Here is our investigator Doug Walters' superb summary of Shane's case. This summary represents years of painstaking work and effort, and we are deeply grateful to Doug for his dedication to Shane's freedom. Without Doug's efforts it is highly unlikely that we would be bringing Shane's case to court.
SUMMARY OF SHANE WATSON’S CASE
By Doug Walters, investigator
August 6, 2012
On October 9, 1991 at 11:30 PM, Mark Johnson, 27, was shot and killed in an execution-style murder while standing in the street talking to his girlfriend. This happened opposite a housing project in the Bronx, NY. One week later, Shane Watson, 25, having learned that the police wanted to speak to him, went to the local precinct to speak to detectives and was arrested for murder. Two years passed before he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. He has remained inside the New York State Department of Corrections ever since, a total of 18 years and 10 months as of this writing.
I first learned of the Shane Watson case in the summer of 2009 when I received a summary of it prepared by The Opus 30 Mission, an organization “dedicated to the exoneration of those wrongfully imprisoned.” This summary had been sent to me by the Prison Ministry coordinator of the Presbytery of Hudson River (NY) because he knew that I had been employed as a criminal investigator by the City of New York for many years. After reading the summary I wrote to Shane Watson introducing myself and offering my services in any way that could be helpful. For the past three years I have investigated the case, working in conjunction with Will Duchon, the founder of The Opus 30 Mission, and Robert Boyle, the attorney retained to represent Mr. Watson. Mr. Duchon and I work entirely pro bono, and only Mr. Boyle has received any money for his services, all of which has come from contributions by private individuals.
During this time I have visited Mr. Watson many times at Green Haven Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Stormville, NY. I have also visited the crime scene numerous times and studied it in detail. I have intensively reviewed the court transcripts of the pre-trial hearing, jury selection, trial, sentencing hearing and appeal hearings. I have spoken several times with the trial attorney Paul Markstein, who represented Mr. Watson. I have reviewed all of the police reports made available to the defense. Providentially, I have been able to locate and speak with almost all of the eyewitnesses and collateral witnesses, including Mr. Watson’s family and the family of the victim, Mark Johnson. I have located the lead detective for the NYPD, Sevilie Jones, who retired in 1992 and is now a private investigator, but he was unwilling to speak with me about Shane Watson’s case. Ironically, the Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted the case, Brian Sullivan, is currently a criminal defense attorney in the Bronx.
The major highlights of my findings are as follows:
1. There is no evidence that the NYPD initiated any investigative process after a brief door-to-door canvas in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. No physical evidence was ever gathered. No search warrant was ever obtained. The police never visited the defendant’s home to search for a gun, clothing which matched descriptions of the shooter’s clothing, bloodstains, or anything else. The police never questioned the defendant’s family about his whereabouts at the time of the crime. Although the victim, Mark Johnson, had been convicted of murder in Brooklyn in 1983 and was on parole at the time of his execution-type murder, the police never investigated the possibility of a link between this fact and Johnson’s death. The police never showed Diana Almonte, the victim’s girlfriend, a photo array or lineup, although Almonte was the only eyewitness in close proximity to the murderer and the only one who could have seen the murderer’s face.
2. Shane Watson was previously known to the authorities because he had several drug-related arrests and was, in 1991, nearing completion of a term of probation for a felony drug sale conviction. He had no record of arrests related to physical violence. Several days after the murder of Mark Johnson, the police received an anonymous phone call naming Shane Watson as the shooter. BEFORE this call, however, Detective Sevile Jones had already placed Mr. Watson’s picture in a photo array shown to several witnesses. Police records show that no witness had reported ANY facial characteristics of the perpetrator, and that all witnesses had agreed that the perpetrator was wearing dark clothing and had a “hoodie” pulled around his head so that no facial features were visible. Det. Jones’ arrangement of the photo array, therefore, was clearly prejudicial.
3. The state obtained an indictment of Shane Watson at the grand jury solely on the evidence of two sisters, Monique James, 20 and Robin James, 14, who were in their apartment across the street from the crime scene at the time of the shooting. Although
police records show that they told detectives they could see no facial features of the perpetrator and could not possibly make identification; they later reportedly picked Shane Watson out of a photo array and lineup in a PROFILE view only. The impossibility of making a profile identification of a person wearing a hoodie around their head needs no elaboration. I have interviewed Monique James several times and she has stated unequivocally that she and her sister Robin told the police that they wanted to help but could not possibly identify the shooter. Monique told me that when they heard gunshots they went to the window and lowered the blinds out of fear of further shooting. She said that she and Robin knelt on the floor and peeked out under the blinds but saw only a figure in dark clothing running away. Monique added that she is extremely nearsighted and could hardly have made identification even under daylight conditions, much less in the dark of night. The window from which the James sisters looked out is at minimum 60 feet from where the shooting took place and the viewers could have seen the hoodie-clad shooter only from BEHIND as he ran down the street. Police records show that the girls’ mother did not want them to testify and that they were very reluctant to do so but finally yielded to police pressure. It seems evident that the James sisters were induced to make their impossible profile identification, perhaps because, as police records show, the girls were facing minor assault charges against another youth, charges which were subsequently dropped. In any event, when Monique and Robin James testified at Shane Watson’s trial both girls stated that they could NOT identify the perpetrator.
