A Queens courtroom exploded into applause Thursday when a judge vacated the murder conviction of a man who spent a quarter-century behind bars for a brutal stabbing he insisted he did not commit.
Ernest “Jaythan” Kendrick was granted his freedom by Judge Joseph Zayas Thursday at an emotional hearing in Queens Supreme Court during which prosecutors and defense attorneys came together to ask the judge to vacate Kendrick’s conviction.
“I’m very, very happy today because I never thought this would happen although I hoped and wished that it would,” Kendrick said at the hearing. “Nobody really understands what it is to be in prison when you are innocent and you know you’re innocent and you’re behind that wall.”
Kendrick was convicted of stabbing 70-year-old Josephine Sanchez twice in the back on Nov. 30, 1994 outside the Ravenswood Houses in Long Island City, Queens. Witnesses heard Sanchez scream, and a 10-year-old boy saw the murder from his third-floor window more than 100 feet away.
Kendrick was arrested because he matched the vague description the boy gave of a suspect — a Black man in his thirties wearing a white jacket.
But when Kendrick was put in a lineup, the boy initially selected another man as the suspect. Detectives then had him try again and he chose Kendrick, a reinvestigation of the case revealed.
New testing also revealed that male DNA found under the victim’s fingernails did not match Kendrick’s DNA.
There was no physical evidence tying Kendrick to the killing, and he was largely convicted on the testimony of the boy as well as a man who said he saw Kendrick fleeing the scene carrying a woman’s purse, prosecutors said.
Four new witnesses interviewed by the DA’s office contradicted the second witness’s testimony, however, prosecutors said Thursday.
While Kendrick waited for decades in prison, proclaiming his innocence, his cousin Clarence Hughes fought from the outside for his freedom. Hughes wrote to the FBI, the Queens DA — even “The Oprah Winfrey Show” — in hopes of getting his cousin exonerated.
“The family is elated ... Jaythan lost a lot of his family.” Hughes said, adding that Kendrick’s mother and sister have both died since he was imprisoned. “We don’t have that many of the family left.”
Prosecutors admitted Thursday that if the new evidence had existed at the 1995 trial, jurors may have reached a very different verdict in Kendrick’s case.
“We believe that the new evidence makes it much more probable than not that the outcome of the trial would have been extremely different,” said Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz, who addressed the court Thursday.
Katz, following her election to the office in 2019, created a Conviction Integrity Unit to investigate problematic convictions.
Kendrick’s conviction is the second to be tossed this year by Katz’s new CIU.
“Today the system that had wronged him takes a first step at correcting the injustice,” said Kendrick’s lawyer, Susan Friedman.
But Kendrick wasn’t thinking about the wrongs Thursday. As he walked out into the cold Queens afternoon, he was excited to go experience life outside of prison.
“As I was told, there’s a whole new world out there,” he said. “Okay, let’s go.”
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