Friends imprisoned for decades cleared of 1987 New Year’s killing in Times Square

Feb 1, 2024, 3:27 PM | Updated: 9:26 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — In the early hours of New Year’s Day in 1987, a French tourist was mugged while walking with his wife through Times Square. The man, 71-year-old Jean Casse, struck his head on the pavement. He was pronounced dead soon after.

Within days, police hauled in a pair of young Brooklyn residents, 19-year-old Eric Smokes and 16-year-old David Warren, charging them with killing Casse. While both maintained their innocence, they were convicted at trial of murder and sent to prison for decades.

Nearly 40 years later, a New York City judge and a Manhattan prosecutor have sided with the men, now in their 50s. On Wednesday, years after a judge first denied their motions, their convictions were overturned after prosecutors said they uncovered evidence that police pressured witnesses.

“Eric Smokes and David Warren lost decades of their life to an unjust conviction,” Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, said in a statement. “I am inspired by the unyielding advocacy of Mr. Smokes and Mr. Warren and hope that today’s decision can finally bring them a measure of comfort and justice.”

Smokes was released from prison on parole in 2011 after serving 24 years. Warren served 20 years before his release on parole in 2007.

The two men, who grew up together and described themselves as brothers, spent years trying to clear their name. No DNA evidence linked them to the crime. The four witnesses who testified at the trial were all teenagers — some of whom later said they were pressured by police and even threatened with arrest if they did not pin the killing on Smokes and Warren.

But when the two men brought a motion to vacate the convictions in 2017, the effort was opposed by Judge Stephen Antignani and the Manhattan district attorney’s office, then led by Cyrus Vance.

Christie Keenan, an assistant district attorney, questioned the credibility of the recanted witness statements. In a 2020 ruling, Antignani denied their motion, finding the men had “failed to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that it is highly probable that they are innocent.”

Another investigation was opened in 2022 under Bragg — one that prosecutors said uncovered “significant new evidence,” including transcripts showing the teenage witnesses were pressured by police and that at least one of them was likely not in the vicinity of the crime.

With the new evidence in place, Antignani agreed to vacate the convictions this week.

Jay Henning, an attorney for the two men, said his clients were thrilled to see their names cleared. But, he added, the finding was long overdue.

“This was a case of tunnel vision riddled with police and prosecutorial misconduct,” Henning said. “This should’ve been done a while ago.”

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Friends imprisoned for decades cleared of 1987 New Year’s killing in Times Square