Dispute over DNA evidence in 1993 murder case highlights Queens’ missing conviction review unit

Front row: Legal Aid Criminal Appeals Bureau attorney Harold Ferguson (left) and Michael Robinson. Back row (left to right): Legal Aid DNA Unit attorneys Terri Rosenblatt, Jessica Goldthwaite and Jenny Cheung. Photo courtesy of Legal Aid

Front row: Legal Aid Criminal Appeals Bureau attorney Harold Ferguson (left) and Michael Robinson. Back row (left to right): Legal Aid DNA Unit attorneys Terri Rosenblatt, Jessica Goldthwaite and Jenny Cheung. Photo courtesy of Legal Aid

By David Brand

A fresh DNA test by the city’s medical examiner could exonerate a Queens man convicted of a brutal 1993 murder, his attorneys say. The Queens District Attorney’s Office contends that the new evidence is “irrelevant” to the conviction.

Regardless of the outcome, both candidates for Queens DA say it’s the kind of case that demands an independent conviction review unit in Queens — the only borough without one.

A Queens jury convicted Michael Robinson of killing his estranged wife, Gwendolyn Samuels, in 1993 at the home of an 89-year-old woman, where Samuels worked as a home health aide. The second-degree murder conviction hinged on the elderly woman’s eyewitness testimony, despite her significant vision problems and inconsistent statements. Robinson maintained his innocence through his 26-year prison term. He was released earlier this year.

Evidence taken from the crime scene — including Samuels’ fingernail clippings — was thought lost or seriously damaged by Superstorm Sandy, until a barrel containing the unscathed materials emerged in 2017. Robinson appealed to have the nail clippings tested for DNA. 

An independent company, TrueAllele, analyzed the DNA found on the fingernails and determined that genetic material is 78 trillion times more likely to match someone else other than Robinson. Those results differed from initial testing conducted by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which could not implicate or rule out Robinson as the source of the DNA.

But a new OCME analysis came to the same conclusion as the test conducted by TrueAllele. The OCME’s test also indicated that the DNA is “78.1 trillion times less probable” to match Robinson than an unrelated African-American person, Robinson’s defense team says.

His attorney Harold Ferguson, from the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Appeals Bureau, said the new results from OCME “fully exculpate our client.” 

“As we have maintained since day one, Mr. Robinson is completely innocent of this crime, and in the interest of justice, prosecutors owe it to Mr. Robinson to vacate this conviction,” Ferguson said.

Robinson returned to court after 26 years in prison last month for a preliminary hearing on his motion to vacate his conviction. The Queens DA’s Office disputed the motion at the hearing before Justice Stephen Knopf.

A spokesperson for the Queens DA’s Office said the “presence or absence” of Robinson’s DNA under the victim’s fingernails is “irrelevant” because DNA did not form the basis of his conviction.

“We never argued that it was the defendant's DNA,” the spokesperson said. “There is no evidence that the poor deceased woman in this case had the opportunity to struggle with her assailant. And the evidence that convicted the defendant remains intact.”

The court hearing over the motion to vacate the conviction began in September and will take place sporadically over several weeks. That means it could continue into the term of the next Queens DA.

In July, Borough President Melinda Katz, the Democratic nominee for Queens DA, declined to comment on the specifics of Robinson’s case, but said “cases like this are exactly why I plan to create a Conviction Integrity Unit” if elected DA. 

Katz did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but she elaborated on her CRU proposal in February. She also said she supported a state agency to oversee county prosecutors conducting conviction reviews. 

“An additional level of review, by an independent state panel, to further this fight for justice would be an important step forward, building on the state’s recent actions on criminal justice reforms,” she told the Eagle. “As DA, I will make Queens a leader in addressing wrongful convictions.”

The Queens DA’s Office has said it does not need a conviction review unit because it works diligently to prevent wrongful indictments, and thus convictions.

Joe Murray, the Republican nominee for Queens DA, said everyone, no matter how well intentioned, makes mistakes.

“There’s always the factor of human error. It’s not intentional,” said Murray, a defense attorney and former NYPD officer. “Whenever there are humans involved, there can be mistakes.”

Murray declined to comment on the case without knowing more specific facts, but said he “would expedite setting up a conviction review unit” because decades-old cases demand dedicated independent review bodies to focus time and energy on investigations. 

“It’s a painstakingly slow process,” Murray said, recalling clients he has represented on appeals. “It’s an old case and I know from my experience that it takes forever to get anything done. To get discovery, to get access to material, talking to witnesses.”