After spending 17 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, Brooklyn man James Davis is finally coming home.

On Monday, the Legal Aid Society announced it had proven to the court that Davis did not shoot and kill a man at a 2004 party in East New York. His conviction was dismissed August 4.

The dismissal comes after The Legal Aid Society spent years reinvestigating the case.

Legal Aid Attorney Susan Epstein’s work included interviewing those who wrongly identified him in a line-up, revealing that his original lawyer did not bother to contact people who corroborated his alibi, and getting testimony that his ex-girlfriend had falsely identified him as the shooter to police due to “loving and hating him.”

“James Davis never committed this crime, and despite overwhelming evidence of innocence, he spent the past 17 years – his entire adult life – behind bars,” The Legal Aid Society Director of the Wrongful Conviction Unit Elizabeth Felber said Monday.

“While today provides some justice for James, it does not recoup the almost two decades of his life that were taken from him.”

The mistakes

In 2006, Davis was convicted of the 2004 shooting death of Blake Harper at a late-night party at an East New York Masonic Temple at 70 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The night 21-year-old Harper was fatally shot, Davis — also 21 at the time — said he’d drank and smoked too much, and left the party early to spend the night with his girlfriend.

Several hours later, a fight broke out at the party and Harper was fatally shot.

Despite this, The Legal Aid Society said the police started to focus on Davis after an ex-girlfriend — who was upset at him for seeing someone else — told cops Davis was the shooter. The ex-girlfriend was not at the party that night.

After placing Davis in a line-up, several witnesses falsely identified him as the shooter, with the Legal Aid Society saying he resembled the actual shooter.

The temple in 2013. Photo: Google Maps.

Police arrested Davis and he was charged with murder. In his first trial, his then-girlfriend testified that she was with him that night, and it could not have been him who committed the crime. The jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquitting him.

By the time of the retrial, Davis and his girlfriend were no longer together, and she didn’t testify. The Legal Aid Society said, while his lawyer could have called plenty of other witnesses to confirm he wasn’t at the party at the time, the lawyer did not.

“Although his attorney could have obtained a material witness order to secure her appearance, he failed to do so,” the organization said.

“He also failed to call – or even to interview – any of the other potential witnesses whom Davis had identified to him. Those witnesses would have confirmed Davis’s account that he had gotten sick and left the party before any shooting occurred.”

Without these critical witnesses, the jury at Davis’ second trial convicted him of second-degree murder.

Long legal road

Once Davis was convicted, it was a long path to freedom.

At a post-conviction hearing, Davis’ former girlfriend testified and confirmed he’d been with her at the time of the shooting, along with many others who confirmed he’d got sick early and left.

The sole prosecution witness was also revealed to be at the heart of an FBI investigation into major drug traffickers in Brownsville, and had lied on the witness stand.

It took until last year for an appeals court to acknowledge Davis’ original attorney had not given him a fair chance at justice.

James Davis taught himself law in prison, his supporters say. Photo: James Davis GoFundMe

Speaking to the many years it took to clear Davis’ name, Felber said there needed to be an accounting of what went wrong in his case, so it doesn’t happen to others.

“In his case, the eyewitness identifications were always troubling… Archival studies show that eyewitnesses make incorrect identifications approximately one-third of the time.

“On top of this problematic evidence, tunnel vision set in with law enforcement: no investigation was ever done into James Davis’s rock-solid alibi evidence or of the prosecution’s star witness who was the subject of a massive federal drug ring investigation.”

Challenges to reintegration

While Davis’ friends and family celebrate the news, they acknowledge he will need help to get back on his feet after spending almost half his life so far in prison.

A GoFundMe has been set up to help Davis on his path.

“James will need practical help to get back on his feet,” the GoFundMe says. 

“All money raised in the GoFundMe will be devoted to his educational expenses and help James get back on his feet at the age 38, having lost half of his life to an unjust and uncaring criminal legal system.”

According to a 2009 report by the Innocence Project, New York outpaces almost every other state in the number of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing.

It found that in the nine years from 2000, 18 wrongfully convicted people in New York were later exonerated with DNA evidence. Eight of the 18 were wrongfully convicted of murder.

In another report, the Innocence Project found that in 14 of the 24 total New York cases of wrongly convictions overturned by DNA evidence, eyewitness misidentification was a contributing factor in that wrongful conviction.

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Jessy Edwards

Jessy Edwards is a freelance writer based in Bushwick. Originally from New Zealand, she has written for the BBC, Rolling Stone, NBC New York, CNBC and her hometown newspaper, The Dominion Post, among others.

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