that he did not rape a teenaged girl, he claims in court.
     Rodney Roberts says he was wrongly convicted of raping a 17-year-old girl in 1996. He accuses police of falsifying evidence and withholding exculpatory evidence.
     According to Roberts’ lawsuit, the victim left her house at 12:45 a.m. on May 8, 1996, to walk to her aunt’s home when a man – whom she described as a 5-foot-7, 20 year-old black man weighing about 185 pounds – approached and asked if he could talk to her. She refused but the man allegedly continued to follow her before telling her someone wanted to see her in the cemetery nearby. He then placed his hand over her mouth and told her not to scream, according to the complaint.
     The victim briefly got away when a car drove by and the man released her, but as soon as the car passed, he ran up and grabbed her again, ordering her to walk until they could enter an empty lot.
     The attacker made her lay on the ground while he ripped off her lower clothing and raped her, Roberts’ lawsuit says. The man then told the victim to “remember Jeff,” according to the complaint.
     The perpetrator was not clearly visible to the victim since he walked behind her the whole time and raped her in a poorly lit area after it had been raining, the complaint states. The victim’s mother allowed a rape evidence kit to be released to the Newark Police Department to help them prosecute the rapist.
     After an unsuccessful identification interview with the victim a week later, detective Derrick Eutsey falsely reported that she identified Roberts in a photo, according to the lawsuit. Roberts claims that the picture has never been produced and law enforcement officials say they lost it. The photo that the victim allegedly identified was taken 10 years before the incident when Roberts was 19, he says.
     After repeatedly denying his guilt, Roberts was coerced into pleading guilty under the pretext that he was only agreeing to a kidnapping charge, his lawsuit states. He was sentenced to seven years in prison for kidnapping and three years for an unrelated theft charge.
     He was denied parole based on the alleged sexual assault even though that charge had been dismissed. Roberts filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea in 2001 based on ineffective assistance of counsel.
     After multiple prison psychological evaluations, Roberts was labeled a sexually violent predator and was involuntarily committed to a special treatment unit in 2004.
     The victim signed a statement in 2005 saying she had not identified an assailant and was unaware that Roberts had been indicted for the assault. She also told police that she had given birth to a son that she thought might have been conceived during her rape, the complaint states.
     Roberts submitted a cheek swab in 2005 to try to prove his innocence after he learned about the rape evidence kit. Law enforcement did not initially compare the swab to the DNA in the rape evidence kit even though prosecutor Robert Laurino told Roberts’ attorneys that test results were inconclusive, according to the complaint. Police also did not tell Roberts or his attorneys that the victim thought her son had been conceived during the 1996 rape, he says.
     Roberts was assigned new counsel in 2013 and his new attorney was able to get the DNA evidence tested, which concluded decisively that Roberts was not the rapist, his lawsuit states. He was released on March 12, 2014, after nearly 18 years in prison.
     He sued Essex County, N.J., the City of Newark, the Newark Police Department and a group of law enforcement officials including Eutsey and Laurino for malicious prosecution and due process violations.
     Roberts seeks $72 million including punitive damages. He is represented by Mirel Fisch of the Law Offices of Anthony Grandinette in Mineola, N.Y.

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