Fair Trial or Foul Play?
Sixteen years later, a man maintains his innocence.
It is a sad event when a little girl has to postpone her 10th birthday party and an even sadder one if it is because she is recovering from a motorbike accident. So when your little sister, fresh out of the intensive care unit, calls you up and asks if you would stay home from work to attend her belated tenth birthday party, you oblige. At least, that is what 19-year-old J’veil Outing did. On June 23, 2005, Outing left his Stop & Shop uniform in his closet. He would be performing different work duties that day — those of an older brother setting up for his little sister’s birthday party later that evening. None of his family, friends and neighbors who attended the event were prepared for the tragedy that lay ahead. Later that evening, 21-year-old Kevin Wright — a brother, son and resident of the nearby Dixwell neighborhood — would be shot dead, and the police would accuse J’veil Outing of the murder.
The sharp bang of the judge’s gavel at the New Haven County Courthouse almost a year later, on the afternoon of March 29, 2006, signified two things: that the jury at the murder trial, after a seven-day deliberation and two-day deadlock, had unanimously come to a verdict and that 19-year-old J’veil Outing would be sentenced to 50 years in prison for the murder of Kevin Wright. Outing maintained his innocence throughout the trial. He had a 6-month-old son at home and no prior criminal record nor any forensic evidence tying him to the murder, but Outing was determined a killer — even though the case had hinged solely on eyewitness testimony, and both witnesses had recanted their testimony on the stand.
Sixteen years later, J’veil Outing remains in prison and still maintains his innocence. The legal machinery of the State of Connecticut, however, rests unconvinced. After his conviction in 2006, he filed an appeal to the Connecticut supreme court in 2008 — which was denied — and a habeas corpus petition claiming wrongful imprisonment in 2016 — also denied. When Outing filed an appeal to the habeas corpus decision, it was denied again. The case has garnered attention on the internet; he has set up a handful of social media pages and change.org petitions calling for justice. His case was picked up by the New England Innocence Project — a regional organization that puts its resources towards combating wrongful convictions — and the court’s handling of the eyewitness testimonies incited debate and backlash in the legal world.
Outing is on his fourth lawyer now. He is still fighting his conviction, whatever it takes.
In order to unearth more of Outing’s story, I consulted all of the public reports and case files available, and I talked to Outing’s family and legal representatives. I was able to reconstruct the scenes below by combing through the entirety of the court transcripts for Outing’s proceedings, which, when read against each other, help answer the question of how Outing got from a ten-year-old’s birthday party to sixteen years behind bars.
The New Haven Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
After eating cake, ice-cream and fried chicken in the warm summer sunshine, Outing and his friends at the party heard that a fight was taking place a block away from their house on Harding Place. Not ones to miss out on the excitement, Outing and a number of other party attendees ran down to the corner to check it out. The group included Natasha Outing, Outing’s older sister; Nakia Black-Geter, Natasha’s friend; and Antjuan Martin and Erick Williams, both cousins of the Outings. As others swarmed on foot, Williams saw Outing grab his baja mountain bike and bob along.
The events that followed were chronicled by the New Haven Police Department during the trial and summarized in the court’s statement of the facts. The fight broke out between two groups of girls from different parts of the Ville neighborhood in New Haven. According to trial transcripts, police recorded the fight at 7:10 p.m. The conflict stalled as police cars made an initial round, and then picked back up when more girls arrived with reinforcements — this time in a truck, with bats, chains and sticks. Police received a second call about the fight at 7:23 p.m. According to Antjuan Martin, the girls were yelling and some were tussling. The crowd swelled and contracted as more onlookers from the neighborhood drifted in and out. A little after the fight died down for good and Outing and some friends had retreated to their porches, Evrett Alexander, another cousin of Outing’s, ripped through the street on a scooter with a chocolate-brown police car in swift pursuit. Police record the scooter chase at 7:57 p.m. Cousin Erick Williams saw the police car almost hit Outing’s mother, Angelina Outing, as it sped down the block, and so Outing and the others began chasing the police car for a couple of feet. Somewhere in the chaos, Erick Williams received a disturbing call from his mother: Kevin Wright, a relative from his other side, had been shot dead about a mile away on Canal Street. Police recorded the murder at 6:55 p.m.
In the hours after the shooting on June 23, 2005, Kevin Wright, found on Canal Street with a gunshot wound to his chest, was pronounced dead at Yale New Haven Hospital. Back at Canal Street, the New Haven Police began investigating. New Haven Police Officer David Falcigno carefully cordoned off the area in reflective yellow tape and dotted the scene in forest-green cones, each with a bold black number, to mark the evidence. A cone by the abandoned chrome bike in the middle of the street, keeled over on its side. A cone by the four golden shell casings next to it, strewn like cigarette butts over the tarmac. A cone by a red mountain bike at the intersection of Canal and Gregory, with a sliver of denim caught in its spokes. A cone by the crimson puddle of blood.
