Sheldon Thomas is finally a free man after nearly 19 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. According to The New York Times, officials released the 35-year-old on Thursday (March 9) after he was wrongfully convicted for the murder of a 14-year-old. A judge gave him 25 years to life in the case. Now, his conviction is no more.
Thomas said his faith inspired his forgiveness toward the detectives, prosecutors, and judge who locked him up. In his words, “God will judge them.”
“I’ve waited a long time for this day to happen, and there’s so many times that I was in my cell, I would think of this moment…what I would say, who would be there,” Sheldon told the court.
Thomas reportedly left the courtroom with his arm wrapped around his grandmother.
Per the NYT, Sheldon’s case is the 34th conviction tossed out after re-investigation by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office’s review unit. His nightmare began on Christmas Eve in 2004 when a car with three men fired shots at six others on an East Flatbush street corner. A man was wounded, but Anderson Bercy, 14, died.
A report by the district attorney’s office found that multiple people, from detectives to the original trial judge, knew Thomas wasn’t the person a witness selected from a photo array. In a separate incident, Thomas had pointed an inoperable gun at police officers. Though the officers arrested him, the report says they also “repeatedly harassed” him for months.
After Bercy’s death, investigators used a photo of another Black man, also named Sheldon Thomas, in an array. At the time, both Sheldons had addresses in the same precinct.
According to ABC News, a witness had identified two of the three men in the car–not including Sheldon. Officers showed the witness the photo of the other Sheldon Thomas, and she identified him with about 90% certainty, per the report. Officers then proceeded to lock up the Sheldon Thomas, who the witness did not identify in the photo.
Thomas pleaded with police, revealing that he wasn’t in Brooklyn at the time of the shooting and returned at 3 a.m. on Christmas Day from Queens.
Nonetheless, the same witness also identified Sheldon Thomas in an in-person lineup. This means she identified two different people as the shooter.
Thomas Was Convicted Despite Police Knowledge That He Wasn’t The Same Man As The Shooter
Despite having this knowledge, investigators and prosecutors pushed forward, securing an indictment along with the two other people in the white car.
More than a year later, former Detective Robert Reedy admitted to false testimony about the photo array. That happened during cross-examination in a pre-trial hearing. Still, court proceedings moved forward. Another detective later admitted that Thomas told them he wasn’t the man in the photo. But, the detective also claimed an anonymous tip also helped identify Thomas.
The judge at the time agreed with the prosecution about additional evidence. They ruled that the photo incident had no legal consequence. Not only that, the judge stated that the Sheldons resembled each other–a narrative that stuck.
The court eventually convicted Sheldon of second-degree murder and attempted murder. On Thursday, Sheldon highlighted the deception Bercy’s family has been under all these years.
“It’s not just my life that was ripped apart by the due-process breakdowns and the miscarriage of justice, it was them as well,” he said.
At this time, it’s unclear if anyone involved will face legal consequences. A 2007 internal affairs investigation into Robert Reedy’s actions in Sheldon’s case found there wasn’t enough for a perjury charge. To add, DA Eric Gonzalez said on Thursday that the statute of limitations for that charge has run out. Reedy only faced disciplinary action for failing to document what New York Police Department called a “photo array mix-up.”
“This is the first time in 25 years I’ve seen an erroneous photo identification used as the basis for an arrest that actually went to trial,” DA Gonzalez said.
While leaving the courthouse, Sheldon reportedly declined to speak to reporters. However, per ABC News, he revealed he wanted his first freed meal to be oxtails.