By JIM DWYER
He is either innocent or a madman. Whichever one he is, Everton Wagstaffe will not go quietly.
Locked up nearly 19 years for a crime that he says he did not do, Mr. Wagstaffe could have gotten out of prison long ago by expressing remorse for being involved in the killing of a teenage girl in Brooklyn on New Year’s Day 1992. He and another man, Reginald Connor, were convicted of kidnapping the girl largely on the testimony of a single witness.
Instead, in thousands of letters and volumes of legal briefs he wrote himself, Mr. Wagstaffe has declared his innocence. This is free speech with a twist: he can say whatever he wants, as long as he’s willing to stay in prison until 2017.
“I would rather die here behind bars than live behind the lie that I had anything to do with this terrible crime,” said Mr. Wagstaffe, 41.
Now, after his long and successful battle to get DNA tests and previously undisclosed records, a new team of lawyers has persuaded Acting Justice Sheryl Parker of State Supreme Court to hold a hearing on Mr. Wagstaffe’s claims that he is innocent and that his trial was ruinously flawed by official misconduct and poor legal representation. It will be held this fall. Lawyers for Mr. Connor, 42, are also arguing that his conviction should be overturned on the same grounds.
Last October, the authorities disclosed for the first time that the main prosecution witness — and the only one to directly tie Mr. Wagstaffe and Mr. Connor to the crime — had been a police informant for several years before the trial. The witness, who was addicted to drugs and supported herself as a prostitute, has since died.
Although the defense had asked in 1992 if informants had been used in the case, the prosecution did not reveal that its central and very troubled witness had a history of working with the police.
The failure to disclose that relationship before the trial “provides an overriding reason why the convictions should be set aside,” Myron Beldock, the lawyer who is leading Mr. Wagstaffe’s appeal, wrote in a court filing earlier this year.
The Brooklyn district attorney’s office, which brought the charges and is now defending the conviction, said in its court papers that the witness’s history showed that she “had a track record of providing accurate information to police in other cases.” Joyce Slevin, an assistant district attorney, argued that the information would not have helped the defense anyway. She also said the witness, Brunhilda Capella, got no favors from the authorities.
The trial was delayed for three days while detectives hunted for Ms. Capella, who was going through heroin withdrawal. When she was found, she was held as a material witness.
The case began around dawn on Jan. 1, 1992, with the discovery of the body of Jennifer Negron, 16, on a street in East New York, Brooklyn. Ms. Capella testified that at 3:15 a.m. she had seen Mr. Wagstaffe open a car door and throw Ms. Negron into the front seat, next to Mr. Connor. She did not report the abduction, but said that she later led detectives to the place where the car was parked.
Inside the car was a glove with a spot of blood and a headband that appeared similar to one that was worn by Ms. Negron. At the trial, the prosecution said that Ms. Capella’s identification of the car, and what appeared to be Ms. Negron’s headband, were proof that Ms. Capella was telling the truth.
Neither of the lawyers representing Mr. Wagstaffe or Mr. Connor spoke with the owner of the car, a middle-aged woman who years later said that on the night of the killing she had used her car to drive to a New Year’s church service, where it was blocked in by double parkers. Had the defense lawyers spoken with her, they might have argued that it could not have been used in the abduction, and therefore did not corroborate Ms. Capella’s testimony. Ultimately, a judge said there was no evidence connecting Mr. Wagstaffe and Mr. Connor to the murder of Ms. Negron, but both men were convicted of kidnapping.