CLEVELAND — As her brother sits in a prison cell fighting to clear his name, the sister of convicted killer Dwayne Brooks is criticizing what she called a system more concerned with getting a conviction than getting justice.
“It’s disheartening, it’s disrespectful, it’s damning,” said Brooks’ sister Aisha Robertson. “It’s a blatant disrespect for lives.”
Brooks was convicted of an August 1987 shooting at Cleveland’s Luke Easter Park. Clinton Arnold, 35 at the time, died in the attack that also wounded two others.
Brooks was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for the crimes.
But Brooks and Robertson insist Brooks wasn’t in Cleveland when the shootings happened.
“The last time I saw Dwayne prior to all of this, he was in the driveway, in the car with my mom and my aunt and driving back to New York,” said Robertson.
She said that was the night before the shooting.
Months later, a 10-year-old Robertson was asleep inside the family’s Shaker Heights home when she discovered her brother had been accused of murder.
“I was awakened at about three or four in the morning in my bedroom by a SWAT team, police officers in full gear,” said Robertson. “Red beams all over my bedroom.”
The police were looking for her brother.
The arrest warrant was for murder.
“That was one of the hardest things to even imagine,” said Robertson.
She said her brother had been her protector. She called him the glue that held her family together.
“He was always that father figure,” said Robertson. “He might have been more of the father figure than my own father was.”
But her belief in her brother’s innocence remained strong.
“I might have been about 13 or so the first time I actually asked him, ‘what’s going on here? Why are you here?” said Robertson.
She said her brother told her that the police had the wrong guy.
As years of appeals grew into decades, Robertson held out hope.
Then, last year, there was a discovery by a private investigator hired by her family.
“It’s like sitting on a lottery ticket and, like trying to find the magic door to cash it in,” said Robertson.
The investigator got copies of police reports from the murder investigation.
On the pages were revelations that Robertson had never seen, including statements from a witness who put two other men inside the van used in the deadly shooting, and information from investigators that one of the men who identified Brooks as the shooter was, himself, under FBI investigation.
They’re details that Brooks’ original defense attorney testified he didn’t see until last year.
“It was exculpatory and very useful to the defense,” said defense attorney Gordon Friedman during a court hearing earlier this month. “It was also information that we did not have.”
The lead prosecutor in the murder case admitted that in 1988 it was the policy of the prosecutor’s office not to provide defense attorneys copies of police reports in the case.
“The defendants were not permitted to receive the written discovery and we were to go through the file and basically read the reports to the defense council,” said former prosecuting attorney John Ricotta.
But Ricotta told a judge he could not recall if that happened in Brooks’ case.
In the early 2000s, the policy changed in Cuyahoga County, allowing more access to records in clients’ cases.
But Case Western Reserve University Senior Law Instructor Michael Benza believes years of limited discovery in criminal cases have left innocent people still sitting in prison today.
“Absolutely,” said Benza, “it is unfortunately a probably fairly common denominator among exonerations.”
Benza said because many people in prison don’t have access to appeals lawyers, there’s no way to determine the scope of the problem.
It’s something that haunts Robertson.
Armed with the information in the newly-released police reports, attorneys for her brother have asked a judge to grant Brooks a new trial, claiming prosecutors violated his rights by withholding potentially exculpatory evidence.
After 35 years in jails and prisons, Robertson is more hopeful than ever she’ll once again get to see her brother walk the streets a free man.
But her faith in the justice system has been shaken to its core.
“How do we have any hope in a justice system if it could be him, it could be me, it could be my son,” said Robertson. “It could be anyone.”
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