Carl King Profile
Carl King and the Winning of Innocence
Carl King was born in Trinidad about fifty plus years ago. His father was a prison guard and his mother took care of a large family. Carl was the youngest of six children born over an extended period of time (two boys and four girls). When he was still quite small, his father left the family and went to the Virgin Islands. It was a hard time for the family, but Carl's two older sisters got government jobs and managed to support the rest. Eventually the family began moving piecemeal to New York. One of Carl's sisters moved to Brooklyn in her twenties. Carl followed her at age 13 and the two of them lived in Prospect Heights, a neighborhood much poorer and more dangerous than it is now. He went to middle school there and then moved on to Alexander Hamilton High School, which was then mostly attended by Blacks and Hispanics.
In school in Brooklyn Carl was an outcast, regarded as a provincial loser by his classmates. In those day there were far fewer people from Trinidad or even the Caribbean than there are today. The fashion then was to wear bell bottoms and Carl had straight legged pants, musically the 1970's was a time of disco and house music, but Carl was drenched in sounds from the Caribbean. The 70's is when Bob Marley became a star but his music was that of the outsider, the protester, this at a time when Black Power was playing itself out. Stokely Carmichael left the country, Elridge Cleaver was in Algiers on the first step of a path that would lead him to Christianity, Huey Newton was in jail and then got involved in criminal activity when he came out, and many Black Panthers were killed in shoot outs. As Black radicalism came apart, more young people became cynical and turned to drugs and crime, perhaps with the feeling that, with the system stacked against them, there was not much they could do about it.
Carl came from the politics of Trinidad, newly independent in 1962 with a strong Black man acting as prime minister in the role of father of the country, and Carl knew little about America. He didn't dress right, he didn't know the the current music, he didn't share the street values of the time, and he spoke with an accent that made his contemporaries laugh at him. In this situation he reached out to a group of young men from Trinidad and as a way of creating a distinct image for themselves, they became Rastas with dreadlocks, their own music, and religious values that defined them as proudly different. They were vegans (which Carl is to this day), and they smoked weed for religious purposes, and their hair made them stand out. They were a group not to be messed with. They also got into trouble with the police. Carl remembers being stopped many times by the police, and they casually called him “nigger,” something he had never encountered in Trinidad.
One member of this group was Colin Warner. He was a year older than Carl and also came from a complicated family. Carl and Colin had known each other in elementary school in Trinidad. After stealing a car and a TV set, Colin had the misfortune to be caught by the police. As he was underage he got probation, but he was then known to the police who could show his photo to any witness.
In the 1980's the temperament of the country changed. The aftermath of the Watergate scandal made people feel that government had to be watched and that it could slip into wrongdoing; however, Reagan was elected president on a platform of doing something about crime. He wanted criminals arrested and locked up and there was to be no coddling of them. Police everywhere felt pressure to do something about crime and, with resources stretched, for Reagan also advocated small government, the feeling arose that the main thing was to put poor young Black and Hispanic men in prison and thus make the streets safer. That meant that abridging the rights of prisoners was not something to be overly worried about. Convictions were what mattered.
Colin was caught up and victimized by the spirit of the time. A young man named Mario Hamilton was killed by another boy in an act of revenge. Yet another boy who claimed to have seen the crime was picked up by the police and badgered for a long period of time. They wanted him to give them the identity of the shooter. Almost at random he picked out Colin's picture out of the many shown him, and Colin thus became the main suspect. The police decided to build the case around him. At the same time, it was widely known on the street that the actual killer was a young man named Norman. He had told several people he was going to kill Mario; he asked various people where he was, and he then came up behind him and shot him. Two boys from the neighborhood told this to the police, but they had decided who their killer was, and they pursued the case not to find the truth but to put together a case that would convict Colin. This they did by getting Mario's brother to say that he had seen Colin with Mario together. They accomplished this through the same process of badgering him. Actually, Colin and Mario had never met.