The 9-1-1 call had come from 21-year-old Nadine Crimley. NHPD Detective Stephen Coppola brought her down to the station later that evening for an interview. She was nervous, and like Outing, a new parent to a baby boy. In the interview room, Coppola began the recording. The recording, which was obtained by the News, crackled briefly as Coppola noted the time, “10:12 p.m.,” and Crimley began. She was ambling down Canal Street with her 11-month-old son in a stroller, a few feet away from where she lived. As she was approaching the house, she saw two Black men riding past her on bicycles. The first guy was maybe about 5’5” or 5’6”, slightly taller than her and was wearing a white “wife-beater,” blue jeans and a black Yankee hat. He was on a chromish bike. She had never seen him before in her life. The second man was darker skinned and had on a white T-shirt and loose shorts. The first man “just stops, turns around and starts shooting,” she told the detective.
“He’s shooting at who?” Coppola inquired. “Kevin,” Crimley confirmed. She said that the shooter looked at her when he was shooting. She saw Kevin get shot and fall to the ground. The second man on the bike kept going. Crimley, just 10 feet away from the shooting, “picked up [her] baby and ran him into the house.”
(Yale Daily News)
Four days later, Coppola and his partner, detective Al Vasquez, paid a visit to Crimley’s home, along with two other NHPD officers. They had also identified her brother, 19-year-old Ray Caple, as a potential witness and wanted to get both siblings’ statements of what they saw. Crimley was to be interviewed for the second time, but on that afternoon, Caple was first. According to Vasquez’s later testimony, Caple was “reluctant” to leave his house to talk to the police and had to be persuaded by his mom. Despite numerous attempts to contact them through social media and mutual connections, I was unable to get a hold of the two eyewitnesses on the case. However, even as they eluded my outreach efforts, their words in these police recordings, as well as court transcripts and original eyewitness testimonies, endure and provide captivating context to the story.
In between the shooting and the following interviews, the police had created a photo array that included the picture of their prime suspect, J’veil Outing, along with seven other photographs of similar looking boys. The photo array was a yearbook of sorts, pictures of eight Black boys, all in a suit and tie and sporting a low-cut trim, all from the Hillhouse Highschool catalog. It would be later revealed in Outing’s murder trial that, before making their statements on this day, both Caple and Crimley had unrecorded “pre-conversations” with Coppola and Vasquez. These “pre-conversations” are a common practice in the NHPD, Vasquez would later say in the trial, and he would describe them as a harmless way to “just hear what they have to say,”— Outing’s attorney would describe them as a “dress rehearsal.” After the pre-conversations, each was shown the photo array, and each picked Outing. The second set of recorded interviews, which were eventually played by the prosecution at Outing’s trial, document what happened next.
When Caple’s voice carries through the static, he is on edge. He begins. He saw the shooter biking up the street from his porch and immediately identifies him as “Outing” for the police. He is asked to repeat, and emphasizes “Outing, number seven.” He picks up where he left off. Kevin Wright — “Kev” — was hanging out at his house, and he did not know that Kev had gone outside. When Caple heard the first gunshot he was looking for his daughter. He did not go out onto the street, but instead, went to the corner of his porch to protect himself.
“Could you see up Canal Street?” Coppola interrupts. “Slightly,” Caple responds. He saw his sister Crimley, and the baby in the carriage, and heard the bike drop. He heard his sister yelling “he hit, he hit, he hit.” Three more shots went off, and he saw the sparks. He went back to the corner, then he heard “like six more shots.” He estimated that between eight to ten shots were fired in total. After the shots went off, he rushed to Kev and “[the shooter] ran away.” Caple scooped up his dying friend in his arms, and told him, “Kev, please don’t die on me.” He spells it out for his interviewers: “I was begging him.”
Nadine Crimley is brought in after her brother, but her second interview is brief. She is asked about the photo-identification she just made, and points to “number 4,” — Outing, in this new array — as “the shooter.” Coppola notes the beginning time as “1:30 p.m.” and wraps up by saying “1:26 p.m., statement now complete.” It was over before it even began.
