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The Journal Gazette

Monday, October 28, 2013 4:40 pm

Conviction tossed for NJ man in bite-mark case

By DAVID PORTERAssociated Press

A New Jersey man imprisoned for nearly two decades for a murder he insisted he didn't commit moved a step closer to freedom Monday when a judge overturned his conviction and ordered him released on bail, prompting an emotional scene in a courtroom filled with family and supporters.

Court officers removed Gerard Richardson's shackles for the brief hearing and, when it concluded, allowed his mother, Annie, to step inside the gate. The two shared a tear-filled hug.

"I asked him when he would be home and he said a few more days," she said. "He said, `I'll be home soon.' It feels great."

Richardson was to be transferred from state prison to the Somerset county jail and was expected to be released on $5,000 bail later this week. Though it didn't oppose the overturning of the conviction, the Somerset county prosecutor's office has not dismissed the charges against Richardson, and state Superior Court Judge Julie Marino gave prosecutors until Dec. 17 to decide whether to retry him.

"There's been a lot of Christmases missed, a lot of Thanksgivings missed, a lot of birthdays missed," Richardson's brother, Kevin, said. "We have a lot to make up. We are looking forward to having a big dinner, sitting down together and laughing and joking."

The 48-year-old Richardson was convicted in 1995 of the murder of 19-year-old Monica Reyes, whose body was found in a ditch in Bernards Township in north-central New Jersey in 1994. The chief physical evidence against Richardson was a bite mark on Reyes' back that a prosecution expert testified was made by Richardson. Prosecutors also contended Richardson had threatened Reyes over a $90 drug debt.

After years of appeals, a recent court-ordered DNA test requested by the Innocence Project - using more advanced testing methods than were available in the 1990s - revealed that the mark contained the DNA of a different man and ruled out Richardson.

"It's always been clear that the person who bit the victim is the person who killed her," Innocence Project lawyer Vanessa Potkin said after Monday's hearing. "The state now has the genetic profile of the person who did this, and hopefully they can identify the perpetrator."

Bite-mark evidence has been criticized by defense attorneys as unreliable and an example of "junk science." A 2013 analysis by The Associated Press found that at least two dozen men charged with or convicted of rape or murder based on bite-mark evidence since 2000 had been exonerated, including some who had spent more than 10 years in prison. Proponents of the method say it's been used to convict violent criminals such as serial killer Ted Bundy.

Barry Scheck, who co-founded the Innocence Project in the 1990s, said Monday his organization would seek to take a closer look at other cases in New Jersey in which bite-mark evidence played a prominent role in prosecutions.

Before overturning the conviction, Marino noted how long the case has spent under appeal and pushed for a resolution.

"This has got to be agonizing for the defendant's family and agonizing for the victim's family," she said. "We need to start pushing forward for the truth, whatever that may be."

Richardson wouldn't have been eligible for parole until May 2025 on his state prison term, according to the state Department of Corrections' online database.