Brooklyn pals Eric Smokes and David Warren cleared of 1987 Times Square tourist murder

Thirty-seven years after teenagers Eric Smokes and David Warren were busted for a Times Square murder they maintain they did not commit, the two childhood pals had their names cleared Wednesday by a Manhattan Supreme Court justice.

“You can all leave with the confidence that you are not criminals,” Justice Stephen Antignani said to Smokes and Warren.

“We never were,” Warren said.

“Exactly,” Antignani agreed.

“You are innocent,” he added. “And you are free to go — as innocent men.”

Their families roared in approval.

Outside court, Smokes, 56, and Warren, 53, said they never wavered in their fight to get their reputations back.

“We knew were weren’t giving up,” Smokes said. “We were going to fight until there was no more breath in us, [no] more fight in us.

“We were friends and we knew the truth. We stand on the truth.”

Smokes was 19 and Warren was 16 when on New Year’s Eve 1986 they took the subway from their homes in East New York, Brooklyn, to celebrate the ball drop in Times Square.

A few minutes past midnight, Jean Casse, a 71-year-old tourist from Toulouse, France, was surrounded by a group of young men outside Ben Benson’s steakhouse on W. 52nd St. The men assaulted Casse and robbed him of his wallet.

One attacker punched Casse, knocking him to the ground. He struck his head, suffered catastrophic injuries and died later that day.

Smokes and Warren have long said that at the time Casse was attacked they were four blocks away, outside the Latin Quarter nightclub. Their friends backed up the alibi, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office said.

When Smokes and Warren realized they didn’t have enough money to get into the trendy nightspot, they headed back home.

On Jan. 8 of that year, Smokes and Warren were charged with murder, in large part based on witnesses who later said NYPD detectives and prosecutors from the Manhattan district attorney’s office threatened to charge them with the crime if they didn’t say the duo was involved.

They were convicted of second-degree murder and sent to prison.

In 2005, Smokes got an apology letter from the prosecution’s key witness, who was 16 years old at the time of the killing. The letter writer said that in an effort to get a break in an unrelated mugging case, he told a detective he had done robberies with Smokes and Warren and that Smokes told him he’d “caught a body” in Times Square.

Warren was released from prison in 2009, Smokes in 2011. They then set out to clear their names.

In 2020, Antignani denied their motion to vacate the convictions. He said he didn’t believe the witnesses who had recanted.

The pair’s lead lawyer, James Henning, tried again, this time by going to the postconviction justice unit established by Bragg.

The unit’s head, Terri Rosenblatt, said in a letter to Antignani in October that newly discovered evidence “creates a more reasonable probability of a more favorable outcome.”

The evidence included misplaced photos, leads pointing to other suspects that were not pursued or disclosed to defense lawyers, statements from two witnesses, and investigators’ possible mishandling of a photo array of possible suspects shown to a witness.

This time, the DA’s office asked for the indictment to be dismissed, and Antignani agreed.

Smokes and Warren will soon file a lawsuit that will detail the investigative misconduct and lay out what they lost by spending years behind bars, Henning said.

During the hearing, Antignani noted the death of Warren’s wife, Kim, in October 2022, and commented that she would have turned 54 on Wednesday.

Antignani said he believed Kim Warren was in the courtroom in spirit.

“The case has been dismissed,” Antignani said. “It will never give you back the years you lost — I fully understand that. But both of you have made right and done well. And I’m sure there is a lot of anger in there.

“There has to be,” he added. “There has to be.”

Smokes and Warren didn’t deny being at least a little angry, but they spoke more about being disappointed in a conviction that never should have happened and the years authorities spent defending the case before relenting.

Smokes’ son Kareem, now 38, remembers visiting his father in prison as a child, talking as they walked around the yard, then crying when it was time to go home.

“I didn’t even get to be with my father half my life,” he said. “But justice is served now.”

Warren’s only child, Kali, 12, was born after he was released from prison. She said her father’s life experience was hard to fathom as a small child, but is much clearer to her now.

“I’m proud that he never gave up,” she said. “And I feel happy there were so many people by his side.”