Extensive Re-Investigation Leads to Action to Free Man Serving 60-Year Prison Sentence for 2004 Double Homicide in Camden
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Taron Hill, 34, was convicted in 2006 of two counts of murder and related weapons offenses in the shooting deaths of Robin Battie and Tinesha Lewis on Sept. 25, 2004 in the City of Camden. He was sentenced to 60 years in state prison without possibility of parole. Mr. Hill submitted a claim of actual innocence to the CRU in August 2019 stating that he did not commit the crime. The CRU conducted an extensive re-investigation of the facts and review of new evidence relevant to Mr. Hill’s conviction, and concluded that there is clear and convincing evidence that Mr. Hill should not have been convicted of the crime. This evidence reviewed and obtained by the CRU was not available to the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office at the time of Mr. Hill’s trial or post-conviction hearings.
Attorneys for the CRU appeared today in court in Camden before Superior Court Judge Edward J. McBride Jr., who granted a request by the CRU to vacate Mr. Hill’s conviction. Mr. Hill appeared via video conference from New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.
A new investigation into the murders of Ms. Battie and Ms. Lewis is already underway by the Attorney General’s Cold Case Network, a statewide network of regional task forces formed at the same time as the CRU to investigate cold cases, particularly cases generated by the CRU. It operates with support from the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA) and the New Jersey State Police.
“This is an important milestone for the Conviction Review Unit we established two years ago,” said Attorney General Grewal. “We are committed to ensuring that our criminal justice system operates fairly and justly for all people, and we are committed to taking action when we determine that a criminal conviction can no longer be sustained.”
“Where the work of our Conviction Review Unit ended, the work of our Cold Case Network began, as we now are conducting a new investigation into the unsolved murders of Ms. Battie and Ms. Lewis,” added Attorney General Grewal. “I know today is an extremely difficult day for their families, and we want to assure those families that we are working diligently to bring closure to this terrible episode.”
“I want to recognize the excellent work of all involved in our review and extensive re-investigation of Mr. Hill’s case,” said CRU Director Murray. “Our duty is always to do justice. As a longtime prosecutor, I know the satisfaction of securing justice by convicting a defendant who has committed a serious crime like murder. But we must always be vigilant and that is the critical mission of the Conviction Review Unit.”
CRU’s review of the record revealed that there was a single eyewitness who saw the assailant with a gun, who identified Mr. Hill through an identification procedure that used only a single photo. Although this evidence was admitted at trial, it is not an investigative best practice under current identification procedures.
While two jailhouse informants originally corroborated the eyewitness identification, both subsequently recanted their testimony. At the time, use of jailhouse informant testimony was subject to fewer safeguards. In October 2020, Attorney General Grewal issued Directive 2020-11 to establish uniform higher standards statewide for this type of testimony.
The murder weapon was not recovered in the case, and no forensic evidence such as fingerprint or DNA evidence existed tying Mr. Hill to the murder. In addition, post-conviction recorded conversations support Mr. Hill’s claims. Mr. Hill and his family members did not come forward with what they knew about the offense until after his trial and conviction.
A post-release plan for Mr. Hill has been developed with input from Centurion, a non-profit innocence organization based in Princeton, N.J. Centurion is a collaborating partner with the CRU. Centurion has developed expertise in planning for individuals who are released from incarceration in connection with its own mission to exonerate innocent individuals who have been wrongly convicted and sentenced to life sentences or death.
Family members of the murdered women were notified prior to today’s court action. The CRU also has established a partnership with Healing Justice, a nonprofit that utilizes restorative justice and justice reform strategies to address the individual and collective harm caused by wrongful convictions. This organization provides services to all affected by these cases, including crime victim family members.
Deputy Attorney General Amy Knutsen represented the CRU in court today, under the supervision of Deputy Attorney General Debra Conrad, Deputy Chief of the OPIA Integrity Bureau.
The CRU, which is partially funded with two U.S. Department of Justice grants, reviews claims of actual innocence, investigates those deemed meritorious, and presents its findings to the Attorney General for decision and appropriate action.
When Attorney General Grewal formed the CRU and Cold Case Network in April 2019, he was guided by a working group he convened in early 2018—led by Virginia Long, former Associate Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, and Paul Fishman, former U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey—which issued a report making detailed recommendations about such units.
The CRU accepts claims of wrongful conviction from a wide variety of sources, including prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, law enforcement, innocence organizations, defendants, defendants’ families, the media, and others. Since its formation, the CRU has received approximately 480 applications for review, the majority of which remain at various stages of screening, review, or investigation.
To ensure every claim of innocence receives proper consideration, there is a standard, readily available application form, along with a tracking system that allows for prioritizing claims and notifying petitioners and victims of the status of claims during the following review process:
- Application: The process starts with the convicted individual’s submission of an application for review. Either unit personnel or Rutgers University students conduct background research, including research on legal decisions and media coverage related to the applicant’s conviction.
- Screening: A screening team reviews the application package, including the background research, and drafts a memo with next-step recommendations to attorneys in the CRU. The screening teams are comprised of former public defenders and prosecutors, who are paired to form screening teams. Some cases are closed after screening. Where red flags for wrongful conviction are identified, cases are opened for re-investigation.
- Re-investigation: Any re-investigation is very in-depth and often takes months, due to the fact that most of these crimes occurred many years ago. The re-investigation is conducted by CRU attorneys and investigators.
- Attorney General Review: At the conclusion of the re-investigation, a recommendation about whether to seek court action is forwarded to the Attorney General for review.