NEW YORK – They were 16 when they confessed to kidnapping and killing a stranger and taking a joyride in his car. They quickly recanted but were convicted of murder.
Now, almost 30 years later, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson plans to ask a judge Wednesday to throw out the convictions of David McCallum and the late Willie Stuckey, saying their convictions hinged on made-up confessions peppered with details seemingly supplied by police. Their cause was championed by one of the nation's most famous exonerees, former prizefighter Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.
"We've concluded that the confessions were false, and they were false in large part because these 16-year-olds were fed false facts," Thompson said by phone Tuesday. No other evidence tied the two to the abduction or killing, he said.
If a judge agrees, McCallum, 45, could be released as soon as Wednesday. He greeted the news with "disbelief, combined with just utter joy" when his lawyers phoned him Tuesday in prison, attorney Oscar Michelen said.
Stuckey died in prison in 2001.
Theirs are the ninth and 10th decades-old convictions Thompson has disavowed since taking office this year, but the first in which he's cited a false confession as the main reason. His predecessor reviewed McCallum's and Stuckey's convictions and decided to stand by them last year, and they had lost various appeals.
The New York Police Department had no immediate response to Thompson's plans. The lead detective in taking the confessions has died.
The ailing Carter worked on McCallum's bid for exoneration for a decade after getting a letter from him. He wrote a Daily News piece in February expressing his "final wish" — a fresh look at McCallum's conviction.
"My aim in helping this fine man is to pay it forward, to give the help that I received as a wrongly convicted man to another who needs such help now," wrote Carter, who had prostate cancer and died two months later. Convicted and then cleared of a triple murder, he had become a symbol of wrongful convictions, his story told in Bob Dylan's 1975 song "Hurricane" and a 1999 film starring Denzel Washington.
McCallum and Stuckey were arrested after 20-year-old Nathan Blenner was found shot dead in a park, his wallet gone, in a rough part of Brooklyn in October 1985. Back in Blenner's middle-class Queens neighborhood, witnesses told police they had seen two men push Blenner into his Buick Regal and drive away. The car was found, torched, a few days later in Brooklyn.
McCallum and Stuckey gave confessions naming the other as the gunman but soon professed their innocence. The teens were convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison after a trial that featured their confessions and a witness' testimony that Stuckey had sought to get rid of a gun with "a body on it"; Thompson says the witness' credibility has proven questionable.
Thompson's office has been examining over 100 mostly homicide cases from the 1980s and 1990s, in one of the nation's most ambitious efforts to revisit questioned convictions. He said he was struck by inconsistencies and improbabilities in McCallum's and Stuckey's videotaped and written statements.
Stuckey describes commenting on a woman's car in Blenner's neighborhood shortly before the kidnapping, a remark she reported hearing as two men eyeballed her car. But the woman's description of the men didn't match Stuckey and McCallum, and prosecutors at the time took inconsistent positions, Thompson said. Although they embraced Stuckey's confession, they said the defendants weren't the men she saw.
"How can we say that Stuckey's confession was valid?" Thompson asked.
Stuckey also described three shots — something a witness had said to police, though authorities ultimately found evidence of only one shot, Thompson said. Police also didn't find the gun where Stuckey said he'd hidden it, under his mattress, and the statements described an hours-long drive by two teenagers whom no one had ever seen drive at all, the DA noted.
The teens also said the shooting happened as night fell, when medical examiners determined Blenner died around 3:15 p.m.
McCallum, the subject of a recent documentary film, "David & Me," has said he felt pressed to confess and implicate Stuckey after hearing Stuckey had done the same to him.
Efforts to reach Blenner's relatives Tuesday night weren't immediately successful.
Recent DNA tests and fingerprint analyses from the stolen car matched other people, fueling questions about the case, Michelen said. No one else has been charged.
Associated Press researcher Susan James contributed to this report.
Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @ jennpeltz.