The two men – Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee — who had been convicted in the killing of a video store clerk will not be retried, announced Passaic County prosecutor Camelia Valdes on Friday morning.
Kelley and Lee’s murder and robbery convictions were overturned by Passaic County judge Joseph Portelli in September 2017 based on DNA evidence. The new evidence raised doubts about the men’s guilt in the 1993 killing of video store clerk Tito Merino.
“The decision to not re-try these matters was made after consultation with the family of Tito Merino – who attended both trials in 1996 and who have attended recent post-conviction hearings – and upon consideration of the fact that both defendants in this matter have served almost 25 years in custody,” Valdes stated in a statement. “The passage of nearly 25 years since the date of the crime presents difficult challenges with re-trying these matters. Such a lengthy passage of time impacts witness availability, cooperation and credibility.”
Kelley and Lee were sentenced to 30 years in prison for the crime. Both men confessed to the murder when questioned by police but later recanted their confessions. Both claimed the confessions were made under pressure from police.
On the afternoon of July 28, 1993, Merino was stabbed and bludgeoned to death at his family’s shop, the Victoria Audio & Video on Union Avenue.
The Innocence Project and Centurion aided in overturning the two men’s convictions using DNA evidence.
“I wish to emphasize that this decision in no way, shape or form, is to be considered that my opinion is that the defendants are not guilty,” Portelli wrote in his opinion. He ordered a new trial in the case.
DNA samples from the crime scene did not match Kelley or Lee. It pointed to a another man, Eric Dixon, a former Paterson resident, who now lives in Virgina.
Dixon, an ex-convict who did time for a similar knife attack, was never charged in the case.
Portelli’s decision was appealed by the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office. An appellate panel agreed with the judge’s ruling that in light of the new DNA evidence both men deserve fresh trials.
“In sum, we have not decided these men are 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,” judges Jack Sabatino, Mitchel Ostrer, and Mary Whipple wrote in their decision.
“The Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office has determined that, considering the totality of the circumstances, to re-try these matters 25 years later would not be in the interests of justice,” Valdes said.