PASSAIC, N.J. — An appeals court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on Monday on prosecutors’ bid to overturn a ruling granting new trials to two men who spent almost a quarter-century behind bars in the killing of a New Jersey video store clerk.
A judge in September ordered new trials for Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee after new tests found someone else’s DNA on a key piece of evidence. They remained behind bars until November amid legal arguments over their bail, which was eventually reduced from $1 million to $20,000 apiece.
Kelley and Lee spent 24 years behind bars after confessing to the bloody knifepoint robbery that left 22-year-old Tito Merino dead on the floor of his uncle’s video store in Paterson. Merino, a Peruvian immigrant, was a community college student and aspiring doctor.
In 2014, DNA tests showed that a baseball cap found near Merino’s body had DNA from a man convicted of a 1989 knifepoint holdup at a different Paterson shop. That man has not been charged and his attorney denied any wrongdoing.
Court documents indicate that prosecutors will argue before the appeals court in Trenton that the granting of new trials was a “grave injustice” and the judge overemphasized the weight of the DNA evidence and misinterpreted the testimony of a detective who said a new suspect would not have changed his investigation.
Defense attorneys accuse prosecutors of refusing to acknowledge critical errors that led to the arrests of their clients and let the real killer go free.