A Brooklyn man is fighting to prove he was wrongfully convicted following a trial that bares striking and unsettling parallels to the one that was the subject of Serial.
While the popular podcast’s subject, Adnan Syed, awaits a Maryland court’s decision about an appeal (on Wednesday, the state recommended that a judge deny his petition), Paul Higgins – recently released after three decades in prison – is taking the next step on what he hopes will be the path to exoneration.
The crime for which Higgins, his brother, and two others were convicted is a particularly horrific one. On a summer night in 1978, two young children were sexually assaulted and then murdered in a Williamsburg housing project during what prosecutors said was a failed robbery attempt. Higgins was 22 when he was convicted, having allegedly committed the crime at 16.
Just as in Syed’s case, Higgins was put away largely because of the testimony of just one person — someone who allegedly participated in the crime. Also like Syed, one or more people who could have provided an alibi for Higgins were never brought as witnesses to trial. And the effectiveness of Higgins’ lawyer, just like Syed’s lawyer, was later called into question. Like Cristina Gutierrez, Higgins’ lawyer was later disbarred.
Many people who listened to Serial were also struck by how the narrative of the crime changed from original police interviews to what was presented in court. I was similarly struck while reading the original police files of Paul Higgins’ case by how drastically basic facts of the murder – and where people were that night – changed over time.
Like Syed, Higgins maintained his innocence throughout his entire stay in prison. Higgins was paroled in September, but is still working to prove he is innocent. His case is now under review by the Exoneration Initiative, a group that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted. And more exonerations are happening than ever before; figures released this week by the National Registry of Exonerations indicate that last year 125 people were freed, a record number.
“I’m going to continue to fight this case,” Higgins told me in October, in the first of a series of lengthy interviews. “When they told me my chances of getting released would be better if I admitted to the case, I told them, ‘Then I’ll just die in prison.’”
LaShawn and Greg’s mother, Thelma Kelly, allegedly woke up at 5 a.m. to find her daughter unmoving in her bed, and her son missing from the apartment. She screamed and shrieked for help, and a neighbor and housing police officer responded to the scene. Greg wasn’t found in the elevator motor room until hours later.
The Kelly murders sent shockwaves throughout Brooklyn, and even through the hard-nosed police and justice departments. New York Daily News stories from the time quote a Brooklyn detective as calling the murders “the most disgusting I’ve ever seen” and a judge said it was “just about the most brutal case I’ve tried” and “the stuff that nightmares are made of.”
It was also a perplexing crime, one with many possible players and without a clear motive. It took investigators years to even make their first arrest. David Krajicek, a longtime crime reporter who wrote a recent New York Daily News piece about the murders and Higgins’ impending parole, told me, “Everything about this case is unusual in every way.”
To me, what seemed most unusual, as I sifted through the police interviews and court documents, is that during those intervening years, when the case had not yet been solved, key information about what happened that night changed — radically.
For one thing, police did not initially say that Thelma and Greg had been sexually abused. Instead, they said the children died by “suspicious asphyxiation.”This may simply have been a case of the cops’ inability to identify what was sexual assault; when they first got to the scene, they made no mention of it in their police reports. Only a later medical examiner report detailed the multiple kinds of sexual abuse both kids faced, writing that Greg “died a slow and painful death” as a result of it.
But Krajicek wrote in his piece that perhaps the cops knew about the sexual assault, and simply “undersold the details.”
Other information that changed over time was where and what Thelma Kelly was doing the night of August 18, 1978. When police first interviewed Kelly, she told them she had been out with a police officer named Robert “Snake” Abrams. Abrams picked her up from the Sumner Houses around 10 p.m., they went to her cousin’s house for drinks, and then to his apartment to have sex. He dropped her back off at home just before midnight.
According to her police interview, Kelly told cops she then “went upstairs to her own apt. She is certain the apt. door was locked because she heard the noise of the lock when she turned the key.” The report on their interview goes on: “She looked into the children’s room and saw Shawn on her bed and she thinks she saw Gregory on his. However she is not completely certain she saw Gregory.”
Thelma told interviewers she then went to sleep, and only woke up at 5 a.m. – from a phone call from her sister about a trip they’d planned for the day. That’s when she said she found her daughter unmoving in her bed, and her son missing from the apartment. She said the apartment was now unlocked, suggesting whoever killed the children had a key, and several lights were on.
Many of the residents of the Sumner Houses were awoken by Thelma Kelly’s frantic screams.
