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Man claiming his innocence in ’98 slaying says prosecution withheld evidence about key witness

By Jeffrey Winter, CNN

Anthony Sims has spent 24 years in prison for a murder he says he did not commit.

He was convicted in 1999 of killing a Chinese immigrant in Brooklyn and sentenced to 25-to-life.

Sims’ friend, Julius Graves, was the single eyewitness who testified to seeing him fire the fatal shot.

Sims says Graves is the real killer, which he testified to in a hearing that has been playing out at Brooklyn’s Kings County Supreme Court since October.

When reached by CNN, Graves declined to comment for this story. However, he maintains Sims was the shooter.

Sims’ attorneys also allege that Mark Hale, the trial prosecutor, withheld key evidence about Graves’ criminal history and failed to correct his perjured testimony.

Hale is renowned for leading the Brooklyn district attorney’s Conviction Review Unit (CRU), which has helped pioneer the re-examination of old convictions. Under Hale, Brooklyn’s CRU overturned 30 wrongful convictions and documented the investigative flaws that led to them. Hale, who retired last year, previously faced allegations of misconduct related to Emmanuel Cooper’s murder conviction, which was overturned in 2020. The DA’s office cleared Hale of any wrongdoing in the Cooper case.

In Sims’ case, the unit found no misconduct and the district attorney’s office is vigorously defending Sims’ conviction.

Sims’ attorneys filed a motion last year to overturn his conviction arguing his innocence and that he was deprived of a fair trial. The Brooklyn DA’s office consented to an evidentiary hearing after investigating their claims, preferring that a judge settle the factual disputes, according to a DA spokesperson.

Hale declined to comment to CNN. However, in testimony Wednesday, he said he did not remember anything about the Sims case.

Sims, now 46, told CNN before proceedings began that he was optimistic the office would find wrongdoing. Their opposition changed his mind.

“I started to lose faith in the system again,” Sims said in a phone interview from Woodbourne Correctional Facility in Woodbourne, New York.

Sims remains hopeful that a new witness who says she saw Graves with the gun that night, among other new evidence, can sway what he and his wife, Keisha, call “an emotional roller coaster” of a hearing in his favor.

The crime in question

Sims was a 6’3″ powerhouse basketball player at Brooklyn’s Westinghouse High School, who dunked more often than he should have, much to the chagrin of coach Marty Gahagan, who described Sims as a “fun-loving kid.”

At Westinghouse, he met his first wife, Kisha, and Graves. After graduating, Sims worked various jobs to support Kisha and their sons, Anthony Jr. and Antoine.

Graves dropped out of school, and in 1994 pleaded guilty to felony gun possession and was sentenced to five years probation.

By 1998, Sims was working as a phone company technician. Graves, unemployed and living with his fiancée’s family, had stopped reporting to probation for two years, violations that could have resulted in his arrest.

On the night of May 18, 27-year-old Li Run Chen was working behind the counter of a takeout restaurant near Graves’ apartment. It was a hot night, so Chen had opened the plexiglass window at the counter, owner Ang Chan told CNN through an interpreter.

Around 10 p.m., Sims says he entered the restaurant, followed shortly after by Graves, who then allegedly shot Chen through the open Plexiglass window.

Graves testified last year he never went inside — contradicting his trial testimony and those of three others — and that he saw Sims shoot Chen while standing on the street.

Chan and a cook were in the rear kitchen area, but did not see the shooting.

After the shooting, Sims and Graves ran to Sims’ car. Two friends of Graves were in the back seat, both of whom later said they saw Sims throw a gun through the window into the car. Sims denies this, saying Graves was holding the shotgun when he got into the car. After Sims drove up the block and kicked Graves and his buddies out, Graves took the shotgun with him, according to all four.

Inside Graves’ apartment, the friends say they watched Graves wipe the gun for fingerprints. One friend took and hid the gun, according to their trial testimonies.

Sims and Graves didn’t call the police that night. Graves left behind his fiancée and children and went to his sister’s apartment, where he would stay for several days, and Sims drove home. He told Kisha what he saw.

Chan said Chen was a “hardworking individual” with little family in America. The murder left Chan frightened and Chen’s family devastated. He closed the restaurant for a few days after the killing and sold it a few months later.

Swift focