PATERSON - Eric Dixon, the man whose DNA allegedly connects him to a 1993 Paterson murder, twice has been a no-show in a civil lawsuit in that case that could cost city government tens of millions of dollars.
Ralph Lee Jr. and Eric Kelley - who spent 24 years in prison until their murder convictions were overturned in 2017 - are trying to force Dixon to give a sworn deposition in their pending federal civil rights lawsuits against Paterson and its police officers, who they claim coerced their confessions.
"The DNA evidence in this case establishes that Eric Dixon was the true assailant in the murder of Tito Moreno," wrote Paul Casteleiro, one of the lawyers representing Lee and Kelley.
The courts nullified Lee and Kelley's convictions after improved DNA testing was done on a green and purple baseball hat left behind at the Union Avenue video store where clerk Tito Merino was fatally stabbed during a robbery.
The DNA results found no evidence connecting Lee and Kelley to the baseball hat, which matched the description of one worn by the killer, according to court records.
But in 2014, after Lee and Kelley already spent more than 20 years in prison, the FBI matched the DNA evidence from the hat to Dixon, whose genetic profile was in the federal system because of his conviction in a Virginia case, according to a civil lawsuit.
The lawsuit - in which Lee and Kelley are seeking $48 million apiece from the city - contends that the coerced confessions and other misconduct during the police probe allowed the killer to remain free and resulted in convictions of two innocent men. Without confessions, authorities had little other evidence against the two men, according to the lawsuit.
More:Legal groups help wrongfully convicted win freedom, but what help is in place post-release?
'Absolutely nothing to do with it'
Dixon's lawyer, Miles Feinstein, on Wednesday said his client did not commit the murder.
"He has not been charged and he has absolutely nothing to do with it," said Feinstein, who began representing Dixon when Lee and Kelley made their claims against him in their legal battle for freedom.
Feinstein said "if there's DNA evidence" linking Dixon to the hat, there must be some "innocent reason" explaining that unconnected with the homicide.
The Passaic County Prosecutor's Office did not comment on whether Dixon is considered a suspect in the killing from 30 years ago.
Lawyers for Lee and Kelley did not respond to messages seeking their comment for this story. Lee and Kelley's attorneys filed a letter in the federal court case on Jan. 13 asking the judge to extend the deadline of pre-trial evidence because of Dixon's failure to show up for two depositions.
Dixon, who lives in Gainesville, Virginia, did not participate after being subpoenaed for a Zoom deposition on Oct. 19, the letter said. Dixon also didn't attend an in-person deposition that was supposed to happen in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 5, the letter said.
Lee and Kelley's lawyers are now asking the federal courts to issue an order compelling him to attend, the letter said. Feinstein said he has not been able to get in touch with Dixon recently.
'Neither plaintiff ... has been exonerated'
Lawyers for the city and its police officers have sent the court letters this month saying they want a chance to "substantiate or refute" any testimony from Dixon, if he eventually gives a sworn statement.
"In all due respect to the plaintiffs and their counsel, neither plaintiff in this matter has been exonerated nor had a finding indicating that they were not guilty of the offense," wrote Harry Norton Jr., attorney for one of the cops.
The city's lawyer in the case, Victor Afanador, made similar assertions.
"While plaintiffs allege that Mr. Dixon was the actual perpetrator of the crime to which plaintiffs confessed in 1993, there is absolutely no admissible evidence to suggest that is the case," wrote Afanador.
Under the rules covering depositions, Dixon could simply cite his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself, lawyers said.
Suit contends there was a confession
The lawsuit claims that Dixon confessed to his brother, Jeffrey Dixon, allegedly saying he committed the murder and left his hat behind.
Jeffrey Dixon reportedly told Lee and Kelley about his brother's confession in March 2018, months after the two men were released from jail based on the voided convictions, the lawsuit said. At that time, they still faced the possibility of a new trial.
A private investigator for Lee and Kelley spoke to Jeffrey Dixon, according to the lawsuit.
"When asked why he had come forward, Jeffrey explained that, '[y]ou know, he [Eric Dixon] done got married, bought a couple houses, you know, got a job where he probably making 100,000 a year. Like, this - but he killed somebody,'" said the lawsuit.
"'These dudes,'" the lawsuit went on quoting Dixon, "'been locked up down here 25 years, and he walking around like - acting like he don't know…. Like, that's almost damn near like how a serial killer is. Like, you killed somebody and you're walking around living life like you're the most law-abiding, honest citizen in the country, and you done killed somebody…"
The prosecutor's office was considering bringing a new murder case against the two men, a plan that authorities eventually dropped in April 2018, citing the difficulties of going to trial again after so much time.
The pair of $48 million claims against Paterson puts municipal officials in a difficult spot, especially since the city uses self-insurance to pay off lawsuits from regular tax dollars. An insurance archeologist hired as a result of this case has found file of policies from 1993 that might provide the city some protection against a possible massive payout, according to court records.
But officials have not released details about what they found in those files and how much liability protection - if any, they would give Paterson.
Joe Malinconico is editor of Paterson Press. Email: email@example.com
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Eric Dixon hasn't been deposed for 1993 Paterson NJ murder
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