A Princeton resident who was released from prison last year after serving nearly four decades for a crime he says he did not commit may be losing his freedom again.
David Bryant, 57, served 38 years in prison for the rape and murder of an 8-year-old Bronx girl and was freed from prison last year after a judge ruled that his public defender at the time had provided a poor defense.
With the help of Centurion Ministries and a local church, Bryant has slowly been building a life for himself in Princeton, working on the grounds crew at Princeton Theological Seminary for the last year.
But the district attorney’s office in New York appealed the judge’s ruling, and on June 19, the Appellate Division overturned the decision. Prosecutors plan tomorrow to demand that Bronx Supreme Court Justice Seth Marvin reinstate Bryant’s conviction for the 1975 killing of Karen Smith. Bryant, who has consistently maintained his innocence over the decades, cried as he discussed his case on the back porch of his home in Princeton this morning.
“This is tearing me up inside,” Bryant said of the possibility of returning to prison. “You have to hope for the best but expect the worst. I don’t even want to think about it.”
Bryant pointed to the Central Park Five when discussing the state’s unwillingness to admit wrongdoing. The teenagers in that case were tricked into providing confessions by investigators who interrogated them for hours. Convicted rapist and murderer Matias Reyes, serving a life sentence for other crimes, declared in 2002 that he had committed the assault when he was 17, and that he had acted alone. DNA evidence confirmed his participation in the crime and identified him as the sole contributor of the semen found on the victim, Trisha Meili.
“Even after someone else confessed in their case, the state did not want to admit wrongdoing,” Bryant said. “I’m in line right behind the Central Park Five.”
In Bryant’s case, police found a semen stain on victim Karen Smith’s clothes with type O blood; Bryant has type B blood. Bryant’s public defender never had his blood type tested and compared to the sample. Judge Marvin ruled last year that the lawyer’s failure to have Bryant’s blood type determined or consult with a serologist was the result of neglect and ignorance.
But the Appellate Court ruled that Bryant received effective assistance of counsel under state and federal constitutional standards.
“Although there was a lack of physical evidence connecting defendant to the crime, his guilt was established on the basis of his voluntary statements to the police, the testimony of several witnesses placing him near the scene of the crime, and evidence indicating consciousness of guilt,” reads the court’s ruling. “Since defendant’s 80-year-old trial counsel testified that he had no memory of representing defendant at his trial in 1976, his inability to recall his reasons for not consulting a serologist or having defendant’s blood type tested did not establish that such actions were not rooted in strategic considerations.”
Back in 1975, Bryant , then 18, was arrested within a day after the body of Smith was found in the stairwell of a housing project. She had been beaten, raped, sodomized, and stabbed 11 times. Bryant said a confession was coerced from him by police after 12 hours of interrogation that included physical abuse. He was convicted and spent the next 38 years in Marcy prison in upstate New York.
He tried in vain to find someone to champion his cause, but then he learned about Centurion Ministries. Centurion’s sole mission is to free the innocent from prison.
“For years, no one heard me,” Bryant said. “But I couldn’t give up. Then in 2002 I learned about Centurion Ministries and contacted them on a hope and a prayer. Without them, I’d die in prison.”
Centurion worked on the case and dug up the fact that Bryant’s blood type did not match the semen sample.
“They found the evidence that I didn’t do it, in black and white,” Bryant said.
Prosecutors have claimed that the victim’s blood type was O and perhaps the eight-year-old’s vaginal secretions could have mixed with the semen, masking the blood type — a highly unlikely scenario.
The semen sample can’t be tested for DNA, because the state allegedly is unable to located the sample. All that remains is court testimony and an autopsy report that outlined the evidence related to the blood testing.
Last week, Bryant’s lawyer, Paul Casteleiro, filed an application to appeal the latest ruling. Tomorrow the judge could still send Bryant back to prison until the appeal is decided on.
Bryant was sentenced to 25 years to life. Some have questioned why he was never paroled. Bryant went before a parole board seven times, and each time he was rejected.
“A prisoner has to admit guilt and show remorse to be considered for parole,” Bryant said. “I’m not going to admit to something I did not do.”
“When your mother accuses you of stealing cookies and you know it was not you, you are going to defend your honor, even if it means getting a whipping for not admitting you did it, ” he said. “Later your mother might discover that it was really your brother who did it. At least she would admit her mistake, and you would say `see, I told you it wasn’t me’. ”
Asked what has kept him going all these years in prison and now, as he faces the possibility of going back, Bryant said he has clung to his faith in God.
“God protected me from a lot of bad situations all these years,” he said. “That has kept me going along with knowing the truth — that I didn’t do it.”