What to Know
- A Manhattan judge denied a motion to vacate the murder convictions of two black men who said they were wrongfully charged with murder of a French tourist in 1997
- After over 20 years in prison, Eric Smokes and David Warren are out on parole and have been fighting since their release to clear their names
- The prime witness against the two was a career criminal who, years later, signed an affidavit that he lied about the teens' involvement in the crime
A Manhattan judge has denied a motion to vacate the murder convictions of two best friends who said they were wrongfully accused of killing a French tourist in Times Square on New Year’s Day in 1987.
After over more than 20 years in prison, Eric Smokes and David Warren are out on parole and have been fighting to clear their names since their release. They vowed to fight the judge's Tuesday decision on appeal and remain out on parole. NBC New York's I-Team first reported on their quest for justice in November 2018.
Smokes and Warren were best friends growing up together in Brooklyn, then went to prison together for the murder of a French tourist named Jean Casse.
In the early hours of Jan. 1, 1987, Casse was mugged in Times Square, viciously beaten and died of his injuries. Within days, Manhattan North detectives charged Smokes, then 19, and Warren, 16, with robbery and murder.
It was a high-profile crime during a time of escalating violence in New York City and simmering racial tensions. Tabloids claimed that "wilding" black youths planned to target whites.
The two teens always maintained they had traveled with friends into Manhattan to see the ball drop, but were never anywhere near the crime scene.
"Young black witnesses were brought in and told, 'We need you to identify somebody. If not, maybe we’ll start showing your photograph around to people who were in Times Square that night and maybe you’ll get picked. Maybe we’ll charge you with this crime,'" said defense attorney James Henning.
The prime witness against the two was a career criminal who, years later, signed an affidavit that he lied about the teens' involvement in the crime. Other witnesses have also since signed sworn statements that they were pressured to lie by police officers and/or the prosecutor.
"We was ideal people to use as the fall guy. We was young black kids that didn’t have much doing," said Smokes in the 2018 interview with I-Team. "The fact that we had to go on trial on this was devastating, like when you know you didn’t commit the crime."
Warren said, "I had some unrealistic views that the truth would prevail, but once we started going into court and I started seeing people lie, I was like, 'Oh.'"
Smokes, sentenced to a term of 15 years to life, was paroled in 2011. Warren, also sentenced to 15 years to life, was paroled in 2007.
In 2017, two defense attorneys working for Smokes and Warren filed a 440-motion to vacate the convictions based on newly discovered evidence and/or actual innocence.
"The number of witnesses, the police misconduct that’s alleged is mind-blowing," attorney Pierre Sussman said.
In June 2018, the Manhattan district attorney’s office consented to a hearing but added in court papers, "The People do not concede the truth of any of the assertions of fact made by the defendants or contained in the submitted affidavits, and deny many of these claims."