BROOKLYN --After a woman was found dead, naked, beaten and dragged into a cross-like position in a park, the friend with whom she left her apartment that night was convicted of murder.
But a quarter century later, Andre Hatchett has been freed from prison and his conviction overturned Thursday after prosecutors and defense lawyers said a review of his case had found too many problems for it to stand.
With about two dozen relatives sitting in the courtroom, Hatchett beamed and applauded as his conviction was tossed.
"I'm so happy to be free again ... I told my family, 'I'll be home one day,' and they know I don't lie to them," Hatchett said as he left the courthouse. Hugging his family members, he said: "I lost my son in here, my mother, my brother, my aunt. I'm just holding on, and now I'm going to get back up."
Hatchett's then-lawyers were never told that prosecutors' star witness had originally identified another man as the killer. The witness falsely denied on the stand that he'd smoked crack on the day of the killing. And the fact that Hatchett had injuries that raise doubts about his ability to carry out the crime went unmentioned at trial.
"Bad judgment and errors plagued this case from beginning to end," one of his lawyers, Jim Brochin, said in a statement ahead of a court date Thursday afternoon, when Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson's office planned to ask a judge to throw out Hatchett's conviction.
"Mr. Hatchett was failed by almost every institution he came into contact with" in a case with sloppy police work, careless prosecutors and a defense that was at best perfunctory, Assistant District Attorney Mark Hale said Thursday.
Hatchett, 49, has been serving 25 years to life in the killing of Neda Mae Carter, who was strangled and beaten in the head. She was 38 and lived in a rooming house where Hatchett frequently visited his aunt, according to his lawyers.
After her killing, Hatchett cooperated with police and gave an alibi, according to his legal team, which also includes the Innocence Project.
But a week later, a man named Gerald "Jerry" Williams was arrested in an unrelated burglary and told police he'd seen the killing in the park. Williams said he and a friend had been about 35 feet away when they heard a woman scream and saw a man standing over someone on the ground, and the man hollered at them to go away.
Williams pointed to a suspect - who wasn't Hatchett. But the man Williams identified had an alibi and was eliminated as a suspect, prosecutors said.
Then police put Hatchett in a lineup, and Williams picked him out. So did Williams' friend, though she was unsure at first and was never called to testify, Hatchett's lawyers said.
Prosecutors at the time never told Hatchett's then-lawyers that Williams, the only eyewitness to testify, had implicated someone else and had told police he'd smoked crack the day Carter was killed - information that cast his reliability into question and should have been disclosed, Thompson's office said.
And neither side mentioned anything at Hatchett's trial about his own medical condition that day. He was on crutches, having been shot in the legs and trachea months earlier, injuries that would have made it difficult for him to drag Carter's body and shout at the witnesses.
Hatchett's first trial ended in a mistrial after the judge found the defense lawyer had been ineffective. Hatchett was retried and convicted after testifying in his defense and presenting an alibi witness.
The assistant district attorney who tried the case is no longer a prosecutor and didn't immediately return a message left Thursday at his current office. The judge and Hatchett's trial defense lawyer have died. Contact information for Williams couldn't immediately be found.
Hatchett was denied parole in November, with a parole board noting disciplinary violations.
His case was among more than 100 that Brooklyn prosecutors have been re-examining, in one of the most ambitious reviews of its kind in the country. So far, the DA's office has disavowed 19 convictions and is standing by 38 others.