A Brooklyn man who spent 19 years behind bars for the 1990 murder of a teenager will have his conviction vacated Thursday, after an investigation proved his claim his friend was responsible for the shooting.
Emel McDowell was 17 when the victim, Jonathan Powell, was shot and killed after a fight at a Bedford-Stuyvesant house party on October 27, 1990.
The NYPD investigation into the murder lasted less than 24 hours and ended with detectives arresting McDowell, despite conflicting witness statements and McDowell’s insistence that his friend, with whom he was at the party , actually fired.
It was later found that the expedited investigation was inadequate, and the possibility that the friend was the shooter was not explored by police.
Despite witnesses coming forward and supporting McDowell’s story before police and prosecutors, he stood trial.
A jury wrongfully convicted him of murder and gun possession in 1992, and he was sentenced to 22 years to life in prison.
When more witnesses came forward after the trial to exonerate him, he immediately sought to have the conviction overturned.
His efforts failed until 2007, when he produced a letter the actual shooter sent him in 1991, all but admitting to the crime, along with several affidavits.
“I don’t think I deserve to walk the earth because one of my friends is in jail for something he didn’t do,” his friend wrote in the letter, according to prosecutors.
The letter would later be determined to have been delivered to McDowell’s defense attorney before trial, but was not investigated or presented to the prosecution.
The motion also included written statements from six witnesses who swore that McDowell was not the shooter. Three of the witnesses admitted that the man’s friend killed Powell.
He was granted a court hearing in December 2009, but just before the proceedings began, prosecutors made him an offer. If McDowell pleads guilty to manslaughter in exchange for a sentence of six to 18 years, he could be out of jail.
Desperate for freedom, he accepted the deal. McDowell told the court that he had a gun on the night of the murder and that he worked alongside the friend who shot Powell.
McDowell’s lawyer asked the Brooklyn district attorney’s Sentence Review Unit to look into the case again, claiming the man admitted his guilt only to avoid more prison time.
During the investigation, the unit interviewed witnesses and determined that the alleged shooter’s letter was real.
They also interviewed the former friend, who claimed that Powell threatened to kill him and the group he was with earlier that night.
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With his attorney at his side, the friend admitted that he shot Powell in self-defense when the teen ran toward him. He also told them that McDowell was not armed and that he did not shoot anyone that night.
The unit wrote that the friend’s “behavior and emotional state during the interview demonstrated that he was overwhelmed with guilt and relieved to come clean.” His name was not immediately mentioned.
He went on to tell the Sentencing Review Unit that he had never been contacted by McDowell’s defense attorney.
In a statement, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said the system “failed Emel McDowell.”
“A full re-investigation by our Conviction Review Unit confirmed that the victim was fatally shot by another individual, as Mr. McDowell has consistently maintained, and (on Thursday) we will ask him to restore his good name,” Gonzalez said. As prosecutors, it is our obligation to bring justice in all cases, and I am committed to continuing this important work to improve fairness and community trust.”
Since 2014, investigations by the Sentence Review Unit have resulted in 35 overturned convictions. The unit is currently working on 50 cases, prosecutors said.
The investigation into the friend is expected to continue.