4. Shane Watson was involved in a severe motorcycle accident in 1983 which crushed his right leg and caused him to remain in the hospital for over a month. A steel rod was implanted in the leg, which was left shorter than the left leg. The result was that Mr. Watson walked with what witnesses have told me was a “significant limp” and “could not run, but hopped like a penguin.” This remains true today. All of the witnesses who talked to the police described the shooter as running extremely fast as he fled. Not one witness mentioned any kind of limp, hitch, impediment, or unusual gait. One defense witness at the trial, who was acquainted with Mr. Watson, said he knew that (the shooter) could not have been him (Mr. Watson) precisely because the perpetrator did not limp. The fact that no witness saw any suggestion of a limp is, for me, virtually decisive against Shane Watson being the shooter. Inexplicably, the defense failed to introduce his medical records or tell the jury about Mr. Watson’s inability to run.
5. Diana Almonte, the victim’s girlfriend, had been acquainted with Shane Watson for a long time and knew Shane well. Almonte was the only witness close enough to see the shooter’s face, and she told the police immediately after the crime that she could NOT identify the shooter. It is beyond the bounds of credibility that Diana Almonte would lie to the police at that moment had she known Shane Watson to be the killer, especially since, as a witness reported and testified, the perpetrator also fired a shot at Ms. Almonte as she jumped into her car. As mentioned above, the police never showed Almonte a photo array or lineup, an omission which cannot be justified. Ms. Almonte’s sister also told me that the District Attorney told Ms. Almonte “they didn’t need her testimony”, which is extremely suggestive.
6. The defense attorney Paul Markstein made the decision not to have Shane Watson testify because he felt that Mar. Watson would be a “poor witness”, no doubt with reason. Mr. Markstein also chose not to explore an alibi defense, a decision in which many lawyers would concur. Unfortunately, these decisions frequently prejudice the jury against the defendant. In fact, Mr. Watson’s alibi is that he was at home with his parents and other family members on the night of the crime, and that his girlfriend Mercedes De La Paz called his home and asked Mr. Watson to take her to buy Pampers for their baby. Ms. De La Paz then came to Mr. Watson’s home and he drove her to the convenience store to get the Pampers. Then he (Mr. Watson) drove Ms. De La Paz to her home, where the baby was with Ms. De La Paz’s mother. The girlfriend’s home was across the street from the shooting and, when they got there the police had established a crime scene and the body was still in the street. I have interviewed Shane Watson, his mother Joan Watson, and his former girlfriend Mercedes De La Paz independently and at length, and even after twenty years there is a great deal of agreement on the basic outline of events. The basic agreement of three separate witnesses after so long times, as well as the differences in some details, both go a long way towards establishing the credibility of the alibi. This will be adduced in evidence if we get a new trial.
7. The state’s entire case against Shane Watson rested on the testimony of a single eyewitness, Christine Holloway. Eyewitness testimony is universally considered to be the weakest form of evidence in a criminal case. The reason is obvious to all of us who have experienced misidentifying someone, even someone we know well, under non-threatening conditions in broad daylight. The idea that a person could accurately identify someone they had never seen before, who ran past them late at night wearing a hoodie and dark clothing, who had no remarkable physical characteristics (including no limp), and who then brutally shot down a man in the street and ran off in the opposite direction, is beyond belief. This witness was a 26-year old female corrections officer who had just driven home from work and was, according to her first statement, going to her apartment in the housing project. She told the police that she could not identify the shooter and that she saw no facial characteristics. She also told one of her neighbors (whom I have interviewed, and who testified to this at trial) 1), that the police were pressuring her to make an identification and 2), that she could not do so. (At the trial two years later, Christine Holloway denied both of the above statements, thus making liars of both the police and her neighbor). Ms. Holloway was shown a photo array and a lineup and identified Shane Watson, but ONLY in a profile view which, of course, made no sense and, logically, should have been discounted by anyone examining the evidence. Furthermore, Christine Holloway’s testimony at trial was confusing, sometimes self-contradictory, and generally unconvincing. As the sole basis for convicting someone of murder, it should have created much more than merely reasonable doubt in the mind of any juror. Amazingly, the state made no attempt to establish a relationship between Shane Watson and the decedent Mark Johnson, and could not even suggest a possible motive for the murder.
8. Shane Watson was arrested one week after the murder and spent only one week in jail before being released on a cash bond posted by his mother. The bail set in his case was $30,000,an astonishingly low sum in this type of case, where the usual expectation was that the defendant would be held without bail. This certainly indicates that the court considered the evidence against Mr. Watson to be very weak. He remained at liberty for two full years before the state was ready to proceed to trial, an unexpected but suggestive delay in that the prosecution made no further attempt to interview or locate any other witnesses, or to obtain forensic evidence, or to conduct any kind of investigation. During this time Mr. Watson did not fail to appear at any court date and the defense did not request any adjournments. It should be noted that Mr. Watson was never rearrested, made no attempt to leave the jurisdiction, and made no attempt to tamper with any witness.