Not much later on that morning, Kelly and police officer Robert “Snake” Abrams apparently met up again. According to Abrams’ interview with police, he said Kelly called him around 8 a.m. and told him her daughter was dead and her son was missing. Abrams said he was just getting off his night shift, and came over to the Sumner Houses to see her. Kelly did not mention the meeting at all in her police interview.
Abrams also said in his police interview that Kelly had a boyfriend, and that sometimes when they were on the phone, she’d warn him the boyfriend was coming.
Her boyfriend was a known bookie in the area, by the name of William Beasley, and Higgins says that when Sumner Houses residents heard Kelly scream for help, they also heard her shout: “He killed my kids!” in reference to Beasley. Higgins says Beasley was later killed in an unrelated case. I could find no information about a William Beasley in New York that matched his description, either dead or alive, and I could find no one else at the Sumner Houses that remembered hearing Kelly shout that sentence.
Beasley was originally fingerprinted as a suspect, and stayed on the suspect list for years. But nothing ever came of it. Neither Beasley nor Abrams made any appearance in the trial, or in the intense media coverage of the Kelly case.
Instead, after Kelly was apparently hypnotized to “aid her memory,” according to one Daily News story from the time, a new story appeared that didn’t involve Abrams or Beasley. Kelly testified that she had been out that night to pick up bus tickets for a trip she had planned for the children, the one her sister called her about in the morning. She also briefly mentioned going to a friend’s house, but did not elaborate and apparently was not questioned about it.
Kelly recounted the night of the murders in her testimony, again saying she wasn’t totally sure Greg had been in his bed when she came home. “They was in bed, I’m not sure, I – you know, that saw was Gregory’s bed looked if he was in it. I didn’t turn the cover back, I looked into the door, then I went to the bathroom and washed up and put on my night clothes.”
Her testimony went on: “Then I went to the kitchen and at the time the doctor had me on valiums, I wasn’t sleeping very well. I took one and went to bed. About two o’clock a friend call me, I talked to him and I went back to sleep.”
The 2 a.m. call was new information. Kelly hadn’t mentioned it in her police interview. It’s unclear if this male caller was Beasley, or Abrams, or someone else entirely. Between all the calls and the time she came home, Kelly would have only been asleep for about three and a half hours that evening.
I called Thelma Kelly to ask her about Beasley and Abrams, and her testimony, and how she felt about Paul Higgins’ release. During my interviews with Higgins, he told me he was sure Kelly always thought he and the others were innocent, and even encouraged me to call her to see what she’d say.But when I reached Kelly she seemed shocked that Higgins had already been paroled, and said vehemently that she believed he did it. She didn’t want to talk any further after that, and hung up the phone.
Kelly herself was originally listed as a suspect in the case, along with Beasley, and their fingerprints were submitted to compare to fingerprints found at the murder scene. But, according to police records, no fingerprints belonging to either person were found in the apartment, despite the fact that they lived and frequented there. Only one person’s fingerprints were found, in fact, and they belonged to Kelly’s neighbor: Paul Higgins.
Initially, police had nine people on their suspect list – most of them residents of the Sumner Houses, and also known to police for having criminal records of some kind. They were mostly teenagers, or in their early 20s, and had committed robberies and burglaries and petty crimes.
But in 1982, four years after the killings – and with residences of the housing projects clamoring for the murders to be solved –the police narrowed the list down to only four. They arrested Paul Higgins, on the basis of his fingerprints, and then his brother Thomas, and Wilbur Weeks – all of whom were known to the police –and then also an older man by the name of Gregory Calloway.
It was not DNA that led the police to narrow down their suspect list. It appears the “intact spermatozoa” found on Greg Kelly was never tested, or if it was, there wasn’t a match, or the results were never announced.
In our interviews, Higgins always found this suspicious. “We were all in the database for our DNA, because when you go to prison it’s automatic that you’re in there,” he says. “If you test it and you got the right people, wouldn’t you say, ‘This semen belongs to so-and-so’?”
Either way, the DNA no longer exists. (Nor does Higgins’ pre-sentencing report, or many pages of the court documents, which Freedom of Information Law requests found were no longer available in the archives of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office or the State of New York Division of Parole. Other documents were not released to me because of privacy laws for any sex crime involving children.)
And so, instead of matching the sperm found on Greg Kelly, a tip is what apparently led police to Calloway, as their primary suspect, though it is unclear who the tipster was or what he or she told them.
I was unable to find any other evidence that Calloway did it, but when he was told he would face a life sentence for the murders if convicted, Calloway quickly implicated others in the crime. He named the Higgins brothers (this was after Paul Higgins’ fingerprints had already been found at the scene), as well as Wilbur Weeks. He said he had only acted as lookout, while the others carried out the crime.
