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NJ judge orders search for evidence in '85 rape

The Associated Press State & Local Wire
By DAVID PORTER, Associated Press Writer

Newark, NJ

A Newark man imprisoned for more than two decades for a 1985 rape won a victory in court Monday when a judge ruled that state and local authorities must resume a search for missing DNA evidence that could clear him of the crime.

The ruling by state Superior Court Judge Jerome St. John also was a victory for the Innocence Project, the New York-based legal organization that is representing Steven Brooks and is dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing.

"We will take on a case if DNA testing is capable of proving innocence, and there are some aspects of his case that cry out that this man is innocent," attorney Vanessa Potkin said.

St. John's ruling will require the state police crime lab to list which specific pieces of evidence it returned to the East Orange Police Department after Brooks' 1987 conviction including, possibly, a rape kit and semen-stained pieces of clothing or bedding that weren't used at trial, according to attorneys for both sides.

What happened to the evidence is an enduring mystery.

Brooks' motion to have the evidence tested for DNA was denied in 1989 because the materials couldn't be found, yet nearly a decade later some of them turned up as part of a shipment of evidence from hundreds of cases returned by the state crime lab to East Orange, which conducted the initial investigation.

Potkin said East Orange police told her the evidence probably was destroyed in 2004 when a pipe burst and flooded the department's evidence room, and that they have searched since then unsuccessfully. Monday's ruling will require them to conduct a more formal search.

"What's tragic is that there was evidence in this case whose location could have been readily ascertained," Potkin said.
Through a spokesman, East Orange Police Chief Ronald Borgo declined to comment until he saw the judge's ruling.

The Essex County Prosecutor's Office opposed a new search and rejected claims by the Innocence Project that some of the evidence might be housed in one of the county's records rooms.
"To go forward with another search is an exercise in futility," Essex County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Robert Laurino told the judge. "It's extremely time consuming and costly."

Brooks was convicted largely on the testimony of the victim, who said she saw her attacker's face briefly reflected in a mirror before he covered her eyes, according to Potkin. She was able to describe him as wearing a red or maroon sweat shirt and white sneakers.

Police found Brooks standing at a bus stop not far from the woman's home wearing a maroon sweat shirt with the number 77 on it a detail not described by the victim and gray loafers, Potkin said. She later identified him as the attacker.

According to the Innocence Project, more than 240 people nationwide have been exonerated using DNA evidence.

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