FREEHOLD, N.J. — A Long Branch man convicted in 1992 for the rape of a 17-year-old girl, a crime for which he served more than four years in state prison, has been exonerated through modern DNA testing, acting Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni announced Friday.
Dion Harrell, 49, could not have committed the crime based on the new DNA evidence, Gramiccioni said in a prepared statement. The prosecutor, whose office initially opposed Harrell's request for post-conviction relief, called it "wonderful news for Mr. Harrell and his family. Our goal as prosecutors is to see that justice is done."
It clearly wasn't when Harrell's case was decided.
Harrell, who could not be reached for comment, was 22 years old when he was wrongfully identified as the attacker in the Sept. 18, 1988 sexual assault. The teenager told authorities that Harrell had dragged her into a dark parking lot on Broadway in his hometown and forced himself on her.
She said he then took her purse and fled the scene, Gramiccioni said.
The girl went home and reported the crimes to her mother, who called the Long Branch Police Department, the prosecutor said. What happened next, as it turned out, put an innocent man behind bars.
At his 1992 trial, Harrell presented witnesses who testified that he had been playing basketball with them when the attack occurred. Nevertheless, Harrell was convicted on the basis of the victim's testimony and on the testimony of a state expert who said Harrell could not be excluded as a possible suspect based on his blood type.
What the expert witness failed to add was that in fact, no human male could be eliminated as a suspect based on the biological evidence presented alone, Vanessa Potkin, an attorney for the Manhattan-based Innocence Project, said in an earlier interview.
Harrell was sentenced to eight years in state prison and was released on parole in 1997.
Dion Harrell, now 49, was 22 when he was falsely accused of rape in 1988. (Photo: File)
Gramiccioni said in his statement that the 1992 conviction "was based upon the best evidence available at that time. Advancements in science have now provided evidence of Mr. Harrell’s innocence, and our duty to act is clear. Today, modern DNA technology has provided justice. We will be working collaboratively with Mr. Harrell’s attorneys at the Innocence Project in New York to take the necessary steps to vacate the 1992 conviction."
Until last year, the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office had denied Harrell's request for a DNA test, arguing that he had no right to a DNA analysis because he was no longer incarcerated. That position was based on a state law that contained provisions for incarcerated convicts to ask for testing of DNA evidence.
Harrell has always maintained his innocence, according to Potkin.
Although Harrell had been out of prison for nearly 20 years, his conviction still required him to be subject to the provisions of Megan's Law. He has had to register with authorities as a sex offender and, therefore, continued to face obstacles in securing employment and permanent housing, Potkin said.
The prosecutor's office dropped its objection to the DNA test in February 2015, after the Press reported on the case. It could not immediately be learned why it took more than a year since then for the results of the DNA testing to be learned; at the time, officials said the results could be released within a month. Calls to Gramiccioni's office were not immediately returned.
Paul Cates, a spokesman for the Innocence Project, could not be reached as well.
In his statement, Gramiccioni said DNA evidence was first used in the United States in 1987, when a Florida man was convicted of rape after DNA tests matched his blood sample with the semen traces recovered from his victim in Orange County. However, it was not until after 1992 that the New Jersey State Police Forensics Laboratory started testing and utilizing DNA evidence for criminal prosecutions in New Jersey, he said.
Source: USA today.com