Sophie Sonnenfeld, Contributing Photographer

After 31 years in prison, Maleek Jones walked out of the U.S. District Courthouse in New Haven on Sept. 28, as a judge overturned his wrongful murder conviction.

Jones, a Black man from New Haven, maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration, insisting that New Haven Police framed him for murder. Judge Janet Hall overturned the trial after Jones’s attorneys demonstrated that police utilized witness coercion, an ineffective defense council, manipulated evidence and dubious testimony to convict an innocent 19-year-old and sentence him to 65 years in prison. 

“For a long period of time, there was a pattern and practice of misconduct that was not just a matter of bad apples but a matter of consistent tactics that were deployed,” Yale English professor Sarah Stillman, who has studied alleged misconduct by the NHPD, said about the case. “Systemically, we saw witness coercion, pre-interviews –– where they would coach witnesses before they would turn on the tape recorder, routine reliance on faulty eyewitness testimonies.”

Stillman led the investigative journalism project Holding Me Captive, which documented New Haven police misconduct in wrongful conviction cases over a 20-year stretch.

Several other Black New Haveners including Scott Lewis and Stefon Morant, were part of a litany of corrupt trials that stretched from the late 1980s to the early 2000s and have seen their wrongful convictions overturned in recent years.  

Jones’ case is not rare for New Haven. Sixteen of the 32 Connecticut residents who have been exonerated since 1989 were from New Haven. 

According to Judge Hall’s August 2023 ruling on Jones’ case, New Haven detectives illegally suppressed witness testimony and encouraged false testimony in his trial.   

The New Haven Police Department did not respond to several requests for comment. 

NHPD suppressed witnesses, hid confessions

In 1992, the New Haven Police Department arrested Jones for the murder of Eddie Harp, who was shot and killed in his car while driving by Saint Raphael’s Hospital in the Dwight neighborhood. 

According to ‘Free Maleek,” a short film about Jones’s wrongful conviction, eight hours after the shooting, Gene John, confided in an undisclosed individual that he and a man named Tyrone Spears killed Eddie Harp. The individual turned this information over to New Haven detectives, who illegally suppressed the confession, Hall ruled. John was killed six months later and his confession never made it to trial. 

In Hall’s ruling she wrote that instead of using John’s original confession, New Haven detectives pressured Spears to claim that there were three shooters instead of two and that Jones was the third. This was despite clear physical evidence ruling out the possibility of three shooters, according to Hall’s ruling. 

Alex Taubes LAW ’15, Jones’ attorney, describes these tactics as the “carrot and stick” of the New Haven Police Department. 

“If you’re a felon with multiple serious felony charges against you, the carrot is that we can get you out of trouble in exchange for your testimony against a targeted person,” Taubes said of Spears’s testimony. 

Sheila McCray — the sole witness of Harp’s murder — was never called to testify at Jones’s original trial, according to Hall’s ruling. 

According to an interview with McCray featured in the documentary, New Haven police pressured her into claiming that Jones was the shooter even though she did not believe so. 

“If you’re a law-abiding citizen with no criminal record like Sheila McCray, they have the stick, things they use to threaten people and coerce them into trying to testify,” Taubes told the News.

Jones was convicted in 1995 and began his 65-year prison sentence that year.

Jones’s struggle for exoneration

Jones was 19 years old when he was wrongfully convicted and had witnessed his son’s birth just two weeks prior. During his 31-years behind bars, Jones, on top of facing isolation from his family and friends, exhausted numerous legal appeals to try and overturn the court’s decision. 

“Maleek’s journey to where he is today had many setbacks and challenges throughout the Connecticut court system,” Taubes told the News. 

After Jones’ trial, he filed an appeal. Then, Taubes said, after his appeals were complete, Jones filed habeas corpus cases in the state courts. When those cases were unsuccessful, Jones appealed those habeas corpus cases. 

In 2015, Jones’ case was reopened after he successfully appealed for New Haven’s federal district court to listen to previously suppressed evidence that he thought could exonerate him. 

When Jones’s case was reopened, McCray was subpoenaed and identified Spears as the second shooter, who confessed to the crime during the same trial. 

In her August verdict, Judge Hall also wrote that Jones argued that his public defender, Leo Ahern, did not hire an independent investigator for the case despite having access to one. This prevented Sheila McCray’s testimony from ever making it to court. Hall also wrote that the police illegally excluded Gene John’s confession from the trial, which incriminated Spears as the  second shooter and did not mention Jones. 

Hall affirmed that police pressured Spears into claiming that three shooters, not two, were involved in Harp’s death and that Jones was one of them. She wrote that Jones’s conviction was contingent on this false evidence and deprived of the other two testimonies. 

“The State’s case against Mr. Jones was thin,” Hall wrote in her decision. ​“It hinged solely on the testimony of Mr. Spears, a self-interested witness whose account of the shooting … was nearly impossible to square with the ballistics evidence.”

Although free, Jones will be required by law to follow a curfew, submit to drug tests, wear a GPS bracelet on his leg, stay with a relative in North Carolina and remain under federal supervision for at least 60 days while the state attempts to appeal the federal decision and reinstate his conviction. 

If the state loses its appeal and decides not to retry Jones, according to Taubes, most of the restrictions currently imposed would be lifted. 

“It would not be until the charges are dismissed that he would not be under any restrictions,” Taubes said. “But even having the charges dismissed doesn’t undo the injustice. He’s still lost all of this time.” 

The Office of the State’s Attorney in New Haven did not respond to a request for comment on their appeal. 

Yale professor Stillman, who has maintained a friendship with Jones for over twenty years, provided insight into his emotional state from when she last spoke to him after the trial. 

“He sounded really vibrant and joyful and ready for the next stages of this long, long fight. He’s worked tirelessly to turn over every stone in his case and never stop pushing back,” Stillman said. “I think this ruling from the federal judge is a testament to Maleek’s legal intellect and persistence. It’s a remarkable step one victory that he’s gotten himself to where he is now.”

The New Haven District Courthouse is located at 141 Church St.