Was a Police Report Altered to Convict a Man for Murder? Inside a Woman's Quest to Free Her Brother
In 2013, Steven Odiase was convicted for the shooting death of 15-year-old Juan Perez in the Bronx. At the time, the only evidence against the 31-year-old Odiase were the words of a lone eyewitness, who admitted to being intoxicated at the time of the murder. Odiase was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Then, Odiase’s younger sister, Kalimah Truesdale, set out to prove her brother’s innocence. She scoured the scene of the crime and eventually found a woman who said that she saw the shooting. Most shockingly, the woman said she had already spoken to a detective at the time of the murder and described the shooter as a man not matching Odiase’s description. However, there was no mention of the woman’s testimony in the version of the police report that was presented to Steven Odiase’s defense attorney. For more on the mystery of this altered police report, we speak with Jonathan Edelstein, one of the lawyers who represented Steven Odiase, and with Jennifer Gonnerman, a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her most recent piece is titled "A Woman’s Quest to Prove Her Brother’s Innocence Leads to a Discovery."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the remarkable case of Steven Odiase, a wrongfully convicted man who was released Monday after a judge ruled he may not have received a fair trial because prosecutors withheld crucial evidence from his defense lawyer. The case has raised increased scrutiny of New York City’s criminal justice system and concerns about prosecutorial misconduct.
In 2013, Odiase was convicted for the shooting death of 15-year-old Juan Perez in the Bronx. At the time, the only evidence against the 31-year-old man were the words of a lone eyewitness, who admitted to being intoxicated at the time of the murder. Odiase was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Then, his younger sister, Kalimah Truesdale, set out to prove her brother’s innocence. She scoured the scene of the crime and eventually found a woman who said she saw the shooting. Most shockingly, the woman said she had already spoken to a detective at the time of the murder and described the shooter as a man not matching Odiase’s description. However, there was no mention of the woman’s testimony in the version of the police report that was presented to the defense attorney. The original police report contained the witness’s description but had been surreptitiously redacted in the doctored version.
On Monday, Justice Steven Barrett quickly vacated the verdict, ordering Odiase released, and called for a new trial. Shortly afterwards, one of his defense attorneys, Pierre Sussman, spoke to NY1.
PIERRE SUSSMAN: We knew that there was a lot reinvestigation to be done in this case. We had done most of it. The District Attorney’s Office joined us in doing that and came to the right conclusion in releasing him. ... He is still charged with the underlying murder. We are hopeful that the district attorney will see fit to dismiss his indictment for the grounds that they vacated the conviction today.
AMY GOODMAN: Judge Barrett did not reverse Odiase’s murder conviction, and the District Attorney’s Office says that its investigation is ongoing. However, it is unlikely prosecutors will decide to retry Odiase, in light of the previously withheld witness statement. Kalimah Truesdale welcomed her brother’s release and briefly spoke to reporters.
KALIMAH TRUESDALE: I’m very happy.
REPORTER: Is this something that you thought needed to be done to help this criminal justice system?
KALIMAH TRUESDALE: Yeah, yeah, definitely, definitely.
AMY GOODMAN: Kalimah Truesdale told The New Yorker magazine she wants to keep investigating the mystery of the altered police report and find out why crucial information was redacted from her brother’s case, landing him in jail more than three years ago, for over six years. Prosecutors are required by law to share with defense attorneys any evidence pertaining to a defendant’s innocence claim before the trial.
For more, we’re joined by two guests. Jonathan Edelstein is an attorney focusing on criminal appeals and post-conviction remedies. He’s one of the lawyers who represented Steven Odiase. And we’re also joined by Jennifer Gonnerman, the staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, her most recent piece headlined "A Woman’s Quest to Prove Her Brother’s Innocence Leads to a Discovery."
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jen, let’s begin with you. Talk about this piece that you wrote so eloquently about in The New Yorker.
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Well, you covered it very well up top. I mean, this is a story of what appears to be a police report that was whited out. As you saw on the screen, the yellow part that was shown up on the screen was the part that was whited out, that was not shown to the trial attorney before trial. So, essentially, that part pertains to a witness that essentially vanished. So the trial attorney didn’t know about that witness. And because of that redaction, it appears that this young man spent six years in prison, and would have spent many more years in prison if not for the intervention of his family, his sister, his attorneys. He would have done, you know, at least 25 years. He had a 25-to-life sentence.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I mean, this is amazing. And with our radio audience, as well, you can actually describe what happens. There’s just a few lines that are completely whited out, so it just looks like it’s another paragraph. But what was said in those three lines?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Was that the police had done a canvas of an apartment building in the Bronx near the crime scene, going apartment by apartment. And so each person’s door they knocked on, they recorded what they said. People said, "I heard gunshots," or "I just got home, I heard nothing," or "I heard five shots, six shots, it sounded like firecrackers." And there was one woman who told them that she had seen the crime, she had seen the shooter, and she gave a description. It was three lines in the middle of the police report. Yet, when that police report was handed over to the trial attorney, those three lines were missing. They were erased. And so, consequently, they didn’t know about this witness before they went to trial. And now, this week, the District Attorney’s Office, six years later, admitted that this young man did not get a fair trial, and they set him free this past Monday.
