Downtown Brooklyn

Sheldon Thomas found wrongfully convicted of murder

After 18 years behind bars the 35-year-old Brooklynite will be released

March 10, 2023 Robert Abruzzese
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, who spearheaded the international collaboration that located a key witness in Poland, ensured the conviction of a 55-year-old from East New York, Brooklyn.Photo: Mary Frost/Eagle
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DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — Sheldon Thomas was convicted of a murder in East Flatbush in 2004, but will be released after spending 18 years behind bars for a crime that it turns out that he did not commit.

District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced on Thursday that, following an investigation by the Conviction Review Unit (CRU), he asked to vacate Thomas’s conviction and dismiss the indictment against him in front of Justice Matthew D’Emic, the administrative judge of the Kings County Supreme Court, Criminal Term.

The DA has stated that the evidence used to convict Thomas, who is now 35-years-old, was fundamentally flawed, and that the investigation was compromised from the very start due to grave errors and a lack of probable cause to arrest him.

“We must strive to ensure fairness and integrity in every case and have the courage to correct mistakes of the past,” Gonzalez said. “That is what we are doing in this case, where an extensive reinvestigation by my Conviction Review Unit revealed that it was compromised from the very start by grave errors and lack of probable cause to arrest Mr. Thomas.

“He was further deprived of his due process rights when the prosecution proceeded even after the erroneous identification came to light, making his conviction fundamentally unfair,” Gonzalez continued. “I am determined to continue doing this critical work whenever we discover a questionable conviction in Brooklyn.”

The case against Thomas was built on a witness identification of a different person with the same name, which detectives used as a pretext to arrest him. Despite a lack of evidence, Thomas was indicted along with two others, one of whom had his charges dropped due to lack of identification and a credible alibi.

It wasn’t until a pretrial hearing in June 2006 that the false identification came to light. Despite this, the judge found probable cause to arrest Thomas based on “verified information from unknown callers” and the fact that he resembled the other Thomas from the photo array.

The CRU conducted a full reinvestigation and reinterviewed many of the witnesses involved in the case. It found that the defendant was denied due process at every stage of the investigation, making his conviction fundamentally unfair. The investigation concluded that detectives repeatedly harassed Thomas after his gun arrest, which contradicts the detective’s testimony that he had never seen the defendant before and can explain why he was arrested for the murder despite a lack of evidence.

The CRU also found that the witness identifications of Thomas were prompted by the detectives, and that despite assertions by police, prosecutors, the trial judge and an appellate panel, the Thomas in the photo array and the defendant do not look alike.

The prosecutor’s tactic after the mistaken identification came to light was determined to have been improper by the CRU. It said the prosecutor also improperly elicited testimony that the witness saw the suspect – whose case was later dismissed – shooting from the car, without the jury knowing that the driver’s case was dismissed.

The CRU identified serious errors by the defense counsel that were detrimental to his client and determined that judicial decisions were based on misrepresentations. The CRU recommended vacating the conviction, as the errors undermined the integrity of the entire judicial process and the defendant’s resulting conviction.

It’s hard to put a number on 18 years in prison, but others who were determined to have been wrongfully convicted have reached multi-million dollar settlements.

Jabbar Collins spent 16 years in prison for a 1994 murder and reportedly reached a $10 million deal with NYC. The city reportedly settled on a $6.4 million payout for David Ranta, who spent 23 years for a 1990 murder he did not commit. John Restivo and David Halstead were wrongfully convicted of rape and murder and received $36 million from a jury. Derrick Deacon spent 24 years in prison and reportedly accepted a $6 million offer from NYC for a 1989 robbery and murder conviction that was overturned.

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