NEW YORK—A photo of another person with the same name led to the wrongful arrest of a New York City man who was exonerated and freed Thursday after spending more than 18 years behind bars for murder.
The prosecution of Sheldon Thomas, now 35, “was compromised from the very start by grave errors and lack of probable cause” to arrest him for the fatal shooting of 14-year-old Anderson Bercy on Dec. 24, 2004, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said as his office moved to vacate Thomas’ conviction.
Thomas was one of three people charged with killing Bercy and wounding another teenager in a drive-by shooting.
“When I was in my cell, I would think of this moment and replay the conversations I would have with myself, what I would say,” Thomas said in court, where he also offered condolences to the victim’s family. “Right now, I’m speechless.”
After arriving for the hearing in handcuffs, he left with an arm around his grandmother and plans for a dinner of oxtail.
A review of the case by the district attorney’s Conviction Review Unit found that the lead detective in the Bercy shooting asked to unseal a prior arrest of Thomas for allegedly pointing an inoperable gun at police officers so that detectives could use his picture in a photo lineup.
Detectives also obtained a photo of a different Sheldon Thomas and showed it to a witness they were questioning in Bercy’s shooting. The witness identified the second Sheldon Thomas as being in the car the shots were fired from, the investigation found.
Based on that identification, detectives went to the home of the first Sheldon Thomas and arrested him, investigators said.
The faulty photo identification came to light during a June 2006 pretrial hearing when Detective Robert Reedy admitted on cross-examination that the defendant’s photo had not been in the lineup.
The judge nonetheless found that there was probable cause to arrest Thomas based on “verified information from unknown callers” and the fact that he supposedly resembled the other Thomas, investigators said.
Thomas was convicted of second-degree murder and other charges and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Investigators from the Conviction Review Unit reinterviewed witnesses and found that the detectives, particularly Reedy, had harassed Thomas after his earlier gun arrest and that they coached a witness to identify Thomas as one of the shooters in the Bercy killing because they “were intent on arresting defendant.”
Reedy, then retired, was later disciplined following an investigation by the Internal Affairs Bureau. A phone call seeking comment on the reinvestigation into the 2004 shooting was left Thursday with a number listed for a Robert Reedy.
Gonzalez called Thomas’ conviction “fundamentally unfair” and added, “I am determined to continue doing this critical work whenever we discover a questionable conviction in Brooklyn.”
An email seeking comment was sent to an attorney for Thomas.