AMY GOODMAN: How long was he in jail for?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: He was in for nearly six years, but he could have done at least 25, if this mistake had not been caught.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is an astounding story, Jonathan Edelstein. Talk about, from a lawyer’s perspective, what this means. I mean, is now someone going to be—is the prosecutor going to be tried? I mean, this is whited-out information that led to a man’s jailing for years.
JONATHAN EDELSTEIN: Well, whether the prosecutor or anyone else responsible for this is indicted or tried would be up to the Bronx District Attorney’s Office. There were certainly be difficulties bringing criminal charges after this long of time. Depending on when the redactions were made, they might even be barred by the statute of limitations. And historically, it’s very rare for prosecutors to face criminal charges as a result of withholding evidence or mishandling evidence. The cases where charges have been brought and where convictions have been obtained against prosecutors are very much the exception.
I would—I mean, obviously, we don’t know what the Bronx DA’s investigation is going to reveal. It’s ongoing at this time. We don’t know, in fact, whether the redaction was made by a district attorney or by a police officer or where along the process this might have occurred. So, I would expect that, you know, as their investigation unfolds, we may find out more about what’s going to happen to the people responsible for this.
AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Gonnerman, you write about the prosecutor in the case and what—how he has explained the whiting out of the statement that the eyewitness identified someone else.
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Right. I spoke to him. I called him up, you know, right after the release of this—
AMY GOODMAN: His name?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: The name of the prosecutor? Adam Oustatcher. And he’s now in private practice. He left the office last year, after many years. He had tried many felony cases, many high-profile felony cases, for the Bronx District Attorney’s Office. The way he explained it to me was that the whiting out was something that, as he referred to it, was sort of a normal practice in the office, whiting out of witnesses that they had concerns might have—their safety might be in jeopardy. But when I called the Bronx District Attorney’s Office to ask if that was true, is that really kind of a normal practice in the office, they said sometimes they do white out the names, like a single name of an individual, to protect their identity, but certainly not the fact that the witness existed, certainly not the whole three lines of information in the police report. So that’s, you know, one point of contention between the office and its—the former employee. And as Mr. Edelstein said, the investigation is ongoing, and we don’t know exactly sort of what went on or who did the whiting out or what they were thinking at the time.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, how could there possibly be an explanation that they’re protecting the eyewitness? Obviously, as you said, they can take out the eyewitness’s name. That’s two words or three words.
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Right, right, right.
AMY GOODMAN: But the sentence that says she explicitly identified someone else? Now, you go on to write in your piece that the former prosecutor said he eventually did tell the defense attorney.
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Right. That’s what he says. That’s what he told me. And he subsequently told that to The New York Times. But the Bronx DA’s Office, which interviewed the trial attorney, found that he had no idea about this witness before trial. And so, that’s the dispute between the two of them.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the larger context here, the issue of a prosecutor torn between two missions?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Well, you know, I feel like there’s a sort of a tension baked into the job of prosecutors: Are they there to do justice, or are they there to win convictions at all costs at trial? And I think each person interprets their job a little bit differently. But, you know, oftentimes we’ve seen prosecutors in the past, in other cases, who are so determined to win, to win a conviction at trial, that they’ve overlooked—you know, overlooked evidence or overlooked witnesses or have just been so sort of zealous in their pursuit of that mission that they’ve sort of overlooked justice in the process. And I think, you know, we’ve spent a lot of time focusing on police brutality, on terrible conditions in jails, like Rikers Island, but I think, you know, prosecutors are, in some ways, the most powerful players in this whole system, and yet prosecutors’ offices have long been a sort of black box with no transparency or accountability. And I think that’s slowly starting to change.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the heroine of this story, Mr. Odiase’s younger sister, Kalimah Truesdale. The day she’s in court, and she hears the conviction, the verdict for her brother, she crumbles to the floor?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Right, right, right. Well, the whole family, as it was described to me, is in such a state of shock, expecting that their loved one was going to be acquitted, that when he was actually convicted, just started—is this correct?—he just started screaming and getting very emotional in the courtroom. And I was fortunate enough to meet the sister before her brother was released. And she was describing to me the extraordinary efforts that she went through to try to investigate his case. So, after the trial, after the conviction, after they realized he’s going to have to go to prison, she did her own street work around the crime scene, talking to folks and ultimately uncovering this witness who had been redacted from the police reports.
