By David Brand
A state appellate court disagreed with a Queens jury’s decision to convict an ex-corrections officer for the 2000 murder of his ex-girlfriend and kicked the case back to Queens Supreme Court Wednesday.
The panel of four appellate judges from the Second Department unanimously reversed the 2013 murder conviction on the grounds that the jury’s verdict “was against the weight of the evidence” in a case they said relied on inferences gleaned from circumstantial evidence.
Barbara Perez was discovered dead on the floor of the Ridgewood gym Power Factory where she worked in August 2000. Perez was shot eight times in the head and once in the chest.
On the day of the murder, police questioned Perez’s ex-boyfriend Christopher Clavell, a corrections officer. They searched his car and home but found no forensic evidence linking him to the killing.
In April 2011, however, police arrested Clavell. He was charged with second-degree murder.
Queens prosecutors argued at trial that Clavell was near Power Factory the morning of the murder and accused Clavell of killing Perez amid a child support dispute. Perez did not sue Clavell for child support, but she received public assistance, prompting the city to seek money from Clavell.
Witnesses testified that they noticed tension between Clavell and Perez. One of Clavell’s other ex-girlfriends said Clavell told her he would “like to kill this girl some day” after a heated phone call with Perez.
A Queens jury convicted Clavell of second-degree murder in 2013 and he was sentenced to 25 years in prison by Justice Joseph Zayas.
The appellate judges disagreed with the jury decision and said prosecutors presented “no direct evidence of the defendant’s guilt.”
“Taken together, the evidence presented at trial supports the possibility that the defendant was the person who killed Perez. “[H]owever, speculation and conjecture are no substitute for proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” they wrote, citing case law. “We find that the jury was not justified in finding the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The Second Department panel also questioned the evidence used to indict Clavell nearly 11 years after the crime.
“At trial, the prosecution’s evidence was entirely circumstantial, and no new evidence appears to have developed in the 11 intervening years between the occurrence of the crime and indictment,” the four judges wrote in their decision.
A spokesperson for the Office of Court Administration pointed out that state Supreme Court justices do not have the power that the Appellate Division has to reverse and dismiss cases based on “weight-of-the evidence grounds.”
“Trial Courts may not and cannot dismiss a case after a jury verdict on the grounds that the evidence was against the weight of the evidence,” said OCA spokesperson Lucian Chalfen. “The Appellate Division did not find, and could not find, that the trial judge, Justice Zayas, committed any error in reversing and dismissing the indictment. The Appellate Division disagreed with the jury’s verdict.”
The Queens DA’s Office said at the time that a change in state law enabled them to present incriminating statements to a grand jury, which led to Clavell’s arrest in 2011.
A spokesperson for the Queens DA said the office is “reviewing the decision and considering all possible appellate options.”