NEW YORK - A man who served nearly 30 years in prison for murder was ordered freed Wednesday after prosecutors concluded he falsely confessed when he was 16.
The convictions of David McCallum and his late co-defendant Willie Stuckey were both thrown out at Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson's request. Thompson said the convictions hinged on untrue confessions, made by teenagers, rife with inaccuracies and peppered with details seemingly supplied by police.
Their cause had been championed by former prizefighter Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, who himself became an international symbol of injustice when he got his a triple murder conviction vacated.
In dismissing the convictions, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Matthew D'Emic said, "The evidence available to the district attorney after the investigation sufficiently convinces the court that the judgments of conviction should be vacated."
McCallum put his head on the defense table and sobbed, his body shaking, as he heard the judge's words. Stuckey's mother put her hand on his back.
After their 1985 arrests, McCallum and Stuckey admitted kidnapping and killing 20-year-old Nathan Blenner and taking a joyride in his car. They quickly recanted but were convicted of murder.
The admissions "were false in large part because these 16-year-olds were fed false facts," Thompson said before the court date. No other evidence except the confessions tied the two to the 1985 abduction and killing, he said.
McCallum, 45, has spent nearly two-thirds of his life in prison. Stuckey died there in 2001.
Theirs are the ninth and 10th decades-old convictions Thompson has disavowed since taking office this year, but the first in which he's cited a false confession as the main reason.
The news stunned and dismayed Nathan Blenner's relatives.
"We were led to believe, for 29 years, that they're the killers. They confessed," said his sister, Dr. Deborah Blenner, adding that the family found it troubling that a review by DA staffers and an advisory panel of outside lawyers could upend a jury verdict that appeals courts had upheld.
The ailing Carter had been working on McCallum's bid for exoneration for a decade after getting a letter from him. He wrote a Daily News piece in February expressing his "final wish" - a fresh look at McCallum's conviction.
"My aim in helping this fine man is to pay it forward, to give the help that I received as a wrongly convicted man to another who needs such help now," wrote Carter, who died of prostate cancer two months later.
McCallum and Stuckey were arrested after Blenner was found shot dead in a park, his wallet gone, in Brooklyn in October 1985. Back in Blenner's middle-class Queens neighborhood, witnesses told police they had seen two men push Blenner into his Buick Regal and drive away. The car was found, torched, a few days later in Brooklyn.
McCallum and Stuckey gave confessions each naming the other as the gunman but soon professed their innocence. The teens were convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison after a trial that featured their confessions and a witness' testimony that Stuckey had sought to get rid of a gun with "a body on it"; Thompson says the witness' credibility has proven questionable.
They lost appeals, and Thompson's predecessor reviewed McCallum's and Stuckey's convictions but decided to stand by them last year.
Thompson, whose office has been examining more than 100 mostly homicide cases from the 1980s and 1990s, said he was struck by inconsistencies and improbabilities in McCallum's and Stuckey's videotaped and written statements.
Stuckey described commenting on a woman's car in Blenner's neighborhood shortly before the kidnapping, a remark she reported hearing as two men eyeballed her car. But the woman's description of the men didn't match Stuckey and McCallum, and prosecutors at the time took inconsistent positions, Thompson said. Although they embraced Stuckey's confession, they said the defendants weren't the men she saw.
"How can we say that Stuckey's confession was valid?," Thompson asked.
Stuckey also described three shots - something a witness had said to police. Authorities ultimately found evidence of only one shot, Thompson said. Police also didn't find the gun where Stuckey said he'd hidden it, under his mattress, and the statements described an hours-long drive by two teenagers whom no one had ever seen drive at all, the DA noted.
The teens also said the shooting happened as night fell. Medical examiners determined Blenner died around 3:15 p.m.
The detective who took the confessions has died.
McCallum, the subject of a recent documentary film, "David & Me," has said he felt pressed to confess and implicate Stuckey after being told Stuckey had done the same to him.
Recent DNA tests and fingerprint analyses from the stolen car matched other people, fueling questions about the case, said Oscar Michelen, McCallum's lawyer. No one else has been charged.