DNA evidence conclusively exonerated Tony Yarbough. On February 6, 2014, he went home with his extended family, after 7,903 days in custody for a crime he did not commit.
Almost 22 years ago, Brooklyn detectives “solved” a brutal triple homicide in Coney Island by coercing false confessions from two boys, Antonio Yarbough, 18, and Sharrif Wilson, 15. The victims were Tony’s mother, his little sister, and a 12-year-old friend of his sister. Tony and Sharrif were convicted after separate, unfair trials. The only evidence against Tony was Sharrif’s testimony, which he recanted in writing in 2005. No physical evidence links either defendant to the crime but new DNA revealed that the killer went on to kill again in 1999 while Tony and Sharrif were locked up.
On June 18, 1992, after a night out in the West Village, Antonio Yarbough came home to Coney Island in the morning to find the dead bodies of his mother, Annie Yarbough, his 12-year-old sister, Chavonn Barnes, and a friend, 12-year-old Latasha Knox in his apartment in a drug-ridden housing project. As soon as Tony discovered the bodies, he ran outside and found his uncle, Major Yarbough, waiting for a bus across the street. Together, they called the police from a neighbor’s phone. After the police arrived, Tony gladly went with them to the precinct to give a statement.
The crime scene Tony and his uncle had discovered was grisly: all three victims had been stabbed multiple times and choked with cut electric cords. The two girls had been partially undressed. Annie was a heroin addict and witnesses told police about a parade of drug users who came in and out of the apartment that night. One of them, the witnesses told police, threatened Annie with a knife after she failed to deliver his drugs. He was known as “Vinny” and was with a friend who was shorter and had “pretty eyes.” They may have met Annie at the Coney Island Hospital methadone clinic, where she was treated for her addiction.
By the time the medical examiner looked at the bodies at 10:35 a.m., rigor mortis had already set in. This means the victims were killed around eight to ten hours earlier, a time when all agree that Tony and Sharrif were miles away in Manhattan. In addition, at least one of the bodies was “cool to the touch” and all three had undigested food in their stomachs — all indications that the murders took place much earlier than 6:30 a.m. when Tony and Sharrif were last seen on the street. The trial lawyers missed this point, never interviewing the medical examiner who examined the bodies or explaining to the jury that the murders could not have happened when Sharrif said they happened.
Despite the total lack of evidence, the New York City Police Department closed the case the same day. Antonio Yarbough, sobbing over the death of his mother and sister, was accused of matricide with the assistance of his 15-year-old friend Sharrif Wilson. The police could never explain the extreme brutality of the murders or provide any reasonable motive. Sharrif’s account did not match up to the physical evidence. Nothing linked Tony or Sharrif to the crime scene. Wilson’s white t-shirt (and all the rest of the boys’ clothes) was soiled by not even a drop of blood.
Sharrif Wilson was tried first and convicted. He testified at his own trial, explaining in detail how the police coerced him into falsely confessing to the crime. He was convicted and told he faced 27-years-to-life in prison for the three murders. But the People offered him a deal: they would agree to cut his sentence to nine-years-to-life if he would change his story and testify against Tony. He did that — and Tony’s first trial ended in a mistrial despite Sharrif’s testimony. In Tony’s second trial, Judge Kreindler let the jury watch the videotaped confession that Sharrif had made in the police station. That did it. Tony was convicted of the three murders in February 1994. He was sentenced to the maximum, 75-years-to-life in prison.
In 2010, this office filed papers in Brooklyn Supreme Court seeking Tony’s release based on Sharrif’s recantation and errors made at the trial. The People opposed our motion but agreed to test some items recovered from the crime scene for DNA that might lead to the real killer. The Court rejected our first motion in January 2012 on purely procedural grounds, but held the People to their agreement to test certain items found at the crime scene. In response, we obtained an affidavit from Tony’s trial lawyer explaining what went wrong at the trial. We filed that affidavit along with motions to renew and reargue the original 440.10 motion. The People initially responded to those papers with an opposition brief.
But in the summer of 2013, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York revealed a breakthrough in the case. Careful testing found DNA on Annie Yarbough’s fingernails that matched DNA found in the vagina of a 1999 murder victim named Migdalia Ruiz. The 1999 murder was on the other side of Brooklyn, in Sunset Park, but there were other similarities. Ms. Ruiz had numerous arrests for drugs and prostitution. She had been viciously stabbed and left in a stairwell. We strongly suspect that her murderer also killed Tony’s family. We are searching for information connecting them. The New York Daily News broke the story of the DNA evidence in September 2013. In January 2014, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner issued its report, which definitively linked Annie Yarbough’s killer to the rapist-murderer of Migdalia Ruiz. Although the report analyzed super-sensitive “touch DNA” from numerous items recovered from the crime scene, no DNA from Sharrif Wilson was found.
Sharrif Wilson, now consistently maintaining his innocence, submitted to a polygraph examination in December. He passed: his physiological responses indicated that he truthfully answered “no” when he was asked whether he stabbed or strangled Annie Yarbough, Latasha Knox or Chavonn Barnes in 1992. A Daily News column by Denis Hamill that came out after the lie-detector test called on the Kings County District Attorney’s Office to let Tony and Sharrif go. The new DA, Kenneth Thompson, finally withdrew the office’s opposition, leading to Justice Guzman to order Tony and Sharrif to be freed in his courtroom on February 6, 2014. Their liberation is shown in the video below.
Tony and Sharrif were the first of eight men exonerated from Brooklyn in the beginning of 2014, when DA Thompson took over. Thompson’s predecessor, Charles Hynes, is under investigation for misusing funds. Tony and Sharrif have filed claims against the police officers and others, seeking compensation for what was done to them. For the current status of the litigation, please check our “News” page. Key documents can be found on the links on this page. Tony is also represented by Philip Smallman, Esq. a leading Brooklyn homicide attorney. Tony’s case inspired the work of a number of talented and dedicated law student interns including Martha Lineberger, Matthew Shroyer, Tess Cohen and Nisha Ragha.