Tejpal Singh should be free

October 4, 2011

Peter Rugh reports from New York City on the struggle to free an innocent man.

ON SEPTEMBER 29, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown agreed to reopen an investigation into the wrongful conviction of Tejpal Singh.

Tejpal is a Sikh man who was sentenced to life for the 1996 drive-by shooting of two men: Kamaljit "Goldie" Singh, who died from his injuries, and Ramjit "Rocky" Singh, who survived. Tejpal's conviction was based on scant evidence and weak witness testimony. Now 37 years old, Tejpal has spent 11 years in prison--two awaiting trial, nine after sentencing--for a crime he says he did not commit.

Tejpal has maintained his innocence from the beginning. He says he was in New Jersey the night of the slaying and friends corroborated his story. When it became apparent that authorities were targeting him for the murder, he fled to Canada, where he was arrested in 2002.

Tejpal describes his conviction as a "miscarriage of justice." At his sentencing, he told the court, "I didn't kill and injure anyone. I drink from the same bitter cup of sorrow as the victim's family."

Tejpal Singh
Tejpal Singh

The recent execution of Troy Davis by the state of Georgia has generated a considerable amount of anger in New York, with many seeing Davis' death as a prime example of a system of mass incarceration in the U.S. that particularly targets working class and poor people of color. An impromptu march against Davis' execution shut down traffic on Broadway last Thursday in defiance of a heavy police presence.

Perhaps it was fear of a similar backlash that caused Queens Supreme Court Justice Michael Aloise and the Queens DA's office to reopen Tejpal's case. A hundred demonstrators gathered outside the courtroom during the recent court date, carrying signs that read "Exonerate the innocent" as the lawyers for both sides deliberated with the judge. The decision to reinvestigate was a reluctant one from the DA's office, which said it would look into the matter "even though there is nothing new."

SO WHAT does the DA consider "nothing new"? First, a witness interview conducted by the NYPD that would have cast doubt on the prosecution's case was never shown to the defense. Also, the New York Daily News recently reported that two of the main witnesses used to convict Tejpal have changed their stories. One says he was coerced by prosecutors, the other has offered to change his story for money.

"As God is my witness, I did not see Tejpal Singh shoot me," Rocky Singh, said in an affadavit. "I was shot and thought I was dying, and the next thing I knew I was in an ambulance." At the hospital, Rocky stated, "Numerous people [were] pressuring me to say it was Tejpal."

Then there's retired NYPD Sgt. James Carroll, who has stated in a sworn affidavit that he wanted to arrest someone else for the crime, but that Assistant District Attorney Michelle Goldstein denied his request. Carroll told the New York Daily News, "Let's face it, Goldstein wanted a 'W' in her box and she didn't want to complicate the case." The DA pushed to convict Tejpal, even though there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime.

Justice Aloise also is now reviewing a subpoena from Tejpal's lawyer Stephen Murphy for documents into a police corruption investigation involving the lead investigator in the case.
Lawyers for both sides will reconvene before Justice Aloise on October 27 to decide Tejpal's fate.

From his cell at the Green Haven Correctional Faciltiy in Stormville, NY, Tejpal hopes now that more evidence has come to light, the justice system will do justice by him. "I lost more than a decade," Tejpal recently told the Daily News. "I'm very positive that the truth is out there now and I hope they do the right thing and set aside my verdict."

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