FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, March 16, 2023
Brooklyn District Attorney Moves to Vacate Wrongful Conviction of
Man Who Pleaded Guilty to Manslaughter After Real Killer Confessed
Was Initially Convicted of 1990 Murder but Agreed to Plead Guilty to Get Out of Prison
After Serving 19 Years; Consistently Maintained his Friend was the Gunman
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez today announced that following a thorough investigation by his Conviction Review Unit (CRU), he will move to vacate the conviction of Emel McDowell, 50, who was convicted of a 1990 murder in Bedford-Stuyvesant. After maintaining his innocence while serving 19 years for murder, the defendant pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2009 under an agreement that allowed him to be released from prison. He has consistently claimed that his friend was the killer, and he wasn’t involved, which the CRU confirmed when that individual confessed, explaining that he acted in self-defense. The full CRU report is available here.
District Attorney Gonzalez said, “Our legal system failed Emel McDowell when he was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1990 and his release years later was conditioned on an admission to a crime he did not commit. A full reinvestigation by our Conviction Review Unit confirmed that another individual fatally shot the victim, as Mr. McDowell has consistently maintained, and today we will ask to give him his good name back. As prosecutors, it is our obligation to do justice in every case, and I am committed to continuing this important work to enhance fairness and community trust.”
Mr. McDowell will appear in court today at 11 a.m. before Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Matthew D’Emic at 320 Jay Street, 15th Floor.
The District Attorney said that based on the testimony of two witnesses, McDowell, who was 17 at the time of the murder, was convicted of killing 19-year-old Jonathan Powell following a fight inside a party in the early hours of October 27, 1990. The police investigation lasted less than 24 hours despite conflicting accounts from several witnesses. In his statement to investigating officers, McDowell claimed that it was his friend who shot and killed the victim.
Despite indications from other witnesses that the friend may have been culpable, only McDowell stood trial. A jury convicted him of murder and weapons possession, and he was sentenced to 22 years to life in prison. McDowell subsequently drafted and filed numerous motions proclaiming his innocence and asking that his conviction be thrown out or that his sentence be reduced. In a 2007 motion to set aside the verdict, the defendant submitted a letter, sent to him from his former friend in 1991, in which the former friend alluded to the fact that he was responsible, writing in part: “I don’t think I deserve to walk the face of the earth because one of my friends is locked up, for something that he didn’t do.”
The 2007 motion also included affidavits from six witnesses, all of whom said McDowell was not the shooter, and three of whom indicated that it was the friend who shot the victim. A judge ordered a hearing and, before it commenced, prosecutors offered the defendant a plea to manslaughter and a sentence of six to 18 years, which effectively meant that he could be released from prison. When accepting the plea, after lengthy consideration, the defendant admitted in court that he possessed a handgun and was acting in concert with his friend when the friend fatally shot the victim.
McDowell’s lawyer asked CRU to reinvestigate the case, claiming that his client was pressured to plead guilty because he didn’t want to spend one more day in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The Unit reinterviewed many of the witnesses as well as others involved in the prosecution and became all but convinced of the veracity of the former friend’s 1991 letter. CRU also confirmed that the letter was given to the defense attorney before trial, but he did not investigate it and did not alert the prosecution to its existence.
The CRU interviewed the former friend in the presence of his attorney. He said that there was an altercation inside the party between McDowell’s and his group of friends, and another group of young men, including the deceased. He went on to say that, as the group exited the location, the deceased (who earlier threatened to kill the friend and members of his group) ran at them and he then shot him in self-defense. He added that the McDowell was not armed. The friend also confirmed that he was never contacted by McDowell’s defense lawyer. The CRU found that his “demeanor and emotional state throughout the interview demonstrated that he was overwhelmed with guilt and relieved to confess.”
The CRU further found that the short police investigation was inadequate as it did not explore the distinct possibility, advanced by some of the witnesses, that the friend was the shooter. That was likely due to tunnel vision and confirmation bias that led “the police to focus on one suspect and discount evidence to the contrary,” according to the report. It also found that the defense counsel failed to follow up on evidence implicating the friend, which CRU reviewed and found persuasive.
In light of these findings, the CRU concluded that the plea agreement to manslaughter – offered by prosecutors in good faith and accepted by the defendant reluctantly – was not warranted. Accordingly, it recommended that the conviction be vacated, and the underlying indictment dismissed.
The CRU referred the case to the Homicide Bureau to determine the viability of any additional prosecution.
To date, the work of the Conviction Review Unit has resulted in the vacatur of 35 convictions since 2014. Currently, CRU has approximately 50 open investigations.
This case was investigated by Assistant District Attorney Rachel Kalman of the District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit, with assistance from Assistant District Attorney Lori Glachman, under the supervision of Charles Linehan, Unit Chief.