PASSAIC, N.J. – An appeals court on Monday ordered a new trial for two men convicted in the 1993 killing of a video store clerk.
Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee had spent almost a quarter-century behind bars before a lower court ordered their convictions reversed last fall after new tests found someone else's DNA on a key piece of evidence.
Monday's ruling upheld that decision.
Kelley and Lee spent 24 years behind bars after confessing to the bloody knifepoint robbery of 22-year-old Tito Merino in his uncle's video store in Paterson. Merino, a Peruvian immigrant, was a community college student and aspiring doctor.
In 2014, DNA tests showed that a baseball cap found near Merino's body had DNA from a man convicted of a 1989 knifepoint holdup at a different Paterson shop.
Prosecutors argued before the appeals court last month that the DNA evidence did not prove the pair innocent and that there was ample other evidence, including their confessions, to support a conviction.
Defense lawyers, including attorneys from the Innocence Project, argued prosecutors were trying to cover for a bungled criminal case.
"We agree with the court that the new DNA results provide substantial proof of third-party guilt, thereby justifying new trials at which such exculpatory proof can now be presented by defendants," the judges wrote Monday.
They acknowledged that with the passage of more than 20 years, it would be challenging for prosecutors to revive the case. But they also stopped short of declaring the men innocent.
"We only conclude the trial court did not err in granting them another opportunity, with the insight of new DNA results, to make the State prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," the judges wrote. "Simple justice requires no more, and no less, than that."