A Brooklyn appeals court said a man’s 20-year-old murder conviction that a lower court tossed out last year should have stuck, finding that the prosecution in the case played by the rules and did not withhold key evidence from the defense.
Last year, Tasker Spruill, who was convicted of a murder almost 20 years ago that he says he didn’t commit, became one of the dozens of prisoners who have had the chance to walk free from Brooklyn Supreme Court after a judge ruled in their favor, stepping out of the courtroom unshackled to greet elated relatives and news cameras.
In Spruill’s case, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Michael Gerstein tossed out Spruill’s conviction in March 2017, citing misconduct by the prosecutors who won the second-degree murder conviction against him for the 1993 shooting death of Tracy Thomas.
Thomas was a reputed drug dealer who was shot and killed in a car containing a substantial amount of drugs and cash that was parked in front of a Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, pool hall that Spruill operated.
Specifically, the judge said, Stan Irvin, a former Brooklyn prosecutor who led the prosecution of Spruill, knew that Shawn Newton, a key witness in the case who was sitting in the car with Thomas, was forced to meet with Irvin for interviews without his consent.
Additionally, according to the judge’s ruling, Newton had given false testimony about how many times he met with Irvin, but did not disclose this or correct the record and referred to it in his summation.
Gerstein also faulted the prosecution for failing to disclose that prior to Spruill’s 1998 trial a judge had issued a material witness order for a second witness to the shooting, as well as documentation from the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision that Newton, who was in prison at the time of Spruill’s trial for an unrelated drug conviction predicated by violent felonies, had tried to hang himself in his cell.
But despite the procedural problems in Spruill’s prosecution, Gerstein said that, while Spruill “may well have been guilty of murder,” the undisclosed materials may have led jurors to reach a different conclusion.
Since 2014, the Brooklyn DA’s Conviction Review Unit has moved successfully in 24 cases to exonerate people with old and questionable convictions—Spruill’s case was not one of them, and the office appealed the ruling to the Appellate Division, Second Department.
On Wednesday, a unanimous Second Department panel sided with the Brooklyn DA and reversed Gerstein, disagreeing with the trial judge that Irvin committed Brady violations at trial, and ordered a lower court to direct Spruill, who was released on bail and outfitted with an ankle monitor, to surrender himself.
The appeals court said it was not convinced that there was sufficient evidence that Newton met with prosecutors against his will, nor that disclosure of a second material witness and the fact that Newton stated incorrectly during testimony that Irvin interviewed him about 20 times—rather than seven or eight times, as Irvin later testified—would have aided in Spruill’s defense at trial.
Moreover, the court said, the evidence of Spruill’s guilt was “strong”: the two witnesses to the shooting knew Spruill personally and police were unable to track him down until four years later when he was arrested in Baltimore, at which point he gave police a false name.
Justices John Leventhal, Sheri Roman, Francesca Connolly and Linda Christopher joined on the unsigned decision.
Assistant District Attorneys Leonard Joblove, Victor Barall and Morgan Dennehy appeared for the Brooklyn DA; a spokesman said that the office agrees with the ruling.
Rita Dave, a solo attorney who represented Spruill in his effort to get his conviction tossed, called the ruling “unfair” and, in an era of greater awareness by courts and prosecutors of wrongful convictions, “blindsiding.”
Dave said the appeals court did not seem to consider various credibility issues raised in the case, particularly with prosecutors who took the stand. She said she will file for leave to appeal the case to the state Court of Appeals.
“We will continue our quest for justice for our client,” Dave said.