The statements given by the siblings were not entirely consistent. Crimley recalled that the shooter wore a black Yankees hat, but when asked about the appearance in his interview, Caple said that the shooter was wearing no hat and had a “low hair-cut.” Crimley said the shooter was wearing a sleeveless “wife-beater”; Caple said the shooter was wearing jeans and a sleeved t-shirt. Crimley recalled another person accompanying the shooter on the bike, whereas Caple remembered the shooter being alone. Caple confirmed that Outing is the shooter and that he has known him for “about three and a half years” because they went to school together; his sister first denied any knowledge of the shooter, yet admitted to recognizing him in the second interview, after the photo identification, “just from being in the neighborhood.” She was never questioned on the identity of the second man. Detective Coppola, who interviewed both Caple and Crimley, fudged the victim’s name repeatedly in Caple’s interview, misidentifying him as “Kevin Williams” instead of “Kevin Wright” twice. Despite knowing the victim well, Caple does not point out the mistake.
In February 2005, a month before J’veil Outing was slated to go on trial for murder, both witnesses recanted their testimony to the police. Crimley and Caple both held that they were coerced by the police to give their statements. In light of this, Outing’s attorney, Auden Grogins, filed a motion to suppress the statements before they went to trial, and both siblings were called to the suppression hearing to testify to their experience.
Caple testified at the suppression hearing that he did not actually witness the shooting at all and was threatened and coerced to make a statement by the police. Even from just the text in the hearing transcript, his agitation is clear. “I was forced,” he said. “They told my mother it wasn’t going to be done. I was forced. When they came, they told my mother one thing. We got there, they was yelling at me. They tried to give me cigarettes and stuff so I would say stuff. I told them I didn’t know nothing. They forced me.”
Caple said that Coppola was the main aggressor. “He said he was going to put me in jail. He said he got some boys downstairs, he’s going to bring them upstairs … He told me I got to do something or I aint going home … they threaten me in a whole bunch of different ways … He just got in my face … yelling at me, like spit, little spit balls coming out of his mouth … He was saying mad stuff … what he told me was that he went eleven for eleven, he is going to go twelve for twelve.” According to Caple, the Detectives were focusing on a few pictures from the line up — “Number 2, Number 4, Number 7 and Number 5 — and mentioned a couple of their names to him including J’veil Outing’s. “That was one name, because they was telling me he got shot … that is how I know he been shot in the foot before.”
On her part, Nadine Crimley testified that during the police interview, she was receiving pressure from the police officers to make an identification, despite the fact that she did not actually get a good look at the shooter. When she was making the photo-identification, “it [was] like they just kept focusing on that one picture,” she said. They did not point at it explicitly, “[but] they were like is that the one? That’s the one, huh?” Vasquez would later testify that “she was very nervous … hesitant to sign the photo board” and even “started crying.” Crimley also testified that she recognized a lot of the people in the photo array from her brother’s yearbook, but not Outing.
Both siblings deny that J’veil Outing, who was sitting across from them as they took the stand, was the shooter. While they both felt generally fearful to be involved in the identification of a shooter who potentially had gang affiliations, they said, both confirmed that they hadn’t received any threats from Outing. Caple was especially insistent that he did not know much, and did not want to have anything to do with the trial. “[State’s Attorney Baran] kept telling me I have to do it,” he pleaded. “I told her I don’t want to do it. I want to go home … it wasn’t right. It wasn’t nothing right. I told them. I told her that.”
With no physical evidence tying Outing to the crime, the state had been relying heavily on witness testimony to get their conviction. But with these sudden recantations, what had felt like an open and shut case was becoming far more complicated and quickly falling apart.
However, in the State of Connecticut, a special case allows prosecutors to use their witnesses’ original testimony, even if the witnesses recant. Shortly after midnight on Feb. 24, 1980, a man named John Matulionis was fatally stabbed in the bathroom of a Bridgeport bar following a physical fight. By the time of the murder trial in 1986, the state was sure that it had nailed its prime suspect, defendant Joseph Whelan. After presenting other evidence that tied Whelan to the place and time, the state’s attorneys called Louis Garassino, a bar patron who had signed a witness statement, to the stand, to prove that Whelan was indeed the aggressor. But, when Garassino took the stand, he claimed that he suddenly could not remember anything. He was drunk at the time of the fight, and a recent car accident had deteriorated his memory. Although he acknowledged that he had made and signed the previous statement, he “did not know” whether the statement refreshed his memory. The prosecution was running out of time— their eight-ball witness was drawing a blank, even though the details Garassino provided in his first statement were crucial to securing a conviction.
