In “Freed After 22 Years,” Jonathan Casiano and Mark Mueller of the Newark, New Jersey Star-Ledger report on the case of Byron Halsey, from whom it now appears police extracted a false confession to the molestation and brutal murder of two children after he wrongly failed a polygraph examination. DNA evidence exculpates Halsey and has pointed to the identity of the true perpetrator. Excerpt:
The police chief said it was the most horrific act of violence he’d ever seen. The prosecutor called it “inhuman,” suggesting the death penalty wasn’t punishment enough for the “coward” who committed the crime.
It was November 1985, and two Plainfield siblings, ages 7 and 8, had been sexually assaulted, murdered and mutilated. Amid a high-profile investigation, authorities quickly focused on Byron Halsey, the boyfriend of the children’s mother.
A 24-year-old factory worker with a minor criminal record, Halsey failed a polygraph test. He confessed. He was tried and convicted, and when a jury spared him from the death penalty, some in the courtroom jeered. He would spend 21 1/2 years behind bars, virtually all of it in solitary confinement for his own protection.
Yesterday, in a stunning reversal, a Superior Court judge threw out Halsey’s convictions and ordered a new trial after advanced DNA testing — unavailable at the time of the prosecution — showed that the killings might have been carried out by a Plainfield neighbor.
Halsey, who later retracted his confession, was released on $55,000 bail yesterday afternoon. Outside the courthouse in Elizabeth, where a media throng and a crowd of well-wishers waited for him, Halsey tightly hugged his mother and brother and repeatedly thanked God for his release.
“There’s more nice people around me now than there have been around here in a long time,” he said.
Halsey now awaits a decision by the Union County Prosecutor’s Office on whether it will proceed with a retrial or drop the case, officially exonerating the man once derided by a prosecutor as a “calculating, evil genius.”
A spokeswoman for that office said there would be no immediate comment on a decision. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for July 9. In the meantime, Halsey is required to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet.
“It has taken more than two decades, but DNA has finally revealed the truth in this case,” said Vanessa Potkin, a lawyer with the Innocence Project, a group that works on behalf of inmates whom it considers wrongfully convicted.
If he is ultimately cleared, Halsey will be the fifth New Jerseyan and 202nd person across the coun try to be exonerated through the use of DNA evidence, according to the group, which is affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York.
Byron Halsey’s experience is reminiscent of that of Jeffrey Mark Deskovic, who wrongly spent 16 years in prison following a polygraph-induced false confession to murder. DNA evidence ultimately exculpated Deskovic.