AMY GOODMAN: And she went through the streets? She did her own police investigation?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Right, right. She did her own detective work and repeatedly went to this neighborhood, where they had lived many years earlier but is fairly dangerous. And with her cellphone and without any sort of training or experience, she tried to conduct her own interviews and record interviews with witnesses or people who knew of witnesses, to try to prove her brother’s innocence.
AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Edelstein, what happens now? Does Mr. Odiase—does he sue to get the—how many years of his—to somehow compensate him?
JONATHAN EDELSTEIN: Well, right now, Mr. Odiase is still under indictment. His conviction has been vacated, and he’s been released, but the charges are still pending. And the next step is to work with the District Attorney’s Office to complete their—to help complete their investigation. And we’re hoping for a quick resolution of the charges. After that, there are a number of options open, which we’re discussing with the Odiase family. And it’s not something that we really are going to start on or are able to start on until a final resolution of the charges.
AMY GOODMAN: How unusual is this? And what do you mean by resolution of the charges? Because they have not vacated the conviction.
JONATHAN EDELSTEIN: Yes. Well, there are several ways the charges could be resolved. The district attorney could agree to dismiss them, in which case it’s done, or the district attorney could seek to retry Mr. Odiase, in which case we would fight in the courtroom to defend his innocence. We are certainly hoping that the District Attorney’s Office, after completing its investigation, will see their way clear to dismiss the charges. And we are working with them on that.
AMY GOODMAN: Mr. Odiase’s response? Have you spoken to him?
JONATHAN EDELSTEIN: Yes, of course. I was there in the courtroom with him when he was released, and I walked down to the—to the street with him.
AMY GOODMAN: Was he shocked?
JONATHAN EDELSTEIN: He didn’t know until that day that his conviction was going to be vacated. He did learn before, you know, shortly before we appeared in court, so he wasn’t shocked. There was no scene of shock in the courtroom. But he was pretty happy, as you might guess.
AMY GOODMAN: So what’s he doing now? He is living with his sister?
JONATHAN EDELSTEIN: He’s living with his family, you know, with his sister and his mother, and trying to—you know, starting to put his life back together.
AMY GOODMAN: Final comments, Jennifer Gonnerman, as you have investigated so many different cases? I mean, how many times have we spoken to you about Kalief Browder?
JONATHAN EDELSTEIN: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Who was the young man wrongfully accused, goes to jail, the teenager, for three years, Rikers, is horribly abused in prison, comes out, ultimately commits suicide. Now there’s even discussion of—even by the mayor, Bill de Blasio, of closing Rikers Island altogether. How this fits into the picture of criminal justice?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Well, you know, this is the same District Attorney’s Office—this is the Bronx District Attorney’s Office—that allowed Kalief to spend three years in jail without a conviction, the same office that allowed a defense attorney to receive a redacted document without a witness being known. They’ve got a new district attorney in the Bronx now named Darcel Clark. One of the first things she did was start to set up a conviction integrity unit. And I think they’re going to really have their hands full with a tremendous amount of work. And we don’t know if this is a one-off situation or if this is a pattern, part of a pattern of behavior, in terms redacting documents in the Bronx. But I think we’re going to find out in the months and years to come.
JONATHAN EDELSTEIN: And if I may, Ms. Gonnerman said earlier that a prosecutor can be torn between two missions. Under the rules of ethics, prosecutors only have one mission, which is to do justice. They represent the people of the state of New York. The people of the state of New York win when the right man is convicted, and they win when the wrong man is released or acquitted. And the defense bar, for many years, you know, has sought to encourage prosecutors’ offices to open conviction integrity units, like the ones in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
And I, you know, am very thankful to Darcel Clark, the Bronx district attorney, for opening this unit and for taking the reinvestigation of this case so seriously once we brought our evidence to her. And this is about—you know, there’s more than just a redacted police report here. There was actually quite a bit more. But they took this reinvestigation very seriously, and they were not afraid at all to come to the right result. And I hope that in the future more prosecutors’ offices across the country can approach wrongful convictions with the same seriousness.
AMY GOODMAN: Is she the first female Bronx DA?
JONATHAN EDELSTEIN: I believe so. I don’t know that for a fact.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will leave it there, and I thank you so much for being with us. We will continue to follow the case. Jonathan Edelstein, attorney focusing on criminal appeals and post-conviction remedies, one of the lawyers who represented Steven Odiase, who is now free, after almost six years in jail. And Jennifer Gonnerman, staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. We’ll link to her piece on the Odiase case.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to be talking about an astounding reversal of 21,000 convictions in Boston, Massachusetts. But first, we’re going to talk about what happened on the streets of Berkeley, California. Stay with us.