Usually, courts do not permit hearsay. That is, you cannot say during a trial that “so-and-so said this out of court and I swear it’s true.” The basic idea is that it would be impossible for the other side to cross-examine this testimony. What happened next at the Whelan trial changed the trajectory of criminal trials in Connecticut forever. The prosecution introduced Garassino’s out-of-court statement — the signed one alleging Whelan was the aggressor — into the trial, and the judge allowed it. Whelan was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison. When Whelan pushed back on the move in an appeal, the courts affirmed that “a prior inconsistent statement may be used at trial” if the statement was signed by a witness that has personal knowledge of the facts, and the witness can be present at trial to be cross examined, even if their testimony in court is different. The Whelan ruling provided an exception to the hearsay rule. From then on, lawyers had an explicit avenue to introduce a witness’ previous testimony into the trial, even if the witness recanted on the stand.
In J’veil Outing’s case, the Whelan precedent allowed the prosecution to use Crimley and Caple’s original testimony in trial, given that these statements were not viewed as resulting from coercion. Coppola and Vasquez followed the siblings’ recitations at the suppression hearing and denied unequivocally that any coercion took place in the interview room. Both detectives acknowledged that the witnesses were nervous but maintained that each made the positive photo identifications without any outside influence, and, according to Coppola, in a matter of “seconds” and “without hesitation.” The detectives were not threatening anyone, they alleged, and they didn’t single Outing’s picture out. At the conclusion of the suppression hearing, Judge Licari, in outlining the court’s capacity as the “fact finder” and arbiter of the credibility of evidence, decided that no part of that tape suggested coercion, even though the hearing had also included testimony about the unrecorded “pre-conversations,” which would have taken place outside of the tape. Following this, Judge Licari maintained that the tape-recorded statements met the requirements for admissibility under the Whelan precedent and denied Outing’s motion to suppress.
So, mere weeks before the trial, it was decided. The state would plow forwards with or without the current corroboration of the witnesses. The jury would hear two versions of the story from each eye-witness’ voice and would have to decide for themselves which story would stick.
I first met Outing some 16 years later in a small, suffocating concrete box of a room at the MacDougall Correctional Institution in Suffield, Connecticut. He, his lawyer Alex Taubes and I crowd around a wooden table, below the hot, white glow of an overhead lamp. Before this meeting, I knew him only from a single phone call and the cover of his Change.org petition, “Justice for J’veil Outing.” which has so far collected 1,500 signatures of people that demand justice on behalf of Outing. He looks far more hardened on the cover of the petition than he does in this interview room. In the petition’s picture, he holds his fingers to the chin as he looks directly at the camera, unsmiling: he is pensive and fighting his conviction. In the interview room, he is softer somehow, worn out perhaps. He is in the same prison khakis — a greeny-beige against the deep brown of his skin. His head is shaved bald, close to his scalp, but his beard is a little more grown out and the tips of his mustache graze the corners of his mouth every time he grins. Black, thick-rimmed glasses frame his large eyes that flit between me and Taubes as he tells me what has happened to him. He begins with a deep breath. “I played no part in this crime at all,” he says, shaking his head. “They just straight up set me up, I don’t even know why.”
Outing is less interested in walking me step-by-step through the events of the fateful summer evening in 2005 as he is in pointing out what he sees as unbelievable injustices in the handling of his case — and Outing can list many. A thick manilla folder sits on the table in between us, bursting at the seams with the papers — briefs, transcripts, letters, decisions, statements — that Outing has been pouring over for over a decade, consulting them like a devout Catholic would a Bible, or like a starving wanderer might a map, searching for all-seeing answers, or perhaps just a drop of something, anything, that would signal relief.
“I played no part in this crime at all… They just straight up set me up, I don’t even know why.”
In a later conversation with Outing’s mother, Ms. Angelina Outing, I would learn that Outing was the second of four siblings and the only son. He and his three sisters grew up on Harding Place, in Newhallville, a neighborhood in New Haven where almost everyone is either relatives or playmates or church-kin — where everybody is somebody’s cousin. When he was seven years old, his grandfather enrolled him in karate. Ms. Outing smiled at the memory, and told me, “Oh, he loved it. He thought he was the man when he was in there.” When he was nine, he was in Linda Thorpe’s fourth grade class at the Martin Luther King School. Thorpe describes him as a “sweet and lovable student,” who was part of her “little family of kids” in that class. Around Christmas-time that year, Thorpe’s class performed the poem ‘Twas the night Before Christmas, and Outing was one of the characters on stage. “I still have that photo,” says Thorpe, “You will [sic.] see a small smiling pajama wearing angel in it. That’s my fondest memory of him.”
