In the early hours of January 1, 1992, 16-year-old Jennifer Negron was kidnapped and killed and left outside on an East New York street corner. Detectives found a headband inside a car nearby. A witness said she saw a man forcing Negron into that car and another man in the driver’s seat. The witness identified Everton Wagstaffe, then 23, and Reginald Connor, then 24, as those men. They maintained their innocence from the start. A judge dismissed the murder charge against them for lack of evidence, but they were convicted of kidnapping in 1993. They were sentenced to up to 25 years in prison.
Two decades later, on Wednesday, an appeals court panel overturned their convictions. These are the eighth and ninth convictions from crack-era Brooklyn overturned in 2014. The case was among the 100 or so that the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office has been reviewing.
As we detailed in our August feature story, The Tragedy of Louis Scarcella, the culture and mindset of New York City in the late ’80s and early ’90s bred these wrongful convictions:
As the murder rate continued to rise, so did the number of unsolved homicides. “And with that comes substantial pressure to solve cases,” says one prosecutor of the era, who requested anonymity. The public put pressure on the politicians, who put pressure on NYPD brass. Police officials put pressure on the midlevel commanders, who put pressure on the folks tasked with solving the crimes and arresting the criminals. Cleaning up the streets mattered more than preserving the integrity of this rule or that. “The criminal justice system became a cut-corners system,” [Brooklyn Borough President and former NYPD captain Eric] Adams says. “There were some who were frustrated by the slow wheels of justice, and they wanted to speed it up in their own way.”
The investigation and prosecution that led to the convictions of Wagstaffe and Connor fit that pattern. In its ruling dismissing the kidnapping conviction and the original indictments, the Appellate Division of the state Supreme Court accused prosecutors of “burying” evidence.
Defense attorneys did not know that the main witness was a prostitute and drug addict who had served as a police informant for years. (The witness has since died.) Defense attorneys also did not know that detectives had interviewed the owner of the car, and that she had told them her car had been blocked in by double-parkers on New Year’s Eve night and the headband belonged to one of her daughters.
And though detectives claimed they began investigating Connor and Wagstaffe only after the witness had named them, the precinct’s computer database showed that detectives had pulled up their files the day before the interview with the informant.
More recent DNA tests revealed that hair strands and skin particles collected at the scene did not match Connor or Wagstaffe.
Connor was released after serving 15 years. Wagstaffe, as he told the New York Times in 2011, refused to accept a parole or probation deal because it wold involve admitting guilt. He has been behind bars for more than 22 years.