A former Central Islip resident, who spent 27 years in prison for three gas station robberies in the mid-1980s, has filed a $55 million federal civil rights lawsuit against Suffolk County and 10 former police officers, citing evidence pointing to other suspects that was never turned over to the defense.
In January, a Suffolk judge vacated the robbery convictions of Rodolfo Taylor, now of Brooklyn, after an investigation by the Suffolk District Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit found several witnesses to the robberies originally identified other suspects. Taylor, who was convicted at two jury trials, was released from prison in December 2009.
"You had a number of witnesses who either picked out somebody else or looked at Rodolfo and didn't pick him out," said attorney Bruce Barket, who is representing Taylor in the civil case. "And that information was concealed from his defense attorneys."
The suit, which was filed Monday in U.S. Eastern District Court in Central Islip, names Suffolk and 10 former detectives, sergeants or officers and cites allegations of malicious prosecution, false arrest and due process violations.
County and police officials did not respond to requests for comment.
In 1984, Suffolk police investigated nine gas station robberies that were reportedly committed by the same individual, including four in Central Islip and Brentwood between Feb. 22 and June 10.
In the aftermath of each of the four robberies, witnesses provided varying descriptions of the perpetrator to police, said Barket, who will host a news conference on the case Tuesday in Garden City
One Shell station employee, who was victimized in two robberies, identified “with no hesitation" a different man as the culprit. The employee later identified a second individual, also not Taylor, as the suspect, the suit said. Other witnesses described a light-skinned Black man who did not fit Taylor's description, the suit states.
By July, with the crimes still unsolved, Suffolk detective showed a witness — who previously told police he could not identify anyone for the robbery — photos of Taylor and "used suggestive techniques," to direct the blame at him, Barket said.
Authorities later gathered all five eyewitnesses together and secured a positive lineup identification of Taylor, although witnesses failed to link him to the other five robberies.
He was convicted during his first trial of two robberies and sentenced to 9 to 18 years in prison. After rejecting a plea on the third robbery charge, he was convicted and sentenced to 9 to18 years in prison — to be served consecutively with the first case.
Taylor "was targeted, prosecuted, and spent 27 years in prison for robberies he did not commit — unable to successfully defend himself because agents of the Suffolk County law enforcement apparatus blocked his access to basic and constitutionally protected information as part of their effort to 'clear' the unsolved crimes," the suit states.
At the time of the robberies, Taylor was 24, had a 3-year-old-daughter and had applied to a Northrop Grumman apprenticeship program. He was accepted into the program shortly after the trial.
During his incarceration, Taylor, who was denied parole after refusing to express remorse for the robberies, was unable to attend the funeral of his father and great-grandmother, who had helped raised him.
“I sat in prison while people closest to me lived their lives and my life stood still," Taylor said in court in January.
It was only after Taylor, who has no legal background, requested case documents from Suffolk police while still behind bars that he discovered critical information had not been shared with the defense.
Years after his release, the Conviction Integrity Bureau took up Taylor's case. All five witnesses, along with the officers involved in the arrest, have either died, do not remember the crime or declined to cooperate with the probe.
Nonetheless, Supreme Court Judge Richard Ambro vacated the charges, arguing that the failure to turn over documents deprived Taylor of his constitutional right to a fair trial.
"For the first time in 40 years, I feel free," Taylor told Newsday in January outside of Criminal Court in Riverhead.
Barket, who plans to also file a civil case in state court, said Taylor "literally lost his entire life as an adult … When someone's been in jail for that long, it really does eliminate an adult life in any meaningful way."