New York Man’s Murder Charge Vacated After Deceptive Photo Lineup Sent Him To Prison For 18 Years
Sheldon Thomas was arrested after a witness chose the picture of another man with his same name.
A New York man was released from custody after serving nearly two decades in prison after a judge vacated his murder conviction that was based on a photo mistake.
“I’ve waited a long time for this day to happen,” Sheldon Thomas, 35, said in a Brooklyn criminal courtroom on March 9, 2023, The New York Times reported, “and there’s so many times that I was in my cell, I would think of this moment — what I would say, who would be there.”
On Christmas Eve in 2004, gunmen riding in a vehicle opened fire on six others on the street in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. Anderson Bercy, 14, was fatally struck.
Thomas told investigators he had an alibi for the time of the shooting, explaining he wasn’t in Brooklyn but in Queens — and he had been there until around 3 a.m. But a witness to the shooting picked a picture purported to be of Thomas from a photo array of six people.
The problem? It was of another man.
The picture did show someone with the name Sheldon Thomas who also lived in the area, but it wasn’t the defendant and the “defendant did not look like the other Sheldon Thomas,” said Charles Linehan, chief of the Conviction Review Unit at the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office, according to New York’s WABC.
Thomas told the detective on the case the photo in question wasn’t him and insisted he was innocent. The detective, however, cited his “gut” feeling Thomas was “the right person” when he decided to arrest Thomas in connection with the slaying, Linehan said.
Although that detective as well as prosecutors and even the original trial judge were aware the man in the photo was not the same person as the defendant charged with killing Bercy, the trial went ahead anyway, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office recently said.
As a result of the deception, a jury convicted Thomas of murder and he was sentenced to serve 25 years to life behind bars.
“This is the first time in 25 years I've seen an erroneous photo identification used as the basis for an arrest that actually went to trial,” Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said of the wrongful conviction following Thomas’ release. “We must strive to ensure fairness and integrity in every case and have the courage to correct mistakes of the past.”
The case, Gonzalez said, “was compromised from the very start by grave errors and lack of probable cause to arrest Mr. Thomas.”
The district attorney added: “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.”
Bercy’s shooting death is now classified as unsolved.
“All this time they really had the wrong person,” Thomas said of the slaying that sent him to prison. “The real people are still out there.”
According to The New York Times, Thomas told the court at his March hearing that he forgave those who sent him to prison, including prosecutors and the NYPD detective who followed his “gut.”
“God will judge them, just as he has judged me right now,” he said.