Decades-old murder conviction is under review in Queens

Michael Robinson (right) with his aunt Suzy Pryor. Robinson was convicted of murder in 1993 and is challenging his conviction based on recently examined DNA evidence. Photo courtesy of Legal Aid.

Michael Robinson (right) with his aunt Suzy Pryor. Robinson was convicted of murder in 1993 and is challenging his conviction based on recently examined DNA evidence. Photo courtesy of Legal Aid.

By David Brand

A Queens man convicted of murder will have another day in court Monday — 26 years after he was sentenced for a killing he says he never committed. Newly discovered DNA evidence may help exonerate him.

Michael Robinson was convicted of killing his estranged wife in 1993 at the home of an 89-year-old woman, where his wife worked as a home health aide. The second-degree murder conviction hinged on the elderly woman’s eyewitness testimony, though she had significant vision problems and provided inconsistent accounts, defense attorneys say.

Robinson, who was released from prison this year, hopes to overturn his conviction based on fresh analysis of DNA evidence recovered from the victim’s fingernails. The test indicates that the genetic material is 78 trillion times more likely to match someone else other than Robinson. 

Justice Stephen Knopf ordered a hearing to review the new evidence based on Robinson’s motion to overturn the conviction in July and the Queens District Attorney’s Office is fighting to uphold the conviction. 

Queens prosecutors find themselves in the unique position of arguing against the results of a DNA test that seem to point, at an astronomical probability, to another suspect.

“They consider DNA less reliable when it exculpates someone, but when it inculpates, it’s the be all and end all,” said Legal Aid Society Criminal Appeal Bureau attorney Harold Ferguson.

Ferguson said the DA’s handling of the DNA evidence was the “exact opposite” of how Queens prosecutors proceeded in the murder trial of Chanel Lewis, who was convicted in April of killing Howard Beach resident Karina Vetrano while she jogged near her home. The Queens DA’s Office focused on DNA found on Vetrano’s fingernails, neck and cellphone, which they argued was 6.8 trillion times more likely to match Lewis than someone else, based on analysis.

At issue in Robinson’s case is the credibility of the DNA test, which was conducted by the company TrueAllele Casework System. But a recent appeals court decision seems to bolster Robinson’s defense by affirming the validity of TrueAllele.

Last month, a panel of judges from the Appellate Division, Third Department ruled that TrueAllele DNA test results used in another murder case were valid for DNA analysis because they are “generally accepted by the relevant scientific community.” 

Robinson’s attorneys wrote in court documents that the DNA test provides immediate grounds for vacating the conviction.

“The record in this case — the case-altering, exonerating DNA evidence, the unreliability of the sole identifying witness, and Mr. Robinson’s compelling alibi — entirely undermines the foundation of the original 1993 conviction,” Ferguson said in July.

A spokesperson for the Queens DA’s Office said DNA analysis conducted by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in 2017 could not rule out Robinson as the source of the sample, however.

“The defense claims a private lab they retained came to a different conclusion,” the spokesperson said. 

During his 1993 trial, Robinson provided several alibi defenses from family members, who also described the victim’s abusive relationship with another man. Defense attorneys at the time suggested that the abusive boyfriend was the likely killer. Nevertheless, a Queens jury convicted Robinson of second-degree murder.

The defense team working on Robinson’s behalf today will not raise questions about other potential suspects, instead focusing on the merits of the recent DNA test. 

Whether or not the boyfriend’s DNA was also found on the victim’s fingernails is irrelevant to the case, the DA’s Office spokesperson said.

“The defense has argued from virtually the outset of this case that another individual is the actual killer, however, the presence of this individual’s DNA is irrelevant since it is well established that the other individual — the woman’s then-boyfriend — was with the victim the morning before she was killed and thus even if it were his DNA there would be nothing unusual about that,” the spokesperson said.

Regardless of the outcome, Melinda Katz, the Democratic nominee for Queens DA, said cases like Robinson’s are “exactly why” she plans to create a Conviction Review Unit if elected DA. Queens is the only borough without a CRU.

“My first priority will be to review all the facts for cases that rely on a sole witness and make appropriate determinations based on the evidence,” Katz, the borough president, told the Eagle in July.