9. One incident that helps to explain this mysterious prosecutorial delay occurred on March 29, 1993 (almost 18 months after the murder of Mark Johnson), when Mark Dowdy, the former boyfriend of Christine Holloway and father of her youngest child was shot and killed at Ms. Holloway’s apartment. Ms. Holloway and her new boyfriend were present at the time of the shooting and a weapon belonging to one of them was involved. For reasons not revealed, neither Ms. Holloway nor her boyfriend (also a corrections officer) was criminally charged, and she did not lose her job, as would be customary in such a case. I spoke with Melissa Isom, the sister of Mark Dowdy, who told me that when Mark Johnson was murdered in October 1991, “word on the street was that (Shane) Watson didn’t do it.” She also said that Mark Dowdy told her at the time “Christine (Holloway) needs to keep her mouth shut. She didn’t see anything.” Regarding the death of her brother, Ms. Isom said that it was believed at the time that Christine Holloway “was told that no homicide charge would be brought if she helped them (the District Attorney) out on Shane Watson”. When Mr. Watson’s attorney heard a vague report of the Dowdy killing and attempted to introduce the topic at the trial (as a possible inducement for Christine Holloway to testify against Shane Watson) the District Attorney refused to divulge any details and the trial judge Gerald Scheindlin prohibited the defense from pursuing the matter. It is difficult not to draw the inference that there was a deal made between the District Attorney and Christine Holloway which allowed the prosecution to proceed to trial with her testimony as the sole evidence against Shane Watson.
10. In 2011 we located Christine Holloway in Georgia. Another investigator employed by our attorney Robert Boyle succeeded in speaking with her and she stated that her conscience had troubled her for many years and that she was willing to execute an affidavit with Mr. Boyle, which she did. In the affidavit she confirmed that she never saw the shooter well enough to identify him, and that she did identify Shane Watson only because the police and District Attorney told her “he was the shooter” and“a bad man” and they needed her to help them. She further stated that the police showed her a photo of Shane Watson BEFORE showing her the photo array and instructed her that he was the killer. This alone would have resulted in dismissal of the charges had the court known of it. Ms. Holloway also stated in her affidavit that many of the details of her testimony at the trial were total fabrications suggested to her by the prosecution in an attempt to make her story seem plausible. While Ms. Holloway was not willing to state that the District Attorney had made a deal with her to drop any charges against her in the shooting of Mark Dowdy, she did admit that the possible consequences for her were much in her mind.
My conclusions about the case of Shane Watson are that this case represents a complete and deliberate miscarriage of justice. This is not a case of a witness misleading the authorities, but of the authorities willingly suborning a witness. The actions, and inaction of the NYPD and the Bronx District Attorney in this case go far beyond negligence, and constitute actual malfeasance. The NYPD and Bronx District Attorney showed an obvious contempt for Shane Watson and his family by fabricating a case against him in order to lock him up for life. They showed a complete disregard for Mark Johnson and his family by treating his murder as merely an occasion for obtaining a false conviction with a base minimum of work. They showed a contempt for the professional standards which are supposed to govern everyone in the criminal justice system. And they showed contempt for the constitution they were sworn to uphold and the society they were supposed to protect by disdaining to make the slightest effort to look for the person who actually committed this brutal murder in the midst of a neighborhood suffering the repeated trauma of senseless violence.
When the sordid and unjust dealings of the guardians of law and order in this case become obvious to us, our response should be to “let justice roll down like waters”, but the American criminal justice system is a calcified institution, often consumed by an obsession with process and procedure to the exclusion of weightier matters like justice and compassion. However obvious the right thing to do might seem, we still have a long and difficult road with many institutional obstacles to overcome before any of the victims in the Shane Watson case can be made whole.
As a postscript, I am happy to say that my involvement in this case has been a blessing and an inspiration to me, and what I take to be a revelation of God’s grace in Shane Watson’s life. While imprisonment has certainly had a corrupting and degrading effect on many lives, Shane Watson has truly been turned into another man. He has an unblemished disciplinary record in prison and has been on the “honor block” at Green Haven for many years. He got his G.E.D. in prison (by the wisdom of politicians, college programs in New York State prisons were discontinued many years ago) and has worked in the upholstery shop with an excellent record. He was baptized in 1996 and attends church services regularly. He is a faithful student with a better knowledge of the Bible than almost anyone I have ever met outside of an academic setting. Shane is devoted to his wife Paula and to his two small children, Diana and Zion. In the midst of terrible circumstances I have never heard him utter a word of bitterness against anyone, and he leads a life of quiet witness to his faith. Truly can Shane Watson say to his persecutors, as Joseph said to his brothers, “As for you, you meant it against me for evil, but God meant it for good.”
August 6, 2012