In trial, prosecutors argued that the four men had broken into the apartment in search of Williams Beasley’s money, since he was a bookie. But it does not appear any evidence was ever presented to show that Beasley kept money at home, and his name never made it to media reports about the murders. When the men couldn’t find any money, prosecutors alleged that they woke up the children to interrogate them about the cash’s whereabouts, then tortured and killed them — all while Thelma Kelly was asleep in the next room.
This story was argued despite original police reports that said there had been no sign of struggle in the apartment, and despite Kelly’s admission that she had gotten calls at 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., meaning she would have only been asleep from midnight to 2 a.m., and from whenever that call finished until 5.
There were holes in the prosecutor’s story, but Higgins’ lawyer, Donald Tucker, seemingly failed to ask about them. And with several robberies already on Paul Higgins’ record, it wasn’t hard to convince a jury that he could be a culprit. And, of course, there was the matter of his fingerprints.
Higgins did not speak at his own trial; he says Tucker advised him not to. If he had spoken, it’s hard to believe it would have hurt his case. In our interviews, Higgins was soft-spoken but affable, and never argumentative even when I questioned him at length about his story and alibi and history. He has tired eyes and a tired face, and is not physically imposing. He always wore collared shirts buttoned to the top. It’s possible that Higgins changed a lot during three decades behind bars, and that the teenager with multiple robberies under his belt would have scared a jury. But today, Higgins is anything but scary.
He cried several times while trying to explain that he did not commit this crime. Sometimes, when he was trying to make a point, and wasn’t doing so clearly, he would fretfully stutter. The most animated he ever got in our conversations was either when he thought he successfully showed me how his conviction was wrongful, or when he talked about a kitten he adopted off of the street after being paroled.
If Higgins had testified, he says he would have argued that of course his fingerprints were in the Kelly apartment, because he was over there all the time. He was not only their next-door neighbor, but says he was also a sort of big brother to Greg Kelly, who was three years his junior. They played baseball and basketball on the same team. Earlier that day, Higgins says he saw Greg in the elevator and gave him $1.
Higgins says his mother was the first to tell him something was really wrong at the Kellys’ apartment, after Thelma’s screams and shouts were heard. “She said, ‘Stay away from the window, something’s going on next door.’ There was police and noise. And when we went downstairs we heard what happened from the other neighbors,” he says. “I thought it was unbelievable. I thought it was crazy. Who would want to harm Greg and LaShawn?”
On the night of the murders, Higgins says he wasn’t even in the Sumner Houses until late. He can’t remember perfectly what he was doing on that night, a problem that was the subject of the entire first episode of Serial. The podcast argued that an innocent person shouldn’t be expected to remember what he or she did on an un-special day. But Higgins thinks he spent some time playing cards in an apartment of a friend, and then drinking beers in a park across the street until 2 a.m., and then came home.
“We were just hanging out and drinking, same thing we did every day,” says Higgins. “But I remember when I came home at 2 a.m., because I helped break up a fight. My mother was looking out the window. She called down to me and said, ‘Bring your butt upstairs!’ I came up, used the bathroom, and went to sleep.”
There were a lot of people who could have seen Higgins that night, by his account: the people at the apartment playing cards, the people drinking beers at the park, and the people whose fight he helped break up. There was also Paul’s mother, who backed up her son’s story: she called him up from downstairs around 2 a.m., and then Paul went off to sleep.
Higgins says he told Tucker about all the people who could provided an alibi. “But he kept saying they wouldn’t be good witnesses because they were familiar with me,” he says.
It was only years later that Higgins and his brother Thomas began to question their legal representation by Donald Tucker. Their mother Mattie also began asking questions, writing in an affidavit that she later provided for an appeal of her son’s case: “I gave him [Tucker] the name of several individuals who had information that would prove my son’s innocence. He told me he would call these people as alibi witnesses. But when my son Paul Higgins went to trial, when they had reached the verdict, without him calling any of the witnesses, he snuck out of the back of the courtroom. I had finished paying him the money before we went to trial.”
By the time the Higgins’ started asking questions, Tucker had been disbarred, for failing to cooperate with a disciplinary investigation. Tucker’s ex-partner, Charles Feinstein, told me that he had already fired Tucker at that point, for theft from the firm. “His ethics leave a good deal to be desired,” Feinstein said. Efforts to reach Tucker were unsuccessful, and Feinstein says he does not know where he is now.
