PASSAIC, N.J. (AP) — Two long-imprisoned men were granted new trials Friday in a deadly 1993 video store robbery, after recent DNA tests on an important piece of evidence matched a man never connected to the case before.
Eric Kelley beamed and laid his head on his lawyer's shoulder as a judge overturned his murder conviction in the death of store clerk Tito Merino. Co-defendant Ralph Lee would hear the news later: He was in a prison infirmary, recovering from gastrointestinal surgery.
Both are being held on $1 million bail as they await retrial, and a prosecutor indicated she may appeal the conviction reversal.
But for now, "I'm so happy that I don't even know how to explain," Lee's father, Ralph Lee Sr., said as he left the court.
"I've been waiting for this day for a very long time," added Kelley's daughter, Erica Mobley.
She was 9 when her father was arrested in a killing that so appalled gritty Paterson that the then-mayor said the case made him sick to his stomach.
Merino, 22, was beaten and stabbed in a midday robbery while he was working at his uncle's video shop. A community college student who aimed to become a doctor, he had immigrated to the northern New Jersey city from Peru about two years earlier.
Lee, now 55, and Kelley, 52, confessed but soon recanted. With no physical evidence against them, their prosecutions hinged on their confessions and testimony from witnesses who'd been in the video store around the time of the killing.
One identified Lee as a man browsing the shop shortly beforehand in a green-and-purple plaid baseball cap that was then found near Merino's body. Kelley had told police he was wearing the cap himself.
Then new DNA testing in 2014 confirmed there were no traces of either Kelley or Lee on the cap and found it was laden with genetic material from someone else: a man convicted of a 1989 knifepoint holdup at a different Paterson shop. He'd been released from prison three months before the video store robbery.
"This new DNA evidence is clearly and convincingly capable of raising reasonable doubt as to the guilt of both" Kelley and Lee, Passaic County Superior Court Judge Joseph Portelli said, though he added that he wasn't opining that the two are innocent.
"That's clearly a jury question," he said.
The man whose DNA is on the hat hasn't been charged in the video store killing. Indeed, there's no indication authorities have ever questioned him about it.
Having moved to Virginia, he told the defendants' investigator he'd never seen the plaid hat, according to the investigator's testimony. He didn't respond to email and phone messages from The Associated Press over the last two weeks.
Prosecutors said the new DNA match didn't prove that Kelley and Lee weren't involved in the crime, didn't establish that the other man was, and didn't outweigh the "powerful evidence" of confessions and witness accounts.
"Just because (the other man) was the habitual wearer of the hat, it does not mean he was the most recent wearer of the hat," Passaic County Assistant Senior Prosecutor Eileen Kane said at a hearing in May, donning a baseball cap herself as a demonstration.
She also noted that the other man's DNA wasn't found on various other items from the crime scene, including the victim's T-shirt and fingernails.
Kelley's lawyer, Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project, called authorities' stance "the continuation of the tunnel vision that has plagued the investigation from the very beginning."
She and Lee's lawyer, Paul Casteleiro of Centurion Ministries, also pointed to a customer who reported seeing an unfamiliar man behind the video store counter around the time of the killing.
The witness couldn't pick the man out from police photos but testified at recent hearings that he told a detective it wasn't Kelley or Lee. The then-detective denied that, though defense lawyers noted that he never formally documented the witness' statement.
Merino's uncle, meanwhile, still runs the video and electronics shop. A photo of his slain nephew hangs behind the counter.
The new evidence has left the family unsure what to think, said the uncle, Miguel Victoria.
"Since the beginning, we thought that those two persons that were in jail were the ones that killed my nephew," the uncle, Miguel Victoria, said Friday. But "we want investigations to keep on going and get the right persons. We want whoever it was to be held responsible for this."