NEW YORK — Cleared of the murder that had put him behind bars for almost 30 years, David McCallum sobbed and thought of the man who wasn’t there with him.
Co-defendant Willie Stuckey’s conviction also had just been thrown out after Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson concluded the two confessed falsely as teenagers to kidnapping and killing a stranger and taking a joyride in his car. But Stuckey wasn’t in court to be freed. He died in prison in 2001.
“After 29 years, it’s a bittersweet moment because I’m walking out alone,” McCallum, 45, said as he left court to hugs from relatives and applause from supporters. But, he said, “freedom feels great.”
It came after a review by a DA who made wrongful convictions a campaign issue last year, and after McCallum’s cause was championed by former boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Carter became an international symbol of injustice when his triple murder conviction was vacated in 1985.
McCallum and Stuckey quickly recanted their confessions in the October 1985 killing, but they were found guilty and lost appeals.
Thompson’s predecessor reviewed the convictions and decided to stand by them last year, but Thompson said the convictions hinged on untrue confessions, made by 16-year-olds, rife with inaccuracies and peppered with details seemingly supplied by police.
“We have determined that there’s not a single piece of evidence that linked David McCallum or William Stuckey to the abduction of Nathan Blenner” or his death, Thompson said.
Prosecutors now believe a witness who testified that Stuckey had a gun around the time of the shooting gave “false and misleading” information, and the only other evidence against them were admissions that “were the product of improper suggestion, improper inducement and, perhaps, coercion,” Assistant District Attorney Mark Hale said.
The Police Department had no immediate response. The lead detective who took the confessions has died.
The news dismayed Blenner’s relatives.
“We were led to believe, for 29 years, that they’re the killers. They confessed,” said his sister, Dr. Deborah Blenner, adding that the family found it troubling that a review by the DA’s staffers and an advisory panel of outside lawyers could upend a jury verdict that appeals courts upheld.
The ailing Carter worked on McCallum’s bid for exoneration for a decade after getting a letter from him.
“My aim in helping this fine man is to pay it forward, to give the help that I received as a wrongly convicted man to another who needs such help now,” Carter wrote in the Daily News in February, two months before he died of prostate cancer. McCallum also was the subject of a recent documentary, David & Me.
Blenner was found shot in a park, his wallet gone, in Brooklyn. Witnesses told police two men had pushed Blenner into his Buick Regal outside his Queens home and driven away. The car was found, torched, a few days later in Brooklyn.
McCallum and Stuckey gave confessions naming each other as the gunman. But their statements didn’t hold up, Thompson said.
Stuckey described commenting on a woman’s car in Blenner’s neighborhood shortly before the kidnapping, a remark she reported hearing as two men eyeballed her car. But the woman’s description of the men didn’t match Stuckey and McCallum.
Stuckey described three shots, a number a witness had mentioned, but authorities concluded there was one shot, Thompson said. The teens said the shooting happened at nightfall, when medical examiners determined Blenner died around 3:15 p.m. And the statements described an hours-long drive by two teenagers whom no one had ever seen drive at all, the DA noted.
Recent DNA tests and fingerprint analyses from the stolen car matched other people, fueling questions about the case, said one of McCallum’s lawyers, Oscar Michelen. No one else has been charged.
Stuckey’s mother, Rosia Nealy, came to court in his stead, patting McCallum on the back as he wept upon hearing a judge say the convictions were released. She declined to comment as she left court.
McCallum said he hopes to speak out about the problem of wrongful convictions.
After spending nearly two-thirds of his life in prison, “I think I’m mature enough to understand that I can’t get that back,” he said. “I think my life kind of starts from this point on.”
By Jennifer Peltz. AP Press researcher Susan James and AP Radio correspondent Warren Levinson contributed to this report