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Nassau DA will retry man whose murder conviction was thrown out

Christopher Ellis leaves the Nassau County Courthouse on

Christopher Ellis leaves the Nassau County Courthouse on Aug. 9 in Mineola. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Christopher Ellis was freed after decades in prison last month following a judge's ruling that evidence from a detective’s notes pointing to other suspects had been wrongfully withheld at the man's trial for a 1990 slaying.

On Monday, the Nassau County district attorney’s office announced that Ellis would be retried, saying a new trial "is warranted to ensure justice is done" in the shooting death of the victim, a Hofstra assistant football coach.

Ellis, 51, of Hempstead, has long maintained his innocence.

His defense attorney, Ilann M. Maazel, said in a statement after a court hearing: "We are extremely surprised and disappointed by the Nassau County District Attorney’s decision to retry Christopher Ellis for a crime he did not commit. Our thoughts are with Chris and his family, who suffered greatly during his 30-year incarceration and should not have to face such an ordeal a second time."

The statement added: "We will continue to fight for justice until Chris’ good name is cleared once and for all."

What to Know

  • Last month, Ellis was released from decades in prison after a judge ruled that evidence from a detective’s notes pointing to other suspects had been wrongfully withheld at his trial for a 1990 slaying.
  • On Monday, the Nassau County district attorney’s office announced that Ellis would be retried, saying a new trial “is warranted to ensure justice is done” in the shooting death of the victim, a Hofstra assistant football coach.
  • Ellis has long maintained his innocence and his lawyer said he was disappointed in the DA's decision to retry him.

Ellis is to face two counts of second-degree murder and first-degree attempted robbery, according to Brendan Brosh, a district attorney’s office spokesman.

In a ruling July 22, the judge, Patricia Harrington of Nassau County Court, concluded that notes from a police detective's memo pad hadn’t been turned over to the defense before trial and contained information about "at least two identifiable people who claimed to have committed the murder."

Those notes, the judge ruled, would have offered leads for additional admissible evidence and potential witnesses: "The failure to disclose it severely erodes the public’s sense of justice in this case," she wrote.

Ellis had been imprisoned on a sentence of 31½ years to life in prison following a jury conviction in 1992 on charges that included second-degree murder and attempted robbery in the slaying of the coach, Joseph Healy, 25.

In an emailed statement Monday morning, Brosh said that while the office agreed that the failure to provide the notes warranted the overturning of the conviction, the office had thoroughly reviewed the case and determined that "retrial is warranted to ensure justice is done."

The statement said that the memo-pad notations at issue were later found by the office’s Conviction Integrity Unit in the Nassau County Police Department’s case file. The pad contained leads about the other suspects, who the police declined to charge, the statement said.

Brosh's statement said that the failure to disclose the notes wasn’t believed to be intentional, and that prosecutor George Peck, who later became a judge and died in 2018, isn’t believed to have been aware of their existence.

Two others in the case — the shooter and lookout, according to a 1992 Newsday article — were convicted at separate trials and have since been released, Brosh said.

In 1992, the jury in Ellis’ case took just 90 minutes to convict him. He had confessed to the crime, Peck argued then. But Ellis’ then-defense attorney, Dennis Lemke, told the jury in closing arguments that the confession had been coerced and embellished by the police.

At his sentencing, Ellis, who was the accused getaway driver said: "I’m not going to show any remorse because I didn’t know him and I didn’t do it." He added: "I’m going to fight this if it kills me."

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