What to Know
- 29 year-old Ajaya Neale, is accused of gunning down alleged gang member Joel Rashko, Jr. in Roy Wilkins park in Jamaica in May of 2014
- Neale says the DA's office hasn't turned over crucial evidence, making it impossible for him to properly defend himself
- DA’s office says it gave over “whatever materials we are legally required to disclose." The case puts the spotlight on the "blindfold law"
A minister’s son claims he is being railroaded in a Queens murder case and is unable to properly defend himself because the district attorney's office hasn’t turned over crucial evidence against him. The DA’s office says it has given over “whatever materials we are legally required to disclose.”
The case of 29-year-old Ajaya Neale raises an issue that has critics demanding changes in New York’s discovery law, which some have labeled the “blindfold law.”
Neale is accused of gunning down alleged gang member Joel Rashko Jr. in Roy Wilkins park in Jamaica in May 2014. He denies involvement.
“I’m taking the fall for something I didn’t do,” Neale told the I-Team in an exclusive interview.
There were questions about the prosecution’s case from the start. According to Neale’s attorney, Victor Knapp, two witnesses in a lineup originally picked out different suspects. Knapp said one was then “cued” by a detective to go closer to the glass for another look.
A judge set $100,000 bail for Neale, which is unusual in a murder case. The DA’s office acknowledged that Neale’s DNA did not match evidence found from two hats recovered at the crime scene and that there was no other forensic evidence.
A private investigator hired by the Neale family, Manuel Gomez, located two witnesses who claimed in statements that an alleged gang member, Omar Bryan, confessed to them that he was the shooter. Bryan, who appeared at a recent court hearing, denied any involvement in the murder and declined to speak to the I-Team. Judge Kenneth Holder ruled that Bryan's statements were unreliable and not admissible at trial.
As of Monday, the DA’s office had not turned over police reports, witness statements or 911 calls, frustrating Neale’s defense team a day before his trial was scheduled to start.
"The deck is stacked against me. Any time I try to present evidence proving my innocence, it gets shot down,” Neale said.
The DA’s office said it has fully complied with the disclosure law.
New York is one of 10 states where prosecutors can wait until just before trial to share evidence. Tim Rountree, the attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society of Queens, complained that current New York law on “discovery” gives prosecutors an unfair advantage.
“Document dumping is real," Rountree said. "It’s a constant problem trying to get early discovery.”
He said his attorneys sometimes get documents when they’re in the middle of picking a jury -- and that buried in the documents is often “exculpatory” evidence helpful to the defendant.
The Legal Aid Society is leading a coalition trying to get the discovery, or "blindfold," law changed.
Meanwhile, Gomez, the family's private investigator, said he may have found a prosecution witness who could become a star witness for the defense.
In an affidavit and videotaped statement, Erika King told Gomez she was in the park at the time of the murder and was “steered” by detectives to select Neale in a photo array.
“I was told that the killer was in the lineup,” she said. “I immediately searched the bottom row for a familiar face. I also picked two other males that I selected. I told detectives I wasn’t 100 percent sure.”
King said she signed off on the photo of Neale even though she wasn’t comfortable, and was then threatened by the assistant district attorney.
“I was told that I could have a warrant sent for my arrest if I didn’t testify," King said. "I think it’s wrong that I’m being victimized and almost forced to testify.”
Both sides are scheduled to be in court Tuesday. A spokesman for the DA's office said it does not preview its case prior to trial.