Celebrating Five Years of Freedom

The clouds parted just in time for Antonio Yarbough to enjoy a piece of cheesecake on a Manhattan rooftop last Thursday. He was celebrating five years since he walked out of a Brooklyn courtroom a free man. But he still does not know who killed his family.

IMG_3241-225x300EVWSG4FLI66A4VDF6ZCFQUHW2M-200x300Friends, relatives, reporters, and not-a-few lawyers gathered to honor Tony and help him celebrate his exoneration, just as we celebrated on a Manhattan rooftop in June 2014. Tony’s wrongful conviction for the slaughter of his family — which was actually committed by an unknown man who raped and murdered a fourth person seven years later — was one of the most appalling episodes of the reign of Charles Hynes as Brooklyn District Attorney. Hynes was defeated by Ken Thompson in 2013. Thompson agreed Antonio should be released after just five weeks on the job.

Antonio has spent the last five years recovering from what the state did to him. He has reconnected with his extended family and old friends. He has made new friends. He has worked at a hotel. He now donates his time to the Alliance of Families for Justice, where he sits on the board (alongside actor Danny Glover) and provides support for families affected by the criminal justice system. Antonio has touched countless lives with his quiet grace and heroic resilience. As he said on Piers Morgan the day after his release, he has no time for bitterness.

Tony’s generous heart was on display on Thursday when he thanked Irene Elliott, his trial lawyer who later swore under oath that she was not qualified or prepared to handle the two triple-homicide trials where she represented him. But Irene always believed in him and never gave up on him. Tony welcomed her with open arms.

The first journalist to understand the case, the Daily News’s Denis Hamill, was also there. Despite five years of litigation, Denis was the only writer interested before Antonio was exonerated on February 6, 2014. Only later did it become a national story that Brooklyn police had framed two teenagers for a triple homicide, allowing the real killer to go on and kill again seven years later.

Our office took on Antonio’s case at the end of 2008, when his Attica bunkmate, Eric Barden, was released and brought me his dog-eared trial transcripts. Eric also had a piece of cheesecake from Junior’s on Thursday night.

Numerous interns and paralegals took the case and ran with it, contributing to the exoneration. Tony was thrilled to see Martha Lineberger on the rooftop: she was a law student when she worked on the case and put together the timeline showing that he had an alibi at the time of the actual killing, which was distorted at trial by prosecutors. Martha is now a staff attorney at the Legal Aid society.

Another former intern who discovered important evidence in the case is now an assistant district attorney in Manhattan.

Also present on Thursday was Phillip Smallman, who pressed Tony’s case with me in Brooklyn Supreme Court and with the district attorney’s office after our initial rounds of motion papers were rejected by Judge Raymond Guzman. Tireless advocacy by Phil forced the New York City medical examiner’s office to find and test the DNA sample from under Tony’s mother’s fingernails. That DNA matched the DNA in semen found inside the body of a woman named Migdalia Ruiz, who was found dead in a stairwell in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, in 1999. The m.o. of the Ruiz murder — she was strangled and stabbed — was eerily similar to the murders of Tony’s family, which took place in Coney Island in 1992.

But the DNA has never been identified to a particular person. The person who killed —

  • Tony’s mother, Annie Yarbough,
  • his sister Chavonn Barnes, who was twelve,
  • Chavonn’s twelve-year-old friend, Latasha Knox, and
  • Migdalia Ruiz

is still either on the loose or dead. New techniques developed since Antonio’s exoneration such as forensic use of genetic genealogy could lead to the killer. But the investigation is stalled: the supervisor of the detectives in Coney Island who framed Tony and his co-defendant Sharrif Wilson now oversees all investigative units in the New York City Police Department. We hope that with the new techniques available, the investigation will get a boost and the real murderer of these four people can be brought to justice.


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