But Outing’s childhood was not easy. During the same year of his debut as a pajama’d angel, Outing’s father was murdered. He quickly had to become the protector of his sisters, in the real world, and outside of karate. From my conversation with Ms. Outing, I got the sense that her son’s settling into his teenage years as a Black boy in the Ville during those times inevitably meant hardening to violence on the streets, which included interactions with street-gangs, but also rough-ups with the police.
Through our conversation, J’veil Outing tells me how survival in those days meant “know[ing] how to handle yourself in the streets” and how even his clean arrest record did not spare him from the violence. In the year before his arrest, he was shot twice, mere months apart.
He brings me back to the small park by the Lincoln-Bassett Community School in Newhallville, on July 4, 2004 — a year before the Kevin Wright murder. Then, an 18-year-old Outing witnessed an argument between two kids he did not recognize. Suddenly, one of the boys pulled out a gun and began to fire at the other. “So when he pulls out the gun,” Outing continues, “he starts running away … and he’s not paying attention to what he’s shooting at.” Unknown to the boy with a gun, a four-year-old kid was nearby, within the range of the bullets. “I rushed to try and grab him, and someone beat me to it, but the minute I got right in front of him — I got hit on the back of my leg.” Outing grabs the side of his thigh, slack in prison khakis: “Boom.”
Six weeks after the first shooting, Outing was shot again. This time it was in the foot, and it was as he was leaving the corner store, by “a kid [he] had problems with,” he said. The NHPD presented Outing with two suspects for identification, but none ended up being the perpetrator. At this point, Taubes chimes in with a theory of what that might have looked like to the police at the time. “They knew you, you’re getting shot at, you’re not giving up names, you’re a bad guy,” Taubes said. In fact, Sgt. Andrew Muro told the New Haven Register after arresting Outing on June 27, 2006 that “Outing is well-known to the police from his activities in Newhallville”.
Outing agrees with his lawyer’s estimation, “Yeah definitely, they built up this image of me.”
The four detectives working the Wright murder did not even have to leave the station to arrest Outing. Outing explains that all they had to do was take an elevator. Coppola and Vasquez, as well as detectives David Falcigno and Clarence Willoughby, found the 19-year-old was conveniently already on site — anxiously drumming his fingers on a table in a holding room on the second floor, after having been brought in on a drug possession charge.
Life after the two consecutive shootings had not been easy for the teenager. He had wanted to follow in the steps of his late maternal grandfather, the one who paid for his karate lessons, and join the Air Force, but the injuries derailed him. When the Detectives charged him with murder, he was shocked. “I ain’t even know the dude,” Outing said. “I didn’t know what they was talking about … I didn’t have no reason to kill him.” After making the arrest, Willoughby allowed Outing one phone call. Outing gave the detective his mother’s number to dial, got on the phone and managed to get out a quick “Ma, they tryna charge me with a murder,” then click, Willoughby had already hung up for him.
Just after Outing was arrested, the state offered him a deal: plead guilty and serve eight years in prison, or go to trial and face up to fifty years. Even after sixteen years behind bars, he stands by his initial commitment to proving his innocence. “My innocence was more important than anything,” he told me. “I’m not taking no time for something I didn’t do.” This was not only for his sake, but for his family’s. He had to go to trial.
There was no forensic evidence that tied Outing to the crime, so the majority of the trial hinged on scrutinizing the eyewitness testimony of Caple and Crimley. The trial began on March 13, 2006 and lasted seven days. And, just like they did at the suppression hearing, both siblings took the stand and stated — more adamantly than they did in the suppression hearing, the court noted — that they were coerced into making an identification and that the defendant sitting in front of them was not the shooter. The police detectives denied any coercive practices outright, and the state prosecutors doubled down behind them.
At MacDougall, Outing runs me through the other facts of his case. The lack of forensic evidence was proven in court. Not only did the bike used by the murderer not have Outing’s fingerprints, it also contained someone else’s fingerprints altogether — those of a local resident who claimed the bike was stolen from him prior to the murder. According to Outing, even the descriptions of the bicycle did not match up either. Caple and Crimpley reported that the shooter was on a trick bike, but Outing owned a mountain, or “baja” bicycle, a fact which would later be confirmed by the testimonies of his alibi witnesses in his habeas corpus trial, 11 years later. Furthermore, all that the ballistic reports could prove at his trial was that the bullets were fired by a 9mm gun, but Outing finds fault in this description too. The witnesses saw a silver gun, and “everyone knew [he] carried a Black 9mm.”
