After 17 years of incarceration and numerous filings and litigation with the New Jersey appellate courts that Rodney Roberts receive the answer he sought for so many years on post-conviction relief: not guilty, conviction vacated. This was a long journey, fraught with both set-backs and victories that led to the ultimate successful result to release Mr. Roberts from a crime he did not commit. I had the pleasure to represent him. His story is an inspiration to those who have been wrongfully convicted and seek redress in New Jersey for post-conviction relief under New Jersey Court Rule 3:22-1 et. seq.
At a post-conviction relief hearing, Mr. Roberts was able to testify and tell his side of the story. Mr. Rodney’s story begins in 1996 when he was arrested for a rape that occurred in Newark by an unknown assailant. Upon arrest, Mr. Roberts could not afford a private attorney, and he was met with a public defender at his first court date. This particular public defender represented that the victim had identified him as the assailant and it was in his best interests to plead to the lesser charge of kidnapping in exchange for a lenient 7 year sentence. Despite Mr. Robert’s representations to his attorney that he was innocent of his charge, his attorney insisted the plea was in his best interests given the potential of long incarceration in excess of 30 years if he was found guilty at trial. Further, his attorney represented that he had conducted investigations which only confirmed that the State’s evidence. Scared and relying on his attorney’s advice, Mr. Roberts accepted the guilty plea.
After accepting the guilty plea, he sought to obtain the evidence in his case without success. He filed a petition for post-conviction relief in 2001 asserting his innocence. This would be the beginning of 13 years of appellate litigation on post-conviction relief. His petition was denied several times, only to be reviewed on appeal and then remanded to the trial courts where he would fight on. In 2009, the New Jersey Superior Court held an evidentiary hearing in which Mr. Roberts and other witnesses testified. The court again denied the relief he sought, yet there was mention of potential DNA evidence in his case. Upon review of the evidentiary hearing, The New Jersey Appellate Division found the record needed clarification as to this DNA evidence and matter was again remanded to the trial court.
On this last remand, I became involved in Mr. Robert’s case as PCR (“post-conviction relief”) counsel. The focus then shifted to the DNA evidence. Apparently, law enforcement was able to extract DNA from the victim through the use of a rape kit on the night in question in 1996. Law enforcement was able locate portions of that kit during my involvement in Mr. Robert’s case. This included samples of the DNA evidence. On Mr. Robert’s behalf, I filed a motion to test the DNA evidence. The New Jersey State Police labs did ultimately test that sample in 2013 finding the DNA did not match Mr. Robert’s DNA. Mr. Robert’s conviction was then vacated in November 2013.
Mr. Robert’s story stands for the proposition that despite the many obstacles one may have before them when serving a sentence, there is still hope. New Jersey Court Rule 3:22-1 et. seq. provides those are incarcerated in New Jersey and who maintain their innocence with a lifeline on post-conviction relief.