Shamel Capers, 24, is a free man after spending eight years behind bars in New York for murder after being wrongfully convicted.
Capers’ murder conviction was overturned on Nov. 17 after evidence of false testimony was revealed. Despite his exoneration, Capers says he is frustrated years of his life were wasted behind bars.
Capers’ life changed on May 18, 2013, when D’Aja Robinson, 14, was leaving a friend’s birthday party. Robinson was killed after a fusillade of 10 bullets was fired into a city bus where she had been sitting. Kevin McClinton, Capers’ co-defendant, fired the gunshots, according to police, but Capers still paid with years of his life for the shooting.
McClinton was convicted of second-degree murder for the shooting; however, because Capers was at the scene of the shooting, he was accused of also pulling the trigger. The discovery of a false witness testimony led to Capers’ charges being dropped.
“The whole case was built around one cooperating witness, who claimed, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that there were two shooters and Shamel was one of those two shooters,” said Winston Paes, Capers’ attorney. “There was no evidence. It’s not like there was ballistic analysis, not fingerprints. There was nothing connecting Shamel to this shooting other than his presence at the scene,” Paes continued.
Capers says he and McClinton were acquaintances because their parents were friends. The two would occasionally spend time together as teenagers.
Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz said in a Nov. 17 statement McClinton was a gang member and was arrested for Robinson’s murder. His arrest came after eyewitness Terrence Payne told police and prosecutors at the time he witnessed McClinton fire all 10 shots into the bus.
A year later, in 2014, Capers was arrested based on a different eyewitness account from a second gang member, Lael Jappa. In exchange for a significant sentence reduction on unrelated felony charges, Jappa agreed to testify at Capers’ trial. During Jappa’s witness testimony in 2017, he claimed he saw Capers fire first into the bus, and McClinton then took the gun away from Capers and continued firing. Capers was convicted in June 2017 largely based on Jappa’s eyewitness account, which turned out to be false. McClinton had been convicted in a separate trial the previous September.
Capers says since being arrested and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison, he has always maintained his innocence.
“My day-to-day, most of the time, was really troubling. I try to do different things, I tried to exercise, I tried to call my family, but nothing was able to help put my mind at ease,” Capers said of his time in prison.
Capers caught his lucky break when he connected with his attorney, Winston Paes, to help with an appeal. As Paes worked on the appeal, he tapped into the Queens’ District Attorney Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU). Established on Jan. 1, 2020, the unit was created by Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz. In a news release, the unit’s purpose is described as “to make sure that no one has been wrongfully convicted of a crime in Queens County.”
Paes asked the CIU to reexamine the evidence in Capers’ case. Paes has long felt “the evidence was just not there.”
Paes says the prosecution’s overreliance on a single witness testimony that was not only false but coerced by prosecutors was pivotal in proving Caper’s innocence. Jappa later recanted his testimony.
“The pressure tactics applied on that witness were corroborated. His allegations of pressure, contemporaneous jail calls he was having with his family members, at that time where he was saying, they’re telling me to lie, lie, lie on these calls. The CIU, by the way, are the ones who found those calls and corroborated them,” Paes said. The attorney deemed the phone calls “strong evidence he lied on the stand,” Paes said.
Paes also accused prosecutors involved in Capers’ conviction of a Brady violation, which happens when discovered exculpatory evidence is not shared with all parties involved in the legal case. In Capers’ case, the evidence was the witness testimony prosecutors knew was untrue.
Now a free man, Capers has a message to the prosecutors who cost him eight years of his life based on a lie.
“You all are here to practice the law and to do right by justice, not to do the wrong things and make the wrong decisions and put the wrong people in jail,” Capers said. “Think about all that time and how my mother feels and my family feel after all that time has been missed because of the mistake that they made,” he continued.
Paes says no wrongful conviction lawsuits have been filed at this time.
Capers says going forward, he is turning his attention to his family and hopes to forge a bond with his now 8-year-old daughter.
“I’m still trying to adjust to the fact that it’s a blessing for her to even know me,” Capers said of fatherhood.
Capers also wants to use this experience to write a book titled “Wrong Place, Wrong Time” to inspire young people to be careful who they are with at all times.
“That one place you could be at the wrong time could just cost you everything, and your life can be taken away from you so fast,” Capers said.
Robinson’s murder led to the corner of Sutphin and Rockaway boulevards named after her. Robinson’s grandmother, Cheryl Sands, told the New York Daily News, “we are disgusted with the whole thing… it’s reopening an old wound,” after learning Capers was cleared of her granddaughter’s murder.