Colin was held in prison for a year and half unable to afford the bail set for him. He got a decent lawyer from Legal Services, someone who had dealt with homicide cases as a D.A., but the man had no money to gather evidence himself. The reason the case dragged on is that the witness the police had enlisted had disappeared. In the first trial the verdict was a hung jury with only one juror refusing to vote for acquittal. She later said that holding out was her revenge on “them.” However, the prosecutors pressed on for a retrial, and they found their key witness who was arrested committing a hold up. They offered him a deal. If he would testify against Colin, they would let him off easy. He took the deal, but in court, he changed his story. He said Norman was the killer in a drive-by shooting and Colin was driving the car. Norman was arrested and attached to the case. The prosecutor changed the charge so that Norman was the shooter and Collin an accessory.
When Colin and Norman were alone, they discussed whether Norman should admit that he was the sole killer. Norman decided not to do this, perhaps thinking that he would get off and thus Colin would too. However, that is not what happened. Both men were convicted of murder and Colin got 25 years to life. Norman, as a minor, got less.
And so began a long travail in which Carl stuck with his friend, and in doing so, he grew up with the case, going from someone who was little more than a boy to a grown man who gained the skills to get his friend free. Along the way he paid a heavy price, but he would not let the case go, and Colin grew too, acquiring a wife and an education over twenty years of incarceration.
The first move that was made was to make an appeal based on mistakes and inconsistencies in the trial through which Colin was convicted. The first effort was to go to the Court of Appeals. This took six laborious years, and the result was the court rejected the appeal, admitting that mistakes had been made but that they were not serious enough to warrant to new trial. The next effort was to get a new trial in Criminal Court. For this Carl had to raise money, first from the community, but when that was not sufficient he added $5,000 of his own. This caused a rift with his wife. By this time Carl had married and eventually had three children. He was working as a gypsy cab driver and was not making much money. His wife was angry at him for using so much of their savings on the case, but Carl felt he had to. His identification with Colin was very strong. He told me at one point, “I always felt that could be me going through this.” He was fighting for his own peace of mind as well as Colin's.
The lawyer hired for the criminal and civil case was incompetent. When he went to court, he did not have command of the facts of the case. He made the judge run out of patience, and he dismissed the request for a new trial. An enormous amount of money was lost; years of work went to waste, and the effort to free Colin was back at square one.
Around this period, Carl was spending so much time in court that he discovered there was a position called process server. He was mostly working in the criminal and civil court and found there was a need for process servers in the Civil Court which was upstairs in the Brooklyn courthouse. Carl decided to become a process server; he took a brief training course and found out there were two aspects to the job. First you had to be good at reading legal documents. If they were not filled out accurately there was no point in serving them. So he learned legal jargon and became quite good at knowing if a document had been prepared properly. Second you had be to a good investigator. Some people did not want to be found, so the server had to figure out how to track someone who may not have wanted to be located. Carl also became good at this. To get started he prepared a card and handed it out in the hallway of the court house, and soon he started to get work.
One person who hired him was a real estate lawyer named William Robodee. He worked out of his apartment with his Irish girl friend who also worked for him. Carl and Robodee got along well and became friends. In thinking about the case, Carl realized that just working with the court record had not worked. Two major efforts had failed, the second one quite expensive and it cost Carl his relationship with his wife. Carl knew Colin was innocent; he thought with his newly developed skills as a process server he might be able to go back to the case and re-investigate in order to come up with the truth.
His effort was to pursue a man named Massup. Massup had been with the prosecutor's main witness, and he knew that witness had not actually seen the shooting, so his revised testimony about Colin driving the car was false. Carl found out where Massup lived and went there dressed as a building worker. He saw Massup on the street and followed him into his apartment building and walked in front of him up the stairs. It was a four-story building and Carl went all the way to the top floor listening to Massup following him. Luckily for Carl, Massup entered an apartment on the third floor and Carl figured out which one it was.
