A Miami man sent to prison for life is getting another chance to convince a jury he is innocent of murdering a partygoer outside a Liberty City nightclub over a decade ago.
A Miami-Dade judge on Friday granted Tony Brown a new trial, casting doubt on the state’s key eyewitness and the significance of DNA found on a cap found at the crime scene.
His latest appeal was spurred by students from the Medill Justice Project at Northwestern University, who interviewed a prison inmate that insisted Brown was not the killer. The inmate, Arnold Clark, later testified that his friend, a DJ at the club that night, was the actual killer, not Brown.
“Brown presented credible, admissible evidence demonstrating that the crimes of which he was convicted may very well have been committed by another,” Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Miguel de la O wrote in his order released Friday.
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Clark said he initially refused to testify at the time of the crime for fear of reprisals from the nightclub, or the real killer.
At Brown’s original trial, Miami-Dade prosecutors said the defendant shot and killed Nigel Whatley during a robbery and scuffle outside the Players Club in October 2005. A surviving victim, Michael Morris, who was wounded in the robbery, identified Brown as the attacker.
But Morris told police he was only “60 percent” certain the attacker was Brown, who also went by the name Andre Gonzalez.
The judge’s ruling cast doubt on Morris’ recollection, and on how Miami-Dade police handled the photo lineup when interviewing the surviving victim.
“Eyewitness identification is now being understood to be one of the least reliable and most troubling forms of evidence,” said his defense lawyer, Philip Reizenstein. “We are grateful that the justice system worked in this case and that our client was given the opportunity to demonstrate the very troubling aspects of his trial. “
Other key evidence was Brown’s DNA, which was discovered on a black skull cap discarded near Whatley’s body, a cap Morris later claimed the gunman wore during the robbery.
During the trial, Gonzalez’s girlfriend testified she was with him at the club that night, but took no part in the killing.
His defense lawyers have suggested that Brown dropped his cap in the parking lot that night, and detectives planted the idea of the gunman wearing the cap in the mind of the eyewitness. Judge de la O agreed, saying Morris never mentioned the gunman wore a cap until nine months after the shooting.
“Had Morris in October 2005 told officers that the perpetrator wore a skull cap, perhaps this court would rule differently,” the judge wrote.
Jurors in 2010 originally found Gonzalez guilty of second-degree murder, attempted murder and armed robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison. Afterward, a Miami-Dade judge granted a request for a new trial, but the decision later was overturned by an appeals court.
It was unclear Friday whether prosecutors would appeal de la O’s decision, or try Brown again.