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Saturday, May 19, 2007

'Wrong Man' Free after 19 Yrs. - & Real 'Killer' Was Star Witness

New York Post
by Austin Fenner, Jeane Macintosh and Lukas I. Alpert
May 16, 2007

May 16, 2007 -- A man who served 19 years in prison for the rape and murder of his girlfriend's children was set free yesterday after DNA evidence proved that a next-door neighbor - the star prosecution witness - was responsible for the heinous crime.

Walking out of the same New Jersey courthouse where he had been sentenced to life in prison in 1988, Byron Halsey, 46, thanked God as he embraced his family, supporters and the team of lawyers who had worked to have his conviction overturned.

"I want to thank the lord. I want to thank my lord and savior Jesus for keeping me here," he said through tears as he stood beneath the word "Jusice" inscribed in Latin on the facade of the Union County Courthouse. "I'm just thankful."

Although he was happy to be free, Halsey said he would have a hard time getting over what had happened, especially because he had narrowly avoided a death sentence at his sensational trial two decades ago.

"I'm not happy because of what was done to me. It was criminal at best," he said. "I wasn't going to let anyone take my life from me."

His mother, Eloise, hugged her son as he walked out of the courthouse.

"I did not give up on him. I knew he was innocent," she said, overwhelmed by emotion.

Halsey's first glimpse of freedom began when his attorneys - of the New York-based Innocence Project - and Union County prosecutors submitted a joint request asking that his conviction be overturned.

In the legal filing, they explained that new DNA technology allowed them to trace semen found at the scene of the vicious rape and murder to Clifton Hall, 49, who lived next door to Halsey and his girlfriend at a Plainfield, N.J. rooming house.

Hall, who testified against Halsey, was imprisoned for three savage sexual assaults in 1993 and his DNA was on file with New Jersey authorities.

"We can say with scientific certainty that Byron Halsey is innocent. Every piece of physical evidence connects Cliff Hall, not Byron Halsey, to these murders," said Innocence Project attorney Vanessa Potkin. "It has taken more than two decades, but DNA has finally revealed the truth in this case."

Ruling that the new evidence "would probably change the verdict," Superior Court Judge Stuart Peim vacated the verdict and granted Halsey a new trial.

Halsey threw his head back as tears streamed down his face.

Peim then told prosecutors they had until a July 9 hearing to decide whether they would retry Halsey or drop the charges. A spokeswoman for the Union County prosecutor would not discuss what will happen.

Peim allowed Halsey to be released on $55,000 bail - raised by church groups in Plainfield - but ordered that he wear an electronic-monitoring ankle bracelet.

In a statement, the children's mother, Margaret Urquhart, said she had always doubted Halsey was responsible for the crimes.

"I knew Byron loved Tyrone and Tina. It didn't make sense to me that he could have done this. I always had my doubts, but I didn't know what to do about them. I'm thankful that the DNA testing has identified who really did this to my children and that Byron is being released today. I want justice done in this case," she said.

The brutal rape and murder of 8-year-old Tyrone Urquhart and his 7-year-old sister Tina shocked New Jersey.

The two children's beaten and abused bodies were found in the basement of the rooming house in November 1985.

The girl was found under a shelf with her nightgown draped over her head, her underwear stuffed in her mouth and her legs spread. She had been brutally raped on a nearby blue couch, beaten and strangled.

The boy had been sexually assaulted, his face slashed with scissors and a piece of cloth hammered to his skull with long nails. Several cigarette butts were found littered around his body.

It was later determined that the nails piercing his brain caused his death.

Investigators were able to recover evidence of semen from the girl's underwear, the covering of the couch, and from an oral swab of the boy's mouth. More DNA evidence was recovered from the cigarette butts.

At the time, however, DNA technology was not sufficient to provide a match to an individual, and investigators were only able to match Halsey to the semen because he had the same blood type as the culprit.

In the immediate aftermath, investigators aggressively questioned Halsey - who told them he had left the children alone and came home to find them missing.

After hours of questioning, Halsey allegedly confessed to the killings, admitting he "sexually assaulted [Tina] in the basement on the blue couch."

But his attorneys argue the confession was coerced after a 30-hour interrogation during which Halsey - who has a sixth-grade education and suffers from severe learning disabilities - was allowed little sleep.

But influenced by the blood-type evidence, and testimony from Hall - who earlier on the night of the murders had driven Halsey to a friend's house - the jury convicted Halsey in 1988 after five days of deliberation.

The jurors reject the prosecution's plea for the death penalty, and Halsey was sentenced to consecutive life sentences, a decision that elicited jeers in the courtroom.

The judge who handled the original case, William Wertheimer, said, "It gives pause about the death penalty, doesn't it?"

It is the 201st case for the Innocence Project - which works to exonerate the wrongly convicted using DNA technology unavailable until recently - in which a conviction was overturned.

"He's got an uphill battle trying to get his life back in order. He's got his mom, his brother which is going to be a help and he's got us," said David Shephard, president of the Council for the Wrongly Convicted.

He said his group had arranged for an apartment in Newark for Halsey and would help him find a job.

Hall has been imprisoned since 1993 for three brutal sex attacks on women in Plainfield during an 11-month period in 1991 and 1992. ■