The concluding report in a two-part series
Larry Peterson's case highlights many of the complexities surrounding exoneration, DNA testing, wrongful imprisonment and compensation. Learn more about these issues.
Jeff Fusco/Getty Images for NPR
William Buckman is representing Peterson in his two civil-rights lawsuits for wrongful compensation. Buckman says it will be two to three years before Peterson receives any restitution.
NPR repeatedly requested interviews with Burlington County Prosecutor Robert Bernardi. The following is a letter he sent to Julia Buckley, a senior producer at All Things Considered in response.
Larry Peterson fought for more than 17 years to overturn his conviction on charges of rape and murder. DNA testing led a judge to do just that, in 2005.
But now, as the 56-year-old New Jersey man tries to rebuild his life, he is embroiled in a new legal battle: seeking compensation for the years he spent behind bars.
Part 1 of this special report by Robert Siegel chronicles Peterson's journey his conviction, in 1989, for the rape and murder of Jacqueline Harrison in 1989 to his release from prison in 2005, when a judge threw out the conviction after DNA testing of the physical evidence used at trial revealed no trace of Peterson.
A Witness Recants
In 2005, Peterson was free on bail, awaiting a retrial. Although the DNA results eliminated the physical evidence, the prosecution said it would retry the case, based on witness testimony.
But in April 2006, Robert Elder, a key witness for the prosecution, dropped a bombshell: He recanted his testimony.
Elder was a chronic drunk and drug abuser and had spent years in and out of county jail. He said that he made up the story that he told police in 1987 — that Peterson confessed to Harrison's murder — to get out of an interrogation that had lasted for three days.
Elder said the police described the crime just outside the interrogation room, and left the door open so he could hear them.
When the officers came back, he said, he repeated their words back to them and threw in some fictitious details of his own.
Elder now says that he felt as if his hands were tied: "I had no choice but to live with it."
Without Elder's key testimony, the state's case was finished. In June 2006, nine months after Peterson's release from prison, Burlington County Prosecutor Robert Bernardi issued a statement that he would no longer seek to retry Peterson.
But he framed his decision in the negative: There was not enough evidence to persuade a jury beyond a reasonable doubt, leaving the question of Peterson's factual guilt open to argument.
Reopening Old Wounds
For Jacqueline Harrison's sister, Patricia, the news reopened old wounds. For her, justice had been served in 1989, with Peterson's conviction.
Despite the DNA results and Elder's recantation, she still believes Peterson raped and murdered her sister.
"If I had my way, Mr. Peterson would be dead," Harrison says. "At minimum, he would be still in Trenton State [Prison]."
'Every Day I Wake Up Is a Challenge'
For Larry Peterson, the prosecutor's decision in June 2006 should have been a time of triumph. But it wasn't.
"Every day I wake up is a challenge. You go to work, you come home... you try to put your life in order, and there's always something above you," Peterson says.
Since Bernardi dropped the case, Peterson has struggled to make ends meet. He spoke occasionally at events sponsored by the Innocence Project, which helped win his exoneration, and at anti-death penalty rallies. He worked briefly in construction, but found it difficult. No one, he says, wants to hire a man who has been in prison for so long. He hasn't held a steady job since June 2006, and his anger has grown.
"I'm ready to go to war with this state. I got a bitter taste in my mouth about the state of New Jersey. They done did too much to me," Peterson says.
The man who will wage that war on Peterson's behalf is his lawyer, William Buckman.
Buckman is moving to have Peterson's record expunged. He is also filing two lawsuits: one for damages under federal civil-rights law and another under the New Jersey law that compensates people who can prove in court, by "clear and convincing evidence," that they were wrongly convicted and incarcerated.
Buckman says that it will be two to three years before Peterson — who would be nearly 60 then — starts seeing any compensation for what he has gone through.
The state law sets compensation at twice a person's income or $20,000 — whichever is greater — for every year spent in prison. Under state law, New Jersey would pay Peterson's lawyer's fee, and he would stand to get about $350,000. A federal jury could award him more than that.
The New Jersey law reads as if it's designed for a crime in which one person is convicted, and then DNA implicates someone else. In Peterson's case, someone else's DNA was found, but that unidentified "Mr. X" has not turned up in any state criminal database.
The initial response to Peterson's suit against New Jersey was a boilerplate rejection from the state attorney general.
Until his lawsuits are resolved, Peterson is just a working stiff who is out of work.
He says he will go to school to learn to drive a truck and make the money he needs to move out of his mother's house and eventually to buy into his dream: a chicken farm, somewhere down South.
In the few public statements that the prosecutors and police involved in his case have made, they have drawn a distinction between evidence that raises a reasonable doubt and evidence that exonerates.
To be compensated, Larry Peterson doesn't have to prove that the state knew he was innocent. But he does have to prove his innocence just the same.
This story was produced by Julia Buckley.