His first attorney, now-Judge Auden C. Grogins, represented him at his murder trial. Outing told me that she failed to investigate and call to the stand any of the six alibi witnesses Outing provided to her, all of whom were at the birthday party with Outing, and most of whom were with him at the time of the fight and scooter chase. Grogins did not mention the party, the fight or the scooter chase, at all, Outing said, nor did she attempt to construct some sort of timeline in order to show that Outing could not have done it. Grogins later said in the habeas trial that those choices was part of her “trial strategy,” and that she did not want to place Outing too close to the murder. Outing seems unconvinced — the murder was close to his house anyway.
However, Grogins did try to push back at the credibility of the eyewitness testimonies by calling an eyewitness expert, Jennifer Dysart, to give a testimony. Dysart, a professor of psychology at John Jay College, was an unusual kind of expert to call during this time, according to Taubes. The attorney explained that, due to this unfamiliarity, the judge had her introduce her testimony in a pretrial hearing, to determine if it was relevant for the case. “The courts then didn’t even allow experts to weigh in on witness testimony because they thought it was common knowledge,” he continued.
In her pre-trial testimony, Dysart ran through a number of factors that could affect a witness’s credibility. For a case where even the initial testimonies deemed credible by the courts still had significant inconsistencies, an expert like Dysart could provide some insight as to why. Dysart’s prepared testimony identified eight situational factors present in Crimley and Caple’s experiences that could have impaired the accuracy of their testimony. She talked about, for example, the weak correlation between confidence and accuracy in eyewitness identification: the “disguise effect” where “the use of hats or wigs makes it more difficult for the witness to be accurate at a later time” and “unconscious transference” where if a “person looks familiar to you, it’s not always the case that you are able to accurately say where you encountered that person on previous occasions.” Dysart also highlighted the need for photo-arrays to be administered double blind— if the administrator knows that the suspect is in the array, and more than that, knows who the suspect is — as was the case here — they can act in ways during the photo-identification process that subconsciously signal that to the identifier. Dysart’s testimony also covered the “weapons effect” — the idea that it is difficult to get a good look at a shooter when you are fearing for your life. Outing has studied the details of his case, and breaks it down. “It’s this simple,” he told me. “You see it in the movies all the time. If someone pulls a gun on you, you’re looking at the gun! You’re running the other way! You’re not looking at the details of their face.”
“It’s this simple… You see it in the movies all the time. If someone pulls a gun on you, you’re looking at the gun! You’re running the other way! You’re not looking at the details of their face.”
The judge ruled after the hearing that Dysart could only present half of her testimony at the trial, but when it came time to do it, Grogins decided not to call on Dysart at all. The jury heard none of her testimony, despite expert consensus that points to the fallibility of eyewitness testimony and the ways it can be susceptible to outside influence.
The single bulb in the MacDougall interview room illuminates Outing’s face from above as he and the attorney laugh at the absurdity of it all. Here we are, in a box, with a man who could have taken an eight-year plea deal but now has 50 years because he decided to stick with his claim of innocence instead of saying he was guilty. He has seen people who brag about all the harm that they have done or the people they have killed get out of prison after much less time than he will have to serve. Taubes quips that they teach “the Outing case” at workshops and reference it in papers, as an example of what not to do as a public defender. Outing even remembers Grogins said something in an ensuing hearing that seemed as though she thought he was guilty. Grogins declined to comment.
While telling this story, Outing smirks while shaking his head. “Isn’t that crazy? And that’s why she threw me under the bus.” When the tops of Outing’s cheeks crinkle into a smile, his whole demeanor relaxes. It is not there for long, but just in the moments after he laughs, in the seconds before we have to steer our conversation to yet another horrible thing, something brief and unguarded flashes in his eyes. Perhaps it is youth or perhaps it is its memory, fleeting and unreachable, thrown unceremoniously from atop a baja bike to behind prison bars — the young boy who never got to grow up.
Caple and Crimley are part of a growing list of New Haveners who have accused the NHPD of witness coercion. All 30 official exonerations in Connecticut since 1973 are captured on the National Registry of Exonerations, and every one of them involves either “Mistaken Witness ID” or “Perjury or False Accusation” as contributing factors. These are just state-recognized exonerations — this data does not capture the many cases, like Outing’s, where defendants have been working to prove that they were wrongfully convicted yet remain unheard by the State. The bulk of the exonerees were convicted in the nineties and early aughts, just before and right around when J’veil Outing was being put on trial for murder.
The same database provides this statistic: New Haven has three percent of Connecticut’s population but 34 percent of its exonerees. So what was happening specifically in the NHPD? Just over a decade before Outing’s trial, a Connecticut judge of the Appellate Court wrote that “the seemingly intractable behavior of the New Haven Police Department with respect to witness[es]’ statements is deeply disturbing.” Vernon Horn, a recent exoneree who was wrongfully convicted mainly due to witness coercion, cites this opinion in his brief accompanying ongoing civil litigation against the City of New Haven and specific NHPD police officers. The brief delves deeply into the history of witness coercion in the department, and details at least fourteen known cases, including the following examples, as well as Outing’s case.
