A Brooklyn man who's served nearly three decades in prison for a wrongful conviction of a brutal rape and robbery at a Burger King in 1987 has finally been freed.
Mark Denny, 46, was released Wednesday, surrounded by friends and family, including mother Elaine Denny, who had tears flowing down her face as she told reporters, "He's still my baby. I'm so happy. This is a glorious moment."
Denny cried, too, as he told of his and family's long fight. He recalled how his mother lost her house in Brooklyn while trying to finance lawyers to get him out of prison.
"My mom became poor. She was sleeping in the streets and that destroyed me," he said, tearing up. Denny was 17 when he was arrested.
Nina Morrison, senior staff attorney for the Innocence Project, the advocacy organization that's represented Denny since 2009, said, "Mr. Denny has been waiting for this day for a very long time."
She commended District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and his conviction review unit for taking "extraordinary steps to right the wrongs that kept Mr. Denny incarcerated for his entire adult life."
Denny was among four young men convicted in the December 1987 rape and robbery at a Burger King on Fort Hamilton Parkway. Two men wearing ski masks approached the workers as they were locking up at around 2 a.m. and forced them to reopen the restaurant. Once inside, the male employee was forced to stay in the stock room while the female employee was raped by the two men, according to the Innocence Project. At some point during the rape, at least one other man joined the two men in ski masks.
Denny became a suspect when he was arrested in a car driven by his cousin Raphael James, who'd burglarized several Burger Kings in the city with two friends, Mark Smith and Eddie Viera, according to the Innocence Project.
Smith and Viera took plea deals; James was tried and convicted with Denny, and James later admitted that his cousin had no involvement in the crimes. Denny maintained his innocence the entire time, and there was no physical evidence connecting him to the crime scene. He also had an alibi, and his grandmother confirmed they'd been at his mother's house in Queens the entire night.
The only admissible evidence against him was identification by the worker who was raped -- even though she'd consistently stated that three men were involved, only allowing for the possibility of a fourth suspect after Denny was arrested. The male worker always maintained there were three suspects, and never identified Denny as one of them.
Six years after he was sentenced, James wrote a letter to the court and to the district attorney's office, saying, "My conscience has been haunting me for years" because his own role in the crime had caused his young cousin -- then 17 -- to be wrongfully convicted.
The Innocence Project, after trying to find evidence for DNA testing, brought the case to the Kings County District Attorney's conviction review unit.
The DA's office concluded that Denny had no involvement in the crime and agreed to vacate and dismiss his conviction on the grounds of actual innocence. A judge overturned the conviction in Kings County Supreme Court Wednesday.
Denny said in court he had no ill feelings against the victim.
"The crime was horrible and she did suffer tremendously," he said. "I wish I could have been the hero that day that she needed, but unfortunately, I wasn't there."
Denny later told reporters he'd always dreamed of becoming "some sort of hero."
"Believe it or not, I wanted to be a cop when I was little," he said. "People that are disadvantaged in this world, I wanted to do something that makes them feel that they're not left out."
Denny said his years in prison were torturous, and he even considered death by suicide at one point. But when the Innocence Project took on his case, he felt renewed hope: "It made me look forward to this day. By the grace of God, I was able to make it through."
He said he wrote several books in jail, and now hopes to open a barber shop and eventually have children.
The case is the 24th conviction that the Brooklyn district attorney's office has disavowed in the last 3½ years, as it revisits over 100 convictions in one of the most sweeping reviews of its kind nationwide. Some of those cases were handled by a once-prominent detective whose tactics are under renewed scrutiny.
District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said this case was not the fault of law enforcement, "but happened because little was known back then about memory retention and retrieval, and their effect on eyewitness identification."
Gonzalez sought the help of a psychology professor who specializes in the reliability of eyewitness identifications. She said the victim had a limited chance to see her attackers because she had cloth tied around her eyes for part of the crime. That fact, plus the extreme stress of the attack and the long period until identification of suspects, could have contributed to false identification.
Denny, who came to the U.S. from Guyana as a permanent resident as a child, was ordered deported while in prison. The Cardozo Law School's Immigration Justice Clinic has been working to prevent his removal, and last week, ICE told his lawyers that now that Denny's convictions have been overturned, it doesn't intend to detain or deport him while he seeks full citizenship in the U.S.