The killings happened eight blocks apart within nine months, near the height of New York City’s crack wars, in a Harlem precinct that was becoming synonymous with police corruption.
As of Monday, the two otherwise unrelated murder cases have something else in common: The men who were convicted were exonerated at a Manhattan courthouse. They are the latest in a long string of New Yorkers, overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic, who have had their names cleared after decades in prison.
One of the men, Jabar Walker, 49, was convicted of shooting two men in a parked car in 1995 and remained incarcerated even though a man who had testified that he heard Mr. Walker confess recanted in an affidavit.
The other, Wayne Gardine, also 49, was convicted in a case where the only evidence against him was the word of a drug dealer who changed his story several times, described the killer as six feet tall when Mr. Gardine is only 5-foot-8, and was known for providing police with information in attempts to get his own criminal cases minimized.
Mr. Gardine’s case was overseen by a detective who later pleaded guilty to a drug trafficking conspiracy. Mr. Gardine was paroled last year but immediately placed in an immigration detention center and faces deportation to his native Jamaica.
Mr. Gardine’s cause was taken up by the Legal Aid Society’s Wrongful Conviction Unit, and Mr. Walker’s by the Innocence Project. The Manhattan district attorney’s office, which has a unit that looks into possible wrongful convictions, collaborated on both investigations.
Since 1989, at least 115 murder convictions in New York City have been overturned, a substantial portion of the nearly 1,300 overturned nationwide, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
In Mr. Walker’s case, prosecutors seemed to have solid evidence. A woman who lived across West 148th Street from where two men were shot in a car on May 28, 1995, testified that she had seen Mr. Walker, then 20, fire the shots. A man who knew Mr. Walker told jurors he had heard him confess. He was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to consecutive terms of 25 years to life.
But with help from Mr. Walker, who spent years fighting to clear his name, the Innocence Project turned up major problems.
The woman who said she witnessed the shooting, Vanessa Vigo, had received monetary benefits from the district attorney’s office, which paid for her to move to a new apartment, according to the Innocence Project. Prosecutors did not disclose this to Mr. Walker’s lawyer as required, the Innocence Project said. In fact, prosecutors told jurors that Ms. Vigo had received “no consideration in connection with her testimony.”
The Innocence Project said that Ms. Vigo, the prosecution’s only eyewitness, gave accounts that were riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies and that changed during the case — and that she also misidentified a suspect in another neighborhood shooting. The district attorney’s Post Conviction Justice Unit wrote: “The People have lost confidence in Ms. Vigo’s testimony.”
The man who said he had heard Mr. Walker’s confession, John Mobley, recanted in 1998 on the day of Mr. Walker’s sentencing and swore affidavits in 1999 and 2021 reinforcing that.
At the time of Mr. Walker’s trial, Mr. Mobley had been facing a felony charge that was reduced to a misdemeanor in return for his testimony, the Innocence Project said. According to the Post Conviction Justice Unit, Mr. Mobley said that 30th Precinct officers implied that he would be charged in other homicides if he did not incriminate Mr. Walker. The unit wrote that it “found Mr. Mobley credible.”
The Innocence Project said that Mr. Walker’s lawyer had been trying his first criminal case, and the Post Conviction Justice Unit wrote that he had “failed to probe the weaknesses” in the testimony of Mr. Mobley and another witness.
On Monday morning, Mr. Walker, wearing a graying goatee and a white dress shirt, entered the packed courtroom of Justice Miriam R. Best of State Supreme Court with his hands cuffed behind him.
“It has been a long road, and you made it,” his Innocence Project lawyer, Vanessa Potkin, said to the court while turned toward him.
Mr. Walker silently mouthed “I made it” and lifted his collar to wipe away a tear.
“The conviction is hereby ——” Justice Best said, but had to stop because his relatives and friends broke into applause. She silenced the spectators with a stern look. “The conviction is hereby vacated.”
As Mr. Walker, no longer in handcuffs, walked out of the courtroom, the head of the Post Conviction Justice Unit, Shalena Howard, clasped her hands together and bowed to him.
Just after midnight on Sept. 3, 1994, Robert Mickens, a 22-year-old known as “Dak,” was shot nearly a dozen times in front of a brick townhouse on Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem. The street was an open-air drug market, according to the Legal Aid Society’s filing, which offered the following account.
The police interviewed two teenagers the night of the shooting: a 19-year-old, identified in court papers only as N.S., and his 14-year-old friend, identified as N.V. Neither claimed to know the assailant, but both said they had seen the shooting up close.
A month later, after N.S. was arrested on drug charges, detectives visited him in jail and showed him a photo of Mr. Gardine. N.S. identified Mr. Gardine by a nickname, saying he had heard that a man with that nickname had been the shooter.
The murder was investigated by an inexperienced detective, who said the case was steered by his supervisor, Detective Willie Parson, who discouraged him from pursuing other leads.
Around this time, the 30th Precinct, where the detectives were based, was the site of a scandal that eventually led to the conviction of 30 officers. Officers at the Dirty 30, as the precinct came to be known, stole drugs and guns from dealers, extorted them, beat them up and lied in court, prosecutors said. Detective Parson was not charged at the time, but he was arrested in 2000 and later pleaded guilty to transporting cash for a cocaine and heroin ring.
Later, during the Legal Aid Society’s investigation, the younger witness, N.V., said that he and N.S. had agreed to accuse Mr. Gardine to appease their own drug boss, who was friends with the victim, and to avoid having to retaliate for the murder themselves. He said they had been at least 200 feet away when the shooting happened and could not make out the shooter.
Legal Aid also found that the police had failed to act on information about an alternate suspect who had a motive to shoot Mr. Mickens, the filing said.
Mr. Gardine, in a statement released by his lawyers, said he was hopeful. “I’m happy that the justice system finally worked,” he said about the conviction being vacated.
But he faces deportation because of the murder conviction and because he is accused of having entered the United States illegally, which he disputes, according to his lawyer.
“We’re really hoping that this official order from the judge will be like the final pressure we need to get them to release him,” said the lawyer, Lou Fox of the Legal Aid Society, after court on Monday.
Liset Cruz and Hurubie Meko contributed reporting.