“The seemingly intractable behavior of the New Haven Police Department with respect to witness[es]’ statements is deeply disturbing.”
In 1985, Jerome Downing, cooperating witness in an investigation of a robbery and sexual assault case, testified that the NHPD officers had “suggested to him that [the defendant, Leroy Harris] was involved in the crimes and that he was “coerced into making the statement implicating [the defendant], and that he never read the witness statement that he eventually signed. Leroy Harris served thirty years of his eighty year sentence, before getting out of prison on a plea deal.
In 1991, Eric Ham was set up by the NHPD. Detective Joe Greene of the NHPD pressured witness Timothy Davis, a 100-pound teenager at the time, to identify Eric Ham. Greene threatened Davis, yelled at him, slammed his hands on the table, and told him that if he “didn’t cooperate, that [he] would receive forty to sixty years in jail.” Davis said that Greene’s threats happened off the record, when the tape was not recording, similar to the claims made by Caple and Crimley. Eric Ham was exonerated in 1996, and is now serving time related to another charge.
Also in 1991, two witnesses who testified against Daryl Valentine in a murder case testified later that they had been coerced by and bribed by Greene and Anthony DiLullo of the NHPD. Higgins said at the trial that Joe Greene had threatened them with jail time and then given them money to buy cigarettes and cocaine afterwards. These witnesses’ previous statements to the police were also admitted into the trial under Whelan. Valentine has served 32 years of his 100 year sentence and still remains in prison.
Again in 1999, the FBI found evidence that NHPD detective Vincent Raucci had coerced and “improperly coached several witnesses into providing false statements” that implicated Scott Lewis in a murder. In an unrecorded “pre-interview” Raucci threatened witnesses with false charges unless they implicated Lewis in the crime, and also fed them specific details of the crime that they could not have known otherwise. Lewis has since settled a wrongful conviction case with the city for $9.5 million.
In fact, just after the NHPD finished processing J’veil Outing for a murder conviction, certain detectives in the Department, including Clarence Willoughby, were also engaged in pressuring a sixteen-year-old Bobby Johnson into falsely confessing to a murder he did not commit. Willoughby also claimed then that he had “a 100 percent success rate in solving homicides.” Johnson served eight years of his 38 year sentence before his case was looked at again, and the charges were dismissed.
Like Willoughby, Coppola also makes an appearance in the history of NHPD police coercion, as outlined in the brief that Vernon Horn presented to the city. In 1998, when interviewing a key witness during his investigation of the Philip Cusick homicide, Coppola himself admitted that he told the witness that “if he didn’t help [Coppola], someday he’d be locked up for that murder.” The witness started crying in the interrogation room in response to the threats. Coppola testified that his handling of this witness was “good police work” in an ensuing deposition. This coercion also happened off the record, when the tape recorder was off.
While interviewing Outing, I quickly learned of his catchphrase of sorts: “It’s no secret.” As in, “I owned a gun— it’s no secret”, or, “I sold drugs— it’s no secret.” At this point he has spent almost the same amount of time incarcerated as he has lived in the outside world, and in his struggle to prove his innocence, he does not see a point in hiding anything — the truth will come out some day, he said, and it will set him free. While a lot of his dirty laundry was aired at the trial, Horn’s brief details another open secret of sorts which was woefully absent throughout Outing’s proceedings— the NHPD had a pattern of misconduct, which included disturbing trends of coercing and threatening witnesses.
“At this point he has spent almost the same amount of time incarcerated as he has lived in the outside world, and in his struggle to prove his innocence, he does not see a point in hiding anything — the truth will come out some day, he said, and it will set him free.”
From listening to Outing’s friends and family who were around here during that time, a strong sense of this misconduct and intimidation emerges. Outing described an incident to me in which he had encountered Willoughby before his arrest, and according to him, the cop told him that “I’m going to send you to jail” as he patted him down on the street. His mother, Ms. Outing, tells me that it was normal to hear of young men being harassed by the police, describing the officers as “so corrupted they all just stuck together.” She said recourse was nearly impossible: “There was nothing you could do, it was your word against the police [sic.] word.” This feeling was common. Everett Alexander, the cousin who kickstarted the scooter chase the day of the Wright murder, testified in a later Habeas hearing that although he would have cooperated as an alibi witness had he been approached, he did not voluntarily try to share the information because “the police don’t want to hear a young 19-year old. You think they gonna believe something I say?”