He next pursued the actual witness and managed to find out that he had been arrested again and deported to Haiti, and there he had been murdered. So that avenue was closed.
Another possibility was getting the truth from the actual killer who had served time and was out of prison and thus could not be charged again as that would be double jeopardy. He actually responded to a letter and agreed to meeting at Robodee's apartment. He showed up in a fancy car, well dressed, seemingly carrying a gun. He was totally candid. He admitted Colin had had nothing to do with it, that he felt bad about what had happened to him and agreed to give a deposition.
Another piece of evidence had been given by Mario's brother who said Colin did have a connection to his brother and the killer. Carl tracked him down in a bar and talked to him. He eventually admitted he had been coerced into giving false testimony and also agreed to a deposition. At this point Carl decided to return to Massup, and they had a confrontation in the apartment building. Massup at first refused to talk. However, Carl eventually convinced him, and he too gave a deposition. Every part of the police story was now in question and Robodee prepared a motion to dismiss the conviction of Colin. He filed it in court expecting it would take months for the judge to put it on the docket. In fact, the judge was appalled and gave a hearing within days, the prosecutor's office supported the plea and the conviction was vacated at the first hearing.
Colin at this time was upstate in prison with little idea of what was going on. It was now about twenty years since he had been convicted and he had gone through many changes. When first behind bars he had been very angry and isolated. He got in trouble with the guards and other inmates and several times suffered beatings from both and was for a period of two years held in solitary confinement. Gradually he had adjusted to his situation partly through despair. After twice hoping to reopen the case and having suffered failure, he asked Carl to stop trying for his release. He also took courses while in prison and became a good student, bookish and better educated than when he went in. He tried to get parole but had no chance as he would not admit to feeling contrition for a crime he did not commit. He had also married. A girl he knew before he was imprisoned took an interest in his case and began to write to him. A copious correspondence led to love and then marriage. The two were joined together in a prison visit and Colin began to have conjugal visits.
If Colin was finding some comfort in marriage, Carl's marriage was falling apart. Twice while involved in tracking down people, he failed to pick up his daughter at school. The second time his wife left, and Carl returned to an empty apartment. His wife had packed up and taken the children elsewhere.
The whole case had been the center of a disaster area, one repeated over and over with prisoners removed from their families and friends, leaving a gaping hole in their lives and in the lives to people they were forced to leave behind. The story of the incarceration of Blacks as the latest form of racism has been told many times elsewhere. In Colin's case the pain and suffering were multiplied by other events that sometimes made him feel like Job. In 1993 his father, who was an educator, died in Trinidad. Even after he was released, an ill fate dogged him. His mother died. His younger brother was killed in 2013 and one of his two sons accidentally drowned on July 4, 2015.
However, in this case justice was finally done. Colin was released, his marriage lasted, he had two children, and he gained some compensation for his suffering. He left New York for Atlanta. However, as Robodee pointed out, if he had been in a death penalty state, he would have become one more victim of a machine that largely eats up Black men and destroys them. Who knows how many were innocent?
And so the story of Carl and Colin came to an end. Carl stuck with his teenage friend for twenty years and finally figured out what must be done to get him free. However, in some ways that ending was just the beginning of another story.
– John DeWind
Carl King's Further Work on Proving Innocence
It’s been eighteen years since Carl King helped to overturn the conviction of Colin Warner for a murder he did not commit, but his innocence work is far from over. In working on Warner’s case, King found a calling that has defined his life. Since the time that Warner’s conviction was overturned in 2001 up until six months ago, Carl had been working slowly and steadily on a possible wrongful conviction case. It came to him through the grapevine, from a cousin who knew someone who knew Anwar Abdul, the person convicted in a high-profile murder that occurred in a Midtown Manhattan Gap Kids store. The victim, 22 year-old Lisa Steinberg, was found the morning of January 25, 1992 bound and gagged with a gunshot wound and multiple stab wounds, next to an open safe from which $7,000 had been stolen. Steinberg had just moved to New York City after graduating from college and was the assistant manager at the Gap Kids. The man convicted in her killing Abdul, was 20 years old at the time and an employee at the Gap store, which was located next door to the victim’s place of work. King believes that the evidence used to argue for Abdul’s guilt—the fact that he didn’t clock out of work on the day before the killing and that his shoes match a bloody shoe print left at the scene of the crime—is not enough to prove Abdul’s guilt, and has been trying to overturn the sentence Abdul received: 25 years to life in prison. Abdul himself has maintained his innocence since he was first accused of the crime.
