(CN) – A man serving 22 years to life in prison for the murder of a Manhattan doctor had his conviction overturned by a federal judge who cited errors made by the trial judge and questionable testimony by the prosecution’s jailhouse informants.
Darryl Whitley was convicted in 2002 of second-degree murder after physician John Chase Wood, 31, was gunned down while walking to work during a botched robbery attempt.
U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein granted Whitley’s habeas petition and gave the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office 60 days to either schedule a prompt retrial or release Whitley from jail.
Whitley challenged his conviction in 2006, claiming his constitutional rights were violated when the trial judge allowed statements from the prosecution’s most important witness to be read to the jury without disclosing that the witness had recanted his testimony.
On the evening of Nov. 2, 1981, Wood was wearing his scrubs and lab coat as he walked back to work at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital after returning home during his shift to attend to his pregnant wife.
He was accosted on Riverside Drive by two men demanding prescription drugs, prompting a scuffle to break out during which one of the assailants pulled out a .22-caliber handgun and fired twice, fatally striking the young doctor through his heart and left lung.
Wood died during surgery at his own hospital.
Thirteen years later, in 1994, a jailhouse informant, Glenn Richardson, identified Patrick McDowell as the shooter and Whitley as his accomplice. Richardson’s testimony was corroborated by other jailhouse informants.
The investigation had been led by NYPD Detective Gennaro Giorgio, who lined up a slew up prison informants to testify against Whitley. Many of the witnesses received considerable benefits for doing so, including drastically reduced sentences and even cash payments, according to the ruling.
In 1995 the two were indicted and tried separately, with each trial resulting in a hung jury.
The prosecution’s chief witness, Richardson, had testified that Whitley admitted his involvement in Wood’s murder to him. He had been facing 20 years to life on an unrelated federal charge before he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a friendly plea bargain.
Despite the fact that no witness was able to identify Whitley as the accomplice, the jury returned with a guilty verdict in the second trial and the judge sentenced him to an indeterminate term of 22 years to life in prison.
McDowell, who was identified by one eyewitness as the shooter, was acquitted.
But Richardson had proved to be a shaky witness at a hearing before the second trial.
No longer bound by his agreement with prosecutors, Richardson invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer the question of whether “Whitley stated that he and McDowell had ‘robbed a doctor on Riverside Drive,'” the ruling states.
Justice Laura Drager said that Richardson was an “unavailable witness” and ruled that his testimony from the first trial would be admitted.
“Whitley objected numerous times and requested that Richardson be granted immunity so that Whitley could explore the recantation,” Hellerstein wrote. “Justice Drager overruled the objection and ordered that Richardson’s testimony be read into the record at Whitley’s trial, without additional cross-examination and without any reference to the recantation.”
In the second trial, Richardson’s testimony was read to the jury by members of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, and then read two additional times at the jury’s request.
“The jury was told not to speculate or raise an adverse inference why Richardson did not appear before the jury in the second trial, and was not told of Richardson’s efforts to recant the testimony read to the jury,” according to the 40-page opinion.
The jury would not know that Richardson, freed from jail, now claimed that he had “never” been “sure” or “positive” of his previous account, and refused to testify for fear of perjury charges.
Justice Drager later said the decision was made because Richardson had been cross-examined at the first trial about his claims that he felt he was coerced by Detective Giorgio. Drager found there was “no significant inconsistency” in the recantation at the hearing prior to the second trial.
Whitley argued on appeal that the jury should have been made aware of the recantation, but the New York State Appellate Division backed up the state court’s opinion.
After exhausting his legal remedies in state court, Whitley filed a habeas corpus petition in the Southern District of New York, where Judge Hellerstein gave the case new life when he said that there was “sufficient ground to support his constitutional claim.”
He determined that allowing testimony without cross-examination or other evidence violated Whitley’s right to a fair trial and due process.
In vacating the sentence, Hellerstein noted that “the value of a constitutionally valid trial is fundamental to our way of life.”