PASSAIC, N.J. — A New Jersey appellate court on Wednesday temporarily halted a ruling that lowered bail from $1 million to $20,000 for two long-imprisoned men who were granted new trials in a deadly 1993 New Jersey video store robbery after DNA tests linked an important piece of evidence to someone else.
The murder convictions of Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee were overturned last month, but they remained in state prison on the $1 million bail. Their bails later were lowered to $450,000 before Judge Joseph Portelli dropped it to $20,000 on Tuesday.
An appellate panel issued a stay of the bail ruling Wednesday at the request of Passaic County prosecutors, who filed court papers challenging both the judge’s ruling throwing out the convictions and his decision to lower their bail.
Lee and Kelley were convicted in the killing of video store clerk Tito Merino in Paterson.
Merino, 22, was beaten and stabbed during a midday robbery while he was working at his uncle’s shop. A community college student who aimed to become a doctor, he had immigrated to the northern New Jersey city from Peru about two years earlier.
Lee, now 55, and Kelley, 52, confessed but soon recanted. With no physical evidence against them, their prosecutions hinged on their confessions and testimony from witnesses who had been in the video store around the time of the killing.
One identified Lee as a man browsing the shop shortly beforehand in a green-and-purple plaid baseball cap that was then found near Merino’s body. Kelley had told police he was wearing the cap himself.
DNA testing in 2014 confirmed there were no traces of either Kelley or Lee on the cap and found it was laden with genetic material from someone else: a man convicted of a 1989 knifepoint holdup at a different Paterson shop. He’d been released from prison three months before the video store robbery.
That man hasn’t been charged in the video store killing. There’s also no indication authorities ever questioned him about it.
Prosecutors have said the new DNA match didn’t prove that Kelley and Lee weren’t involved in the crime, didn’t establish that the other man was and didn’t outweigh the “powerful evidence” of confessions and witness accounts.