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Men Claim NYPD Framed Them for Teen’s Murder

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) - Two men wrongly convicted of murdering a 16-year-old girl nearly a quarter century ago claim in separate lawsuits that the New York Police Department framed them to bring a quick resolution to the case.

The details of Jennifer Negron's last hours are sketchy, but as recounted in lawsuits filed by Reginald Connor and Everton Wagstaffe in Brooklyn Federal Court, the teenager left her family's apartments on the night of Dec. 31, 1991 looking for a New Year's Eve party, and returned home at about 3 a.m.

Sometime later, but before dawn, she again left the apartment, but the authorities have never determined whether she was taken against her will, or ventured out to meet somebody.

Her partially-clothed body was found the on the side of a road in East New York, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, on New Year's Day. Investigators said she had been beaten, stabbed four times in the neck and head, and ultimately strangled to death.

Among the injuries noted in her autopsy were two missing teeth, and abrasions near her anus.

Police investigators soon learned that Negron had had an argument with a drug dealer in the nearby Cypress Hills Housing project. They also noted that the sidewalk outside her family's apartment was well lit, that there were no signs of forced entry, and that nobody else in the apartment heard her leave, the lawsuit states.

Even though the circumstantial evidence pointed to the murderer being somebody Negron knew, police already had Connor on their radar, the lawsuit states, because he had been known to deal drugs in that neighborhood.

In a complaint filed on Dec. 11, Conner says detectives built their case against him by relying on the questionable testimony of informant Brunilda Capella, a heroin addict and prostitute.

Connor says such was the zeal of detectives to close the case quickly, that they prodded Capella to name Connor and Wagstaffe as the men who picked Negron up the morning of her death.

At the time, Connor and Wagstaffe did not know each other except by sight, the complaint states.

Capella, who is now dead, initially failed to show up to testify at the trial of the two men, and when she was finally located, she was high on heroin.

When she finally did testify, she was experiencing symptoms of heroin withdrawal, the complaint says.

Connor and Wagstaffe place the blame for their convictions and long incarcerations on the New York Police Department's 75 Precinct, which they claim fabricated witness statements, coerced testimony and doctored reports.

"75th Precinct detectives closed cases quickly, often using illegal investigatory tactics, such as fabricating statements from unreliable would-be informants and presenting them as reliable, first-hand accounts," Connor's complaint says. "Detectives purposely ignored the ample evidence of Mr. Connor's innocence and fabricated evidence to ensure his conviction."

During trial, the complaint says, prosecutors claimed to have found a black headband that supposedly belonged to Negron in a car belonging to one of Connor's friends. But the headband was never tested by police forensics and was destroyed in May 1995, Connor says.

He goes on to claim detectives hid evidence that the car Connor had been driving was "double-parked and immovable" at a nearby church at the time of Negron's abduction, and that tire tracks found next to Negron's body did not match his vehicle.

Testimony about three other unidentified men seen in Negron's apartment lobby was allegedly ignored by police, the complaint says.

Connor, who was 23 years old at the time of his arrest, was convicted of kidnapping in 1993 and spent the next 14 years in prison before being paroled. Then, as a condition of his release, he was forced to register as a sex offender, the complaint says.

Connor was exonerated of the crime in 2009, when DNA testing on pubic hairs found on Negron's body and on a bloody glove found in a car excluded him as a suspect.

Wagstaffe was convicted of second-degree kidnapping and sentenced to 25 years. He was released in 2014 after the New York Court of Appeals cleared him of all charges.

The lawsuits name New York City, several police officers, and Michael Race, the police sergeant in charge of the Negron murder investigation, as defendants.

Race, who is now a private investigator who specializes in trying to exonerate falsely convicted prisoners, was quoted by in a 2001 New York Times article as admitting of the 750 murder investigations he supervised while at the 75th Precinct, only one was "done the correct way, from A to Z."

In the article, Race denied that he ever fabricated evidence, however. "I have never done a thing in my life to be ashamed of," he said. "Did I make mistakes? Yeah. Do I sleep at night? Yeah."

A spokesman for the NYPD Law Department said the city would review both lawsuits.

The 75th Precinct has a history of corruption. A 2014 documentary detailed how disgraced police officer Michael Dowd, once known as "the city's most corrupt cop," was found guilty of racketeering and drug dealing. In a lawsuit earlier this year former Brooklyn senior district attorney Michael Vecchione was accused of doctoring cases and coercing testimony to gain convictions.

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