CROWN HEIGHTS – True Story of Spending 21 Years in Prison

The story of Delayed Justice and Mistaken identity

Vijoy Alexander

Carl King and Colin Warner- when I read their life story, another Japanese story came into my mind.

To renovate the house, a Japanese man tried to break the wooden wall. Normally, Japanese houses have a hollow space between two layers of wooden planks to control the weather and also lay the electrical and plumbing pipes. When ripping down the walls, he saw a lizard in an immovable condition and he noticed that a nail was hammered into one of his legs. He felt pity. Suddenly, he realized that its leg was nailed almost 10 years ago when the house was newly constructed. He was curious to find how the Lizard survived all these years without moving and without food in its present condition. He was curious. He was observing to find how it survived all these years. After some time, he saw another Lizard coming out from nowhere with food in its mouth. He was shocked. Why the other Lizard was feeding the nailed Lizard in the past 10 years without fail? Without giving up hope?

Collin Warner released

When Carl King was asked why he did it, sacrificed 20 years of his life, to get his friend Colin Warner out of prison, he couldn’t explain.

Their friendship starts from their native Trinidad. Later both the families moved to Brooklyn, living in the Crown Heights neighborhood. They were teenagers and used to hang around by the corner and police used to harass them by pushing and kicking. On April 10, 1980, a 16-year-old boy, Mario Hamilton was killed with a gunshot. Police interrogated many including Thomas Charlemagne, the only witness, and Martell, Hamilton’s brother. Warner had one prior offense for carrying a switchblade for which he got a three-year probation. When Police showed the photo Warner, Martell during interrogation, said ‘Yes’ to a question. Warner didn’t know Hamilton at all and Martell never knew Warner too.

Colin Warner was arrested despite lack of clear evidence, but based on the statements of Martell and Thomas.

“It happened out of the blue,” says Warner, who was 18 at the time. “The police come to my house, for me, in connection with a murder. It was totally off the grid for me. Even though I knew I wasn’t a goody-goody, my level of aggression didn’t reach to the level of taking another human life.”

King was 17 at that time and was not there with Warner at that time. A second man 15-year-old Norman Simmonds was arrested later for driving the car that was taken the person who killed Hamilton before and after the incident. The two were tried together, who never met before, after two years of Warner’s arrest. During the course of the trial, Simmonds privately admitted that he was the man who killed Hamilton but never told anybody else. He also never told anybody that Warner was innocent.

During the first trial, the witness Thomas Charlemagne, changed his testimony and said that Simmonds was the killer but trial ended up as a hung jury.

In the second trial both, Warner and Simmonds charged with Second-degree murder. As a juvenile Simmonds got nine years and Warner got 15 years to life.

An immediate appeal was put in but it took six years to reject the plea of innocence, though the court said there is no profuse evidence.

For the appeals, Warner had no money and was depending on public defenders who shows up according to their convenience without any study.

King, on the other hand, would make long trips to see his friend in various prisons and also arranged money to higher cheap lawyers who later realized that their knowledge of law much lesser than his.

At the age of 33, King took a job as a court process server which helped him to know more about the legal system. He taught himself to become an investigator. King’s determination and dedication paved a way to lose his savings and marriage.

In the meantime, Warner, though had a very bad time in the prison, joined the school system in the prison and obtained an associate degree in Liberal Arts.

“Every step of every day, there was always the hope that somebody would stop this s–t,” Warner says. “I don’t know how to explain it. You feel you’re under pressure from bullies. From the courts, the detectives, the jails. Everybody’s all over you. You’re being bombarded.”

In 2001 King met William J. Robedee, a young lawyer who heard the story of Warner and decided to take up the case. Both of them tracked down Simmonds who had been paroled in 1989.

King and Robedee, convinced Simmonds to give them a statement admitting that he had murdered Hamilton alone. It took only 21 days to get this done to bring to the notice of a judge that Warner is innocent, after spending 21 years in prison. At last Colin Warner is a free man.

King is still working as Process Server and lives in Crown Heights. He started a non-profit organization to help who have been wrongly convicted. Warner got a compensation of $2.7 million in 2009 for his wrongful conviction. He moved to Georgia and also started a shelter –halfway home.

“Crown Heights”, a movie on mistaken identity of Warner and his dearest friend King was released in 2017 after 16 years of Warner’s release. A book is also published in the same title by Amazon written by Warner and King and co-authored by Holly Lorincz. Available in Kindle version too.

References: New York Post, BBC