In an appeal, Wilbur Weeks similarly complained of bad legal representation, saying his lawyer also failed to call witnesses who could have provided him an alibi. Weeks said he gave his attorney the names of seven people he was drinking with that night –including Paul and Thomas Higgins. None of them took the stand. But a decision on Weeks’s appeal stated that Weeks was not misrepresented by his lawyer, because it would have been strategically stupid to place him that night with his other co-defendants.
Whether Tucker was making a similar strategic choice, or whether he was unethical, or just incompetent, he also never brought a single witness to provide an alibi for Higgins. According to Higgins, Tucker also never asked the prosecution why Beasley had fallen off the suspect list. And he seemingly never drove home the biggest question of all: how four men could have broken into a tiny apartment, ransacked it for cash, and tortured and killed two children — all during a small window of time that their mother was asleep, off and on, in the very next room.
But Brocato, who had been on the force for 32 years at the time of the arrests, was quoted in the Daily News at the time as saying that the horrific nature of the case is “what drove us so hard – we wanted to make sure we got the guys who did it.”
Higgins remembers having an uneasy back-and-forth with the detectives for years before they arrested him. “They would see me on the street and say something, and I’d say, ‘If you’re not arresting me, leave me alone,’” Higgins told me. “And then the policeman would say, ‘By the time you get out of prison, we’ll be living on the moon.’ And I said, ‘Then I’ll see you on the moon.’ I shouldn’t have said stuff like that to them.”
Kenneth Reiser, who was one of the assistant district attorneys on the Kelly case, and presented it to the grand jury, remembers the two detectives for how dogged they were at solving the crime. “I admired them,” he told me. “To me it was like they were carrying on like a holy crusade to get the Kelly children’s killers.”
Reiser says the Kelly case had more DD-5s, or detective reports, than he had ever seen in a case before. “The typical Brooklyn street murder had maybe, like, 30 reports. This had 400 or more,” he said. “The case just went on so long.”
Brocato and Miltonberg finally got a break in the case when they received that mysterious tip about Gregory Calloway. Like Jay in Adnan Syed’s case, Calloway was involved in the crime, and agreed to become the DA’s star witness in the trial. He got a reduced sentence of 8 ½ to 25 years for implicating Paul and Thomas Higgins, and Wilbur Weeks.
While it took detectives almost five years to make their four arrests, the trial lasted only a couple weeks. Calloway testified that Paul and Thomas Higgins were the ringleaders, the ones who killed LaShawn and Greg Kelly, while he served as lookout. Calloway said he came upstairs at one point, when he got nervous seeing a police car go by. He testified that he heard moaning noises from LaShawn’s room upstairs, and saw Paul Higgins walk out of it. He said he also saw Paul and Thomas subdue young Greg, and then take him up to the elevator motor room. There, he said Greg was sexually abused and strangled to death with a belt.
Higgins says Calloway’s testimony was clear and coherent by the end of the trial, but it wasn’t at the beginning. “I remember originally Calloway said we did it before 12am,” he says. “When they realized this was no good, because Thelma went up at 12 — she’d either walk in while we were doing it or would have seen the house torn up — he said it happened after midnight.” There’s no way to verify if this is true, as Calloway’s original testimony no longer exists.
But either way, Calloway’s testimony stuck. Reiser says that when the verdicts were read, many of the female jurors cried.
All four men ended up with different sentences. Paul Higgins was not convicted for sexual abuse, but was convicted on four counts of murder (two for felony murder, two for intentional murder), and sentenced to serve 25 years to life.
Calloway, who pled guilty to manslaughter, ended up serving just 13. It is not clear where Calloway is now, though residences of the Sumner Houses say he is somewhere out of state.
Paul was shocked by his conviction, as was apparently his brother Thomas, according to documents left behind after his death. “The state, for the reasons of racism and politics, can frame actually innocent defendants for murder?” Thomas asked in an impassioned petition for an appeal. “[I am] alleging pre-accusation delay, prosecutorial and police misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel.”
Both Paul and Thomas felt that Calloway had just gone along with the detectives’ and DA’s story in order to get less time. And they could not believe they got convicted based on just Calloway’s story, and Paul’s fingerprints.
When I asked Reiser how four men could have been so quickly convicted with so little evidence, he said that wasn’t how he remembered the case. “In New York State, you can’t just be convicted on the testimony of a co-defendant. I think they had prints of everybody in the apartment,” he said. Police records, however, show they got just one person’s fingerprints: Paul Higgins.
