Eric Smokes and David Warren spent years behind bars after being convicted of murdering and robbing a 71-year old French tourist in the late 1980’s. Today, with Napoli Shkolnik Civil Rights attorney Craig Phemister on their side, the duo are looking to vacate the guilty verdicts against them.
When the murder occurred, both men were teenagers, Smokes was 18 and Warren was 16. They had traveled with friends from their East New York, Brooklyn homes into Manhattan to see the Times Square ball drop on New Year’s Eve. They got as far as the Latin Quarter nightclub on 48th Street but headed back to Brooklyn when they couldn’t cover the cost of the club’s cover. Blocks away and only moments after midnight, Jeane Casse and his wife were set upon by a gang outside ofBen Benson’s steakhouse, then located at 123 West. 52nd Street. Casse was punched to the ground and his wallet was stolen. He died of massive head injuries later that New Year’s Day.
A bout a week later, Smokes and Warren, and another teenager were charged with his death. The indictment against the third man was dismissed prior to trial for unspecified reasons.
From the beginning of the investigation, Smokes said he was uneasy with how the detectives were handling the case. He was falsely painted as the ringleader of a gang of Brooklyn robbers. Warren adds that the police and prosecutors tried to get him to implicate his friend in the crime but he never did because it was simply not true. Unfortunately a jury did not believe them and Smokes was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison and Warren received 15 years to life.
After almost 20 years behind bars, Smokes received a letter from the first witness who had implicated the pair, apologizing. The witness, a former crack addict named James Walker, had been arrested the day after Jean Casse’s death in an unrelated robbery and lied to stay out of jail.
This gave Smokes renewed hope. Smokes was released in 2011, several years after Warren, who was released in 2007. Now their attorney Craig Phemister have filed a motion to vacate their guilty verdicts largely based on witnesses who have recanted. According to the lawyers, some trial witnesses made up their stories to satisfy investigators while some were promised preferential treatment on their own pending criminal cases in exchange for their testimony.
“Everything points to somebody or a group of somebodies steering the witnesses,” Phemister said. “(One witness) told me when he was talking to detectives he was guessing what they wanted to hear. So he just went along with what they wanted him to say.”
Armed with sworn affidavits from four witnesses who testified against Smokes and Warren, as well as others who were not called to testify, Phemister is are ready to see justice served for their clients.
It also seems that a tip regarding another man who was reported to have been the true killer was never followed up on.
George Delgrosso, the detective on the case is now retired.
Today, both men have married the women who they were dating when they were charged. They have also both found steady construction work. Smokes and Warren say they do not harbor anger or ill will towards those who testified against them. However, they hope that those who lied will now find the courage to come forward and admit the truth.
Smokes told the New York Daily News anger would only consume him, “empathy and forgiveness is a big thing.” He goes on to say that what happened so many years ago cannot be undone, but that is now possible to correct the problem.