After spending 19 years locked up for a Brooklyn murder he didn’t commit, Emel McDowell was given a devil’s bargain of a sort — if he pleads guilty to a lesser crime, he can get out of prison.
McDowell. 50, knew he was innocent of the 1990 crime, but he took the deal — and kept on fighting to clear his name.
That fight ultimately took 33 years, ending Thursday when a judge agreed to vacate his conviction after an investigation by Brooklyn D.A. Eric Gonzalez’s Conviction Review Unit. The Daily News first reported on the D.A.’s investigation.
“I’m going to exhale. I mean, it’s been a long journey,” McDowell told reporters Thursday morning. “Even once you’re out, that cloud is always over your head. And you know, I’ve accomplished a lot while I’ve been out, but there’s been a lot of obstacles and there’s still a lot that I wasn’t able to accomplish.”
McDowell was convicted at trial in 1992 after a slipshod police investigation into the Oct. 27, 1990 murder of Jonathan Powell, and the decision to take a plea came right before a 2009 hearing on whether to vacate the conviction.
“It was Dec. 16, 2009, and my birthday was Dec. 19. So it was an opportunity to get home with my family for Christmas after spending 19 years and two months in prison for something I didn’t do,” McDowell said.
McDowell had a letter, written in 1991, from the actual murderer, all but claiming responsibility for the slaying, and sworn affidavits from several witnesses, but he wasn’t sure what the prosecutors at the time might present — so he opted for freedom.
“That was kind of what helped me throw my hands up because I can’t keep going through — I can’t commit my life to fighting the same case. If the goalpost keeps moving,” he told reporters.
McDowell pleaded guilty to manslaughter, telling a judge he took part in the crime and carried a gun, but didn’t shoot the victim.
Police took less than 24 hours to investigate the shooting, which happened during a chaotic fight at a Bedford-Stuyvesant house party.
McDowell, then identified his friend — named in court Thursday as Baron Blount — as the shooter from the start. Witnesses gave conflicting accounts of who the shooter was, but police quickly settled on McDowell after two partygoers IDed him in a line-up.
Detectives briefly interviewed Blount, who denied being involved, but they never followed up on McDowell’s statement implicating him, never re-interviewed Blount, and never presented Blount to witnesses in a photo array or a lineup, Assistant D.A. Rachel Kalman said Thursday.
Even with the trial looming, McDowell never thought he’d be found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit.
“As a young man, I believed that the criminal justice system had a way of sorting things out. So when I went to trial in 1992, I clearly believed that this would work… you know, I’m not going to be convicted because I didn’t do it,” he said. “That just wasn’t the case.”
McDowell praised Gonzalez for taking another look at the case — even though he had taken a guilty plea and was released from prison.
That investigation revealed that Blount’s letter was the real deal. “I don’t think I deserve to walk the face of the earth because one of my best friends is locked up, for something that he didn’t do,” he wrote McDowell in 1991.
“No one ever showed this letter to the prosecutor or the court,” Kalman told Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Matthew D’Emic, who vacated the conviction and dismissed the initial indictment against McDowell.
In 2022, Blount confessed to the shooting, saying he fired in self-defense, according to prosecutors.
“Significantly, Blount described how he acted alone,” Kalman said.
Blount declined comment on Thursday.
Outside the courtroom, Gonzalez joined McDowell speaking to reporters.
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“The obligation to get to the truth is ongoing. It’s continuing. And in your case, it was there from the very beginning. What diligence and hard work, we could have gotten to the truth earlier,” he said. “I’m sorry it took us as long as it took us to get to this place.”
The Brooklyn D.A.’s Conviction Review Unit has vacated the wrongful conviction of 35 people, including McDowell, since 2014.
McDowell’s lawyer, Oscar Michelen, said the case shows innocent people often take plea deals to avoid prison time. “Cases where people (pleaded) have to be examined when there’s evidence of innocence,” he told the judge.
He also called for more funding for public defender services and legal representation for the indigent.
“Had there been sufficient resources for investigation, proper attorney’s work at the time of Mr. McDowell’s arrest,, the evidence was there to be found. And it took us a long time to get there, because it wasn’t done initially.”
McDowell got a job with a white-collar criminal defense firm after his release, but he still had to overcome the stigma of his conviction when applying for the job, he said.
“I’m going to continue on in the legal field,” he said. “It’s probably going to, short-term, include law school and actually doing some of the advocacy work for other individuals…. I don’t think that it’s a prestige thing. I think it’s something that I’m driven to and it’s something that I need to do.”
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