Sixteen years in prison has given Outing time to reflect on this. He even tried to contact Crimley, to let her know that he was not angry with her. “When she came to testify at the habeas trial, she was up there crying, and I’m like, I hope she don’t think that I’m mad at her,” he said. His message to her is very clear: “The fact of the matter is, I blame the police, not you. You didn’t come up with me … They produced me and made you sign my picture.”
The toll that incarceration has taken on Outing hangs heavy in the air throughout the interview. It sits on the slump of his shoulders and in the folds of the small towel he uses to dab the beads of sweat off of his brow. He slouches in his chair a little when looking back, and says, “Every time I find a path that I think is gonna lead to my freedom, it’s another roadblock.” He is still trying to advocate for himself, through looking into new attorneys and raising awareness on social media with the help of his family, but the more the court has denied him, the bleaker things look.
Outing shares that he has struggled severely with his mental health and feelings of despair and turned to working out regularly to find some sort of routine. “This stuff destroyed many lives, not just mine,” he tells me. His best friend overdosed last year. And before that, Outing explains that every letter he received from him was the same. “Yo my life’s been destroyed cause you incarcerated,” his friend would say. Outing adds, “He didn’t know how to find his way, cause we was each other’s crutches.”
Outing’s son, who is referred to as “Little Outing” by his grandmother and whose father has been in prison almost his entire life, is now also incarcerated himself. He is doing time for an armed robbery that he participated in with some other kids.
When I interviewed Ms. Outing, two weeks after I visited her son, she told me that Little Outing will be seventeen in just a couple of days. Her expression was caught somewhere between exasperation and disbelief.
Ms. Outing had always been the matriarch of the family — warm, but stern. Thorpe, Outing’s third grade teacher, even told me that “Ms. Outing’s kids was always the best behaved.” When her son Outing was first incarcerated, Little Outing’s mother left the picture, and Ms. Outing had to take custody of her grandson. She moved to North Carolina for a little while to be with her extended family, and Little Outing seemed to be doing alright there, but everything changed when her son lost his recent habeas petition and asked her to move back up to be closer to him. Ms. Outing prefers the slower Southern life but does not mind New Haven at all— that is until she saw her grandson falling in with the wrong crowd.
Now that he is in prison, her grandson calls her and tells her that he will straighten up when he is out, but sitting across from me, with her soft smile and fuzzy slippers, Ms. Outing looks tired. She is raising multiple generations of children who have all had something taken from them one way or another — children who lost their father, daughters who lost their brother, a young boy who lost his young dad and a son who lost his childhood. She can’t give them those things back.
The jury delivered their verdict on the morning of March 29, 2006. As the jury filed through the brass doors of the New Haven County Courthouse that morning, the dense clouds of dawn-break would have slowly begun opening up to reveal the cerulean sky. The jurors would have followed a court marshal up the stone steps of the building, trailing in behind the spectators, legal counsel and court employees.
A discerning, assured Lady Justice figurine would have sat among the marble carvings atop the entrance to the building. She presides over the courthouse and has done so since the building’s completion in 1914. The light catches on the folds of her robe and a netting has recently been installed to prevent birds from nesting in the dark crevices of her billowing skirt. Designed by J. Massey Rhind, she sits in the center of the tympanum, balanced and stern, adorned and omniscient, surrounded by her compatriots, each representing an aspect of the proceedings down below: Victory, Precedence, Accuracy, Common Law, Statutory Law, Progress and Commerce. She would have caught a glimpse of all those that were involved in the murder trial that was taking place, except for the accused himself.
Like most being brought to the courthouse from a prison, Outing had begun what would become some of the most confusing and painful days of his life by entering a side door that led into the basement. For the seven days of jury deliberations leading up to his conviction on March 29, he had trailed through the side doors to change out of his prison uniform before being led upstairs to wave hello to the jurors. “I was like the welcoming committee” he jokes with me. He makes a point to say that he waved to them every morning except for the day he was convicted. “I don’t know why,” he told me. “I just didn’t do it.”
On the sixth day of deliberations, the jury sent a note to the judge indicating that they were “hopelessly deadlocked” and that they requested, amongst other things, that the judge read them the charge on determining proof beyond reasonable doubt. The judge reaffirmed that it is a “a real doubt, an honest doubt, a doubt that has its foundation in the evidence or lack of evidence. It is doubt that is honestly entertained and is reasonable in light of the evidence after a fair comparison and careful examination.” A day later, the jury found J’veil Outing guilty of murder in the first degree. He was brought back down to the basement to be escorted to the prison. He did not see the tympanum, or Lady Justice, once.