Brooklyn Supreme Court. Photo: Google Maps.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez moved to vacate the conviction of Phillip Almeda, now known as Kadafi Ala, who spent almost 19 years in prison after being convicted of firing at the police.

On Wednesday, Gonzalez said an investigation by his Conviction Review Unit (CRU) revealed confirmation bias in the prosecution of the case that ignored contradictions between the police officers’ accounts and the ballistic evidence from the recovered gun.

Ala was incarcerated for almost 19 years for attempted aggravated assault on police officers following a shooting that took place on January 1, 2000, in front of 1320 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights.

Four anti-crime police officers in plain clothes saw a 16-year-old male firing a revolver in the air and possibly towards them, returned fire and saw him flee into the building. That teenager, whose gun was never found, was later charged and adjudicated as a youthful offender.

The officers’ accounts of Ala’s actions varied, Gonzalez said. Two of them claimed that, as they responded to the gunfire, they saw him firing in their direction before emerging from a right-side courtyard. Nobody was struck and nine spent shell casings were recovered from the sidewalk. Ala, who was 20 at the time, was arrested immediately, and a gun was recovered from an adjacent courtyard. Some of the officers alleged that he made inculpatory statements when apprehended.

Almeda was tried in February 2001 and the officers testified in the case. The defense presented a number of witnesses who knew Ala and said he did not possess a gun. They testified that a group of people were watching fireworks when the 16-year-old fired a revolver and a different person fired a semi-automatic weapon in the air, paused and fired again, before police responded and fired in his direction. They said that no one returned fire towards the officers.

Ala was acquitted of attempted murder and other counts but convicted of three counts of attempted aggravated assault on a police officer and sentenced to three consecutive terms of seven years in prison. He was paroled in December 2018.  

The CRU reviewed documents, interviewed personnel involved in the investigation and hired an independent expert who was provided with the weapon that was recovered after the shooting, a 9-mm Lugar semi-automatic pistol.

His report concluded that, based on the location of the shell casings and cartridges of the recovered gun, it was “highly improbable” that they came from the reported firing position of Ala.

For all nine casings to end up on the sidewalk and none in the courtyard, all the casings would have had to bounce through shrubbery, a chain-link fence, and over a two-foot high brick wall, making it virtually impossible for Ala to commit the shooting as described at trial, the reinvestigation found.

The independent expert concluded that the shooter was most likely standing on the sidewalk.

Additionally, the expert said the gun was recovered just inside the gate of the courtyard and there was no plausible explanation as to how Ala could have placed the gun there before being apprehended. Those issues were never explored before the jury at trial and no forensic evidence linked the pistol to the defendant, he said.

The CRU also concluded that the defense witnesses’ testimony was more consistent with the ballistic evidence, unwittingly accounting for the location of the spent shells as well as the location of two unfired cartridges that were recovered from the sidewalk.

Gonzalez said the reinvestigation of the case showed how confirmation bias can lead to a wrongful conviction.

“Despite witness testimony that contradicted the ballistic evidence, this crime was presented to a jury as a ‘simple case’ and a man unjustly spent nearly two decades in prison,” he said.

“We are moving to vacate this conviction because our review of all the available evidence, including an expert’s reexamination of the ballistics, has demonstrated that the defendant could not have committed the shooting as described at trial.”

This is the 30th exoneration following a reinvestigation since the CRU was established in 2014, Gonzalez said.

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