By Julie McCaffrey
BROOKLYN, NY – Sheldon Thomas, who spent more than 18 years behind bars because of an eyewitness misidentification allegedly orchestrated by detectives, is finally free after being wrongfully convicted of the murder of a 14-year-old boy.
In court last Thursday, following a report by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, Thomas stated, “There’s so many times when I was in my cell I would think of this moment. Right now, I’m just speechless.”
Thomas continued, “I would also like to extend my condolences to the victim’s family. I believe that since my incarceration, they have been under the impression that they were given justice for their son and come to find out today, and all this time, they really had the wrong person that was convicted for killing their son. And it’s not just my life that was ripped apart by … the miscarriage of justice. It was them, as well,” according to an NBC News report.
Thomas, who is 35 now, was only 17 when he was arrested and charged for the murder.
He was accused of the murder after the detectives on the case misled an eyewitness, who misidentified Thomas as the perpetrator.
According to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, the police were going to use a photo of Thomas from a previous gun arrest, then switched his photo for another photo of someone with the same name.
After the eyewitness identified him as the perpetrator, not knowing it was the wrong Sheldon Thomas, the police arrested Thomas at his home. Two other men were arrested with Thomas for the murder, but the charges against them were dismissed.
The eyewitness, without knowing, misidentified Thomas in a police lineup, despite him being different from the person they identified in the photo, according to Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez.
According to Gonzales, in 2006 at a pretrial hearing, the detective in the case admitted he used the photo of the wrong Sheldon Thomas, and admitted he falsely testified.
When the question of his identity was raised to the court, the judge said there was still probable cause because of anonymous tips, as well as resemblance between the man in the photo and Thomas, when in reality, they were two different people.
Thomas was found guilty for one count of second-degree murder, five counts of attempted murder, and weapons charges, and was sentenced to 25 years to life.
Before and throughout the trial Thomas repeatedly denied any involvement with the crime, and continued to state his innocence.
Gonzales stated the case “was compromised from the very start by grave errors and lack of probable cause to arrest Mr. Thomas. He was further deprived of his due process rights when the prosecution proceeded even after the erroneous identification came to light, making his conviction fundamentally unfair.”
His exoneration followed an investigation from Brooklyn’s DA’s Conviction Reversal Unit, and it determined Thomas was denied due process at every stage, and that the detectives on the case repeatedly harassed Thomas after his gun arrest.
The report concluded that “these errors, on its own, deprived the dependent of a fair trial.” The report added “together the errors undermined the integrity of the entire judicial process and defendant’s resulting conviction.”
Eyewitness misidentification continues to be a problem in the justice system, according to the Innocence Project that notes 72 percent of wrongful conviction cases were caused by eyewitness misidentification.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, out of the 3,200 defendants who were exonerated in 2022 because they were innocent, only 33 percent of them were white.