Bail lowered from $1M to $20,000 in fatal store robbery

PASSAIC, N.J. (AP) — Two long-imprisoned men granted new trials in a deadly 1993 New Jersey video store robbery after DNA tests linked an important piece of evidence to someone else had their bail lowered on Tuesday from $1 million to $20,000 each.

The murder convictions of Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee were overturned last month, but they had remained held on the $1 million bail before Judge Joseph Portelli ordered it lowered Tuesday. Both will have to wear monitoring bracelets and not have contact with the family of the victim, Tito Merino.

Prosecutors say they’ll appeal the decision to give the men a new trial.

Merino, 22, was beaten and stabbed in a midday robbery while he was working at his uncle’s video 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 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.


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