He Wouldn’t Leave Guilty

Everton Wagstaffe went into custody in January, 1992. He was 23 years old.  And there he stayed, even after he was told to pack his bags and leave on parole.  From Jim Dwyer at the New York Times:

Everton Wagstaffe, who refused to leave prison on probation because he viewed it as a surrender of his claim of innocence in the death of a teenage girl, learned on Wednesday that he had prevailed in a struggle that he began from behind bars nearly 23 years ago.

Over the years, he has refused to accept release on any terms — such as parole or probation — that would imply he had something to do with the kidnapping and death of Jennifer Negron, a 16-year-old girl whose body was found on a street in the East New York section of Brooklyn on Jan. 1, 1992.

That was a principled decision.  Some would argue monumentally foolish, but principled.  Maybe, after spending 15 years in prison, engaging in what Dwyer describes as “guerilla legal battle” and “relentless campaign” to prove his innocence, he had no place left to go. His co-defendant, Reginald Connor, walked out after serving his 15 years.

He entered prison with minimal literacy and taught himself to read. He then wrote hundreds of letters pleading for help in finding the physical evidence from the case so DNA testing could be done, and in finding missing witnesses. For much of that time, he had no legal counsel. He drafted his own legal papers and succeeded in being granted hearings, though not in getting any relief.

His cause somehow caught the interest of Myron Beldock, now 85 and in poor health. But Mike Beldock is one of the old school believers, the sort of guy who would pick up a lost cause because it was right.  Dwyer calls him a “lion of the New York legal world,” which doesn’t quite seem to capture Mike.  Lions refer to kings, and while Mike was certainly a king in terms of ability and dedication, he never held himself out to be a bigshot.  He’s what every criminal defense lawyer should aspire to be, and he was there for the accused, no matter how despised.

Now 85, Mr. Beldock represented George Whitmore, who gave a lengthy confession to two notorious murders in the 1960s. With help from journalists, Mr. Beldock proved the confession was false and that Mr. Whitmore could not have been responsible. The case helped bring an end to the death penalty in New York and was cited by the United States Supreme Court in the 1966 Miranda v. Arizona decision. Another client was Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, a former middleweight boxer found guilty of a triple homicide in Paterson, N.J., whose conviction was later overturned.

At home in poor health for much of last winter, Mr. Beldock rallied to attend the appellate division hearing, and presented the argument that carried the day: that there had been “fraud and misrepresentation” in the testimony of detectives who said that they were led to Mr. Wagstaffe and Mr. Connor by a single witness, a crack addict who supported herself with prostitution.

With James W. B. Benkard of Davis Polk, Mike attacked the sole prosecution witness, Brunilda Capella, as having been fed her identification by police.

It was the contention of Mr. Beldock that the detectives had presented the witness, Brunilda Capella, with the two names, and that she had merely ratified them. The computer records were turned over just before the trial, with piles of other papers, the court said.

“Given the lack of any other evidence tying the defendants to the crime, the credibility of Capella and the investigating detectives was of primary importance in this case, so that the burying of the subject documents by the prosecution” was significant, the court ruled.

The trick of dumping a ton of paper on the defense on the eve of trial is an old one.  In New York State, it’s called Rosario material. In federal court, it’s called Jencks Act or 3500 material. In reality, it can be prior statements of the witness, the Brady material stuck between pages of boring and meaningless fluff, and whatever discovery was concealed up to then.  But as long as it was part of the dump, judges say “meh.”

The point is to bury the defense, in the process of preparing for trial, opening statements, witnesses, in limine motions, whatever, with enough that no one could possibly have enough time to read, digest, process and investigate it in the few minutes of free time left.  When the defense complains, the judges respond with the rote, “I’m sure a lawyer of your skill and experience will have no problem making excellent use of the disclosure.”  It’s a joke, of course, but a good one.

But the story doesn’t end with Wagstaffe’s principled stance, or Mike’s willingness to take on lost causes and turn them around.  It ends with what happened at the beginning.

The 75th Police Precinct, where the murder occurred, was one of the city’s deadliest in the early 1990s. Detectives there had few qualms about taking shortcuts, according to the squad’s former sergeant, Michael Race.

In a 2001 interview, Mr. Race said that of 750 murder cases that he had handled, only one had been “done the correct way, from A to Z.” Mr. Race, who oversaw the investigation into Ms. Negron’s killing, has said he remembered nothing about the case.

Mike Race was an NYPD star, closing murders at a pace no one else could match.  The 75 Precinct was known as “The Killing Fields.”  It wasn’t until he retired and decided to become an investigator for the wrongfully convicted that he opened up about the fact they were wrongfully convicted because of him.

If it hadn’t been for Mike Beldock, Wagstaffe might have died in prison for refusing to leave a guilty man.  If it hadn’t been for cops like Mike Race, he might never have been there in the first place.

5 thoughts on “He Wouldn’t Leave Guilty

  1. Michael Shapiro

    The AD 2d got it right in that they reversed and dismissed per curiam. On the other hand, they heard the arguments on December 4, 2013. Did they figure that after 22 years another 9 months in for someone wrongly convicted was really no big deal? I don’t get it.

  2. AH

    I have very little to add except how much I admire Mr. Wagstaffe and Mr. Beldock. It is incredibly rare to see such a principled stand, and understandably so. This “happy” ending could easily have gone the other way.

    I briefly thought I could even muster some charitable thoughts for Mr. Race. Who, although clearly responsible for incalculable amounts of suffering, at least seems to be doing something about that now. Then I read that daily news article.

  3. Thomas R. Griffith

    Sir, btw, that’s great title for a movie / documentary. Would you consider playing his role, or do you have someone in mind?

    While I have no personal hero to honor, I do have great respect for those that do. I have even more respect for those that – do good deeds on behalf of others. Mr. Mike Beldock is a real life sized public hero and we should indeed honor the man and his life because it’s the right thing to do. He’ll say he was doing his job (Simply Defending the falsely arrested and wrongfully convicted). As we wonder why the majority of others fail to strive to be like ‘Mike’ on the front end and TapOut without a fight, leaving the ruined lives in their wake. Thanks.

    *What can we do for ‘you’ Mr. Beldock? Name it. It’s our turn to assist you.

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