It seems King’s investigations into the murder are paying off, because the Innocence Project has agreed to take on the case and are using their financial resources to conduct forensic work that King was not able to complete himself. Since handing off that case, King quickly picked up another. Like the previous murder, it is a stabbing that dominated headlines in the 1990s, but this time it happened in Prospect Heights. On March 8, 1999, Amy Watkins was walking to her apartment on Park Place when she was stabbed with a kitchen knife. She was 26 years old and enrolled in the Hunter College School of Social Work. That night, she had been returning from her job at the Bronx Community Shelter, where she counseled battered women. Since there was money missing from her wallet, the presumed motive of the attack was robbery, but King isn’t convinced. In fact, King calls into question the veracity of much of the narrative surrounding the crime. Based on the story told in court, three men committed the robbery, and Watkins was stabbed when she fell backward onto their knife. But King believes that Watkins’ stab wound—a deep puncture in her back—is not likely to have been the accidental result of three people attempting to rob one person. He also finds it strange that police did not charge anyone with Watkins’ murder until a year after it had occurred, when they recieved a tip about an individual who had been discussing their involvement in a robbery gone wrong. And despite three people supposedly committing the robbery, why was only one convicted? One who does not match the description of the person seen fleeing the scene at the time of the murder? These are all questions that King has to answer in his investigation of this case.
In his investigations of these murders, King does things a little differently from those who are employed in the legal field. “Time is my friend,” he says. “Since I don’t work for anyone, the clock never stops for me. My office is open 24/7.” As a result, he gets to be much more thorough than an investigator ever could be. He says that he often will read a document one hundred times, and can make a different connection with each reading. This is why, when speaking about the case, he is able to list detail upon minute detail from memory—somewhat of a harrowing experience when discussing the grisly murders of New York’s past. Besides his lack of a set working schedule, King also aims to differentiate himself from what he deems “the careless, sloppy, and malicious” methods detectives and investigators use to find pieces of evidence that fit holes in already-established narratives of a crime. Unlike them, he lives in the community where the crime was committed and doesn’t dress in uniform. He says he isn’t seen as a snitch, and doesn’t force people to speak to if they don’t want to, nor does he bribe people in order to get information. If someone doesn’t want to talk, he simply moves on to the next person, because he believes “the truth should come from the conscience.”
This careful gathering of information is a result of King’s first hand understanding of how a wrongful conviction affects a person, their family, and their friends. “It’s a life changer to send any human being to prison, especially a young person,” King says. “Even if they get out, it will always affect them in every way—from accessing jobs, to housing, to food.” That’s why King believes there should be more supervision of police officers, detectives, and prosecutors. “It would be monumental for new checks and balances to be imposed on prosecutors because they have so much power. I would say they have more power than the mayor.”
Despite his obsession with innocence work, don’t get the impression that it’s all King does. As his day he job he is still a process server, which means that he serves papers to let various people know when they are involved in some way in legal cases. This is a job he picked up to learn more about the legal system when he was still working on Colin Warner’s case. He also likes to spend time with his family: his wife, Charlene, to whom he has been married for eleven years, his three children, and three grandchildren. While he still resides in Crown Heights, he and Charlene vacation in Tobago every summer. Someday, King says he would like to visit Jamaica instead, but for now Charlene can’t get enough of Tobago.
-- Jessica Wachtler