Thirty years later: Judge exonerates man wrongly convicted of robbery and rape

Thirty years later: Judge exonerates man wrongly convicted of robbery and rape
Exonerated: Mark Denny raised his fists in triumph as he left the Supreme Court building after a judge threw out his nearly 30-year-old conviction on Wednesday.
Innocence Project

He got a new lease on life for Christmas.

A Supreme Court judge threw out an innocent man’s decades-old conviction on Wednesday, giving the exonerated his first taste of freedom in nearly 30 years.

A jury convicted Mark Denny of participating in a gunpoint robbery on Dec. 20, 1987 — three decades to the day of his exoneration — in which the then 17-year-old and three other defendants were accused of swiping $3,000 from a Fort Hamilton Parkway Burger King before stripping and raping a female employee.

But Denny maintained his innocence throughout his long incarceration, during which his fellow inmates nearly drove him to take his own life by torturing and shunning him over his sexual-assault conviction, he said.

“It came to the point where I almost committed suicide,” Denny said.

The case against Denny, which was prosecuted under former District Attorney Elizabeth Holtzman, lacked any physical evidence tying him to the crime scene, and instead relied heavily on witness testimony, according to Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez.

Denny eventually found hope after a legal outfit dedicated to exonerating guiltless convicts, the Innocence Project, took on his case in 2009.

Innocence Project lawyer Nina Morrison labored for five years before bringing the case before former District Attorney Charles Hynes’ conviction-review unit, which ultimately made no moves to free Denny, she said.

But the defense attorney had more success working with prosecutors under Hynes’ successors, the late Ken Thompson and Gonzalez. The top prosecutors tracked down witnesses and contracted an eyewitness-identification expert who said that various factors, including the facts that the attackers blindfolded the victim during their assault and that she underwent extreme stress, made her testimony unreliable.

“The combination [of] all these factors significantly decreased the likelihood that an accurate identification could have been made by victim in this case,” said Dr. Jennifer Dysart, a psychology professor at New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

And a co-defendant also convicted of the crime, Raphael James, wrote numerous letters stating Denny’s innocence that date back to the 1990s and further buoyed his claim.

Gonzalez said he will reference Denny’s case when training future prosecutors, using it as a reminder not to put too much weight behind tenuous eyewitness testimony.

“We’ve learned a lot about … how memory works,” the district attorney said. “We’re training our prosecutors on the front end, so we won’t have this continuing in the future.”

The district attorney’s conviction review unit has overturned 24 guilty verdicts — more than half of which were prosecuted under Hynes — since Thompson took office in 2014, according to a spokesman for the top prosecutor’s office.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.

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