Two men who wrongly served a combined total of almost 39 years in prison for a gang rape that never happened were exonerated by a Manhattan court on Monday.
VanDyke Perry and Gregory Counts were convicted of kidnapping, raping and sodomizing a woman in New York’s Central Park in 1991, but the woman made it all up, the Manhattan District Attorney, Cy Vance, told Acting State Supreme Court Justice Mark Dwyer on Monday.
She did it, Vance said, so that her boyfriend could escape a debt he owed the men.
Judge Dwyer vacated the mens’ convictions, and ordered that all records relating to the charges be sealed, telling them that “obviously there’s nothing anybody in the system can say that will make up for what you’ve been through.”
“I did 27 years in prison for something I didn’t do,” Counts, who was paroled last August, told the court. “During that time I prayed for my life,” he added.
Perry served almost 12 years in prison, before being released in 2001.
He decried sex-offender registration laws that made it difficult for him to restart his life after his release, including an additional six month jail sentence for refusing to register — which he said he did not do because he was innocent.
“I’d like to thank my lawyers,” Perry said. “I’m very grateful for them helping me get my freedom back. This wrongful conviction destroyed my life.”
Perry and Counts were represented by lawyers from the Innocence Project and the Office of the Appellate Defender, who undertook a first-time ever collaboration with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office Conviction Integrity Program, which is charged with investigating wrongful conviction claims.
Martin Tankleff, a lawyer who works to free the innocent, and who himself served more than 17 years after being wrongfully convicted of murdering his parents, told Oxygen.com that “It’s refreshing to see the District Attorney finally working with the defense bar seeking exonerations.”
The case against Perry and Counts offers a window into “old New York,” a dysfunctional, violent city that was the American murder capital in 1990, where crime ruled and "normal" sometimes seemed like a foreign concept.
According to a sworn affirmation prepared by prosecutors formally asking that Perry and Counts’ convictions be thrown out, the two were drug dealers in 1991, who were owed a debt by the boyfriend of the woman who ultimately accused them of gang-raping her.
At their 1992 trial, the woman testified that Perry and Counts kidnapped her at knifepoint and demanded she tell them where her boyfriend lived so they could collect that debt. When she refused, she testified, they raped her repeatedly. Counts, she added, separately tried to sodomize her.
The woman also accused a third man of taking part in the sexual assault, but he was never charged.
Perry and Counts appealed their convictions, but those appeals were denied. In 2012, the Innocence Project agreed to represent Counts, which in turn led, in 2015, to DNA testing that excluded Counts as the source of semen found on the woman’s underwear.
That’s when investigators from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office found and re-interviewed the woman, who admitted “she had been living life in the street and had done a lot of things to survive back then of which she was not proud,” the affirmation submitted by prosecutors says.
Specifically, the woman said she had had “a drug habit and would sell herself to pay for her drugs.” The semen, she explained, had probably belonged to a man she “hooked up” with. When asked more questions, she refused to answer.
In 2017, prosecutors agreed to re-investigate the case in a collaborative manner with attorneys for Perry and Count, which led back to the woman, just two weeks ago. On April 24, she recanted her accusations against Perry and Counts, according to the affirmation.
The woman, the affirmation reveals, told investigators that her boyfriend “had made her say that they had raped her.” Asked to explain why, the woman said her boyfriend “made her tell ‘that lie’ because he was in trouble over owing drug money to the men.”
She added that she was “very sorry,” and “that she was woman enough now to tell the truth.”
“Don’t think this doesn’t haunt me,” she added. “I apologize to them.”
[Photos: JB Nicholas]