Two men serving life sentences for a crime they say they didn’t commit stepped out a back door and into the cold behind New Jersey State Prison on Wednesday.
“Finally, finally!” Kevin Baker shouted as he embraced his attorney.
“Yes sir, yes sir!” Sean Washington replied. He wrapped his arms around his mother, who waited hours on a sidewalk outside the prison along with a contingent of supporters, not knowing when, exactly, they would be released.
Baker and Washington won their freedom after an appellate court threw out their convictions in December and prosecutors decided not to retry them earlier this month.
The two were found guilty of killing a man and woman in the courtyard of a Camden housing complex in 1995 based largely on the hazy, stilted testimony of a local woman, Denise Rand, who said she was high on crack cocaine when she witnessed the slayings. The prosecutor told jurors at the time it was a “one-witness case.”
Both men have long maintained that neither pulled the trigger. Baker claims he was nowhere near the scene, while Washington says he was the person who found the bodies and called 911.
The two men were the subject of a two-part NJ Advance Media seriesin 2015 that chronicled the efforts of the Last Resort Exoneration Project, a legal group devoted to investigating wrongful conviction cases at Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark, to win the men’s freedom.
A three-judge appellate panel vacated their convictions, finding forensic, ballistic and other evidence uncovered by the legal group “powerfully undermines” Rand’s testimony.
“I’m happy for my family,” Washington said, standing in the middle of a Trenton side street. “This has been a long journey for them.”
Baker and Washington embraced outside the prison. They say their ordeal has bonded them together. But the irony was that far from being accomplices, they didn’t even like each other at the time of the killings.
Lesley and Michael Risinger, the married legal team that runs the project, say authorities pegged Washington as the killer based on “street rumors” and, believing there were two shooters, plucked Baker from a stack of mugshots seemingly “at random.”
“This case was emblematic of the type of mistakes that can happen when there’s pressure to solve a case without much care for who takes the fall for it," Lesley Risinger said Wednesday.
The Camden County Prosecutor’s Office declined to comment on the case outside of a written statement noting that the office “disagrees” with the appellate ruling. The statement said the office dropped charges after considering “the totality of the circumstances, including the passage of time and the impact it would have on re-trying the defendants and proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”