Prosecutors Hid Evidence, So N.J. Man Gets New Murder Trial After 20 Years

A version of this article was first published by nj.com

The woman testified she saw Naeem Miller holding the gun after a man was shot and killed outside a Newark bar and another left wounded. What jurors didn’t know was she was facing jail time of her own in an unrelated case and would get a good deal for helping out prosecutors.

Nearly two decades later, an Essex County judge has ordered a new murder trial for Miller, finding authorities wrongly withheld that information from him and the jury that sent him to prison.

The ruling stages an uphill battle for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, which will have to decide whether to re-try Miller or let him walk a free man. A spokesman for the office did not return a message seeking comment on Tuesday.

The shooting at the center of the case happened in 2001, when a man and his brother were involved in a dispute over a woman with another man at a Newark bar, court records show.

Timothy Phillips exited the bar to question other patrons about who knocked his brother to the ground and injured him during the dispute, according to court records. That’s when the shooting occurred.

Another man who was leaving the bar was shot in the leg, an apparent bystander shooting. The injured witness looked up and saw a skinny man with dreadlocks shoot Phillips “multiple times with a large black gun while Timothy was on the ground,” court records show.

The injured bystander later picked Miller, who matched the description, out of a photo array and identified him as the killer. But at trial, he wasn’t so sure.

Miller was charged a few weeks after the killing, but fled the state until he was arrested by police in Scranton, Pennsylvania. By the time he was tried, in 2004, his dreadlocks were gone and he had grown a beard.

“That can’t be him there,” the witness said, according to a trial transcript. “He don’t look the same.”

Another witness to the shooting was more confident in pointing the finger at Miller. For one, she knew him by name as the cousin of her child’s father.

She testified she heard gunshots as she was leaving the bar and saw the victim on the ground as people were running. Among them was Miller, armed with a large automatic weapon, she claimed.

She was the only witness at trial to put Miller at the scene.

Jurors found her testimony credible, convicting Miller of murder, aggravated assault and weapons offenses. He was sent to New Jersey State Prison with a maximum release date of 2040.

But Miller and his attorneys argued prosecutors “knowingly and deliberately concealed” other information about the witness. She was facing identity theft and fraud charges out of Morris County and, after Miller’s conviction, was given pre-trial intervention, a diversionary program offered as an alternative to prison time.

Courts across the U.S. have recognized that when prosecutors have information that might help a defendant’s case, they are required to turn it over. Failing to do so is known as a Brady violation, a serious legal misstep that can jeopardize an entire case. Increasingly, they are also reexamining cases like Miller’s, where witnesses may have been motivated to lie on the stand.

In Miller’s case, “a jury was deprived of full information that the only witness that put him at the scene had pending fraud charges,” his attorney, Jarred Freeman, told NJ Advance Media in an interview.

At a new trial, prosecutors would have to disclose that information and marshal other evidence of a crime now more than two decades old. Miller’s new trial is slated for September, according to the text of Judge Verna G. Leath.

Freeman said his client had long maintained his innocence, representing himself in several appeals before finding lawyers to take up his case. He was buoyed by his family, Freeman added.

“He’s had his family’s support,” he said. “Every hearing, five, six, seven people there.

”He just kept having faith, really.”