I also asked Reiser about Thelma Kelly’s meeting with the police officer Abrams, and about her bookie boyfriend William Beasley, and why he fell off the suspect list. Reiser had never heard of the police officer, and said the only mention of Beasley at trial was as a bookie who might have kept cash at home.
“Some of the things that you’ve raised, I have no recollection of ever having seen them,” says Reiser. After a while, he added: “Maybe [the two detectives] got the wrong guys.”
In 1985, and again in 2002 and 2004, Thomas Higgins made appeals to the state supreme court to try to overturn his and his brother’s convictions. Unlike Paul, Thomas could read and write, and wrote lengthy petitions in his defense.
As part of his appeal, Thomas Higgins secured affidavits from several neighbors who could have provided alibis for him and Paul in the trial, had their lawyer, Tucker, asked them to. Two neighbors, Francine and Curtis Irving, said that they had been with or seen both Paul and Thomas that night, in Francine’s apartment, and in the park across the street. Both said they would have testified at the trial had they been called to, and would still gladly testify if needed.
Despite the affidavits, Thomas Higgins’ last appeal was dismissed on the ground that “no substantial constitutional question is directly involved.” Thomas did not appeal again. In 2013, he died of liver disease while in jail.
When reached today, Francine Irving maintains that she was with Paul that night. “Everyone was at my house playing cards. Paul was there until late in the night. We probably finished around 12,” she told me in a phone call.
Another neighbor of the Higgins’, Virginia Gash — who lived and still lives in the Sumner Houses, on the other side of the Kelly’s old apartment — was there when I went to visit the housing complex on a bitter cold day in December.Sign at the Sumner Houses. (Elizabeth Flock)[/caption]In the decades since the murder happened, the broader Williamsburg neighborhood has largely gentrified. But the drab and dismal high-rise housing project is still in a rough area, and the buildings themselves maintain heavy security.
As for the Kelly apartment, it is inhabited. Thelma Kelly moved out long ago, but many of her old neighbors still live in the same apartments and remember the case. Few of them were willing to go on record about what they remembered. They all described it as a terrible morning, awakening to Kelly’s screams or to the chaos of police, and then a terrible few years trying to figure out if someone in the Sumner Houses did it.
But Gash recalls that night clearly. She says that she had been watching the TV show The Incredible Hulk. With the Sumner Houses’ very thin walls, she thought she would have heard a break-in next door, or some sounds of a struggle. “I didn’t hear anything,” she said. “That was the weirdest thing.”
Gash said the police interviewed her only once but didn’t call her after that. Tucker didn’t call her either. About Paul Higgins, she only said, sadly: “He was a good kid.”
In September, after more than three decades in prison, Paul Higgins was paroled from Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, New York, on his third attempt at freedom. On his first attempt, officers had rejected Higgins’ request citing his “depraved indifference to human life.” On the second attempt they noted that the crime he’d been convicted of was especially “heinous” and “perverse.”
But in a third hearing, the board had a reversal of opinion. In that hearing, in which Higgins continued to maintain his innocence, he told the parole board he believed he was wrongfully convicted in part because he was “having problems with the officers” and was seen as a “troublemaker.”
That’s something Higgins said to me several times as well. Higgins’ prior record included three robberies, which he credited in a parole interview to “hanging in the streets” and “living a disruptive lifestyle.” But Higgins stressed again and again to me that he believes the rape and murder of children is a very different crime from robbery.
“I’m not saying I was a goodie goodie. I did some robbing and stealing. But some crime like this, this is something that I would not take from nobody,” Higgins told me, meaning he wouldn’t allow someone to get away with such a terrible crime. “I love kids. Whenever kids had problems [at the Sumner Houses], I was their big brother. I always gave them change, helped them if they had problems. I always helped Greg [Kelly].”
In his third attempt, parole officers told Higgins that though they couldn’t assess if he was innocent or guilty, they had approved him for release, on the condition that he do rehabilitative programming. They also suggested he contact the Innocence Project.
Higgins’ case is not eligible for review by the Innocence Project because of the lack of existing DNA. But Higgins has hope that the Exoneration Initiative, after reviewing his case, will help him.
Now 53, Higgins says he is working on adjusting to daily life outside of jail, and trying to get a job through a New York state vocational program called ACCES. He hopes to be a plumber, a skill he learned in prison. He also learned how to read and write, which he says is making it easier to try to prove his innocence after all these years.
“My time wasn’t no waste of time, because I did something with it,” he said. “But I want to have the truth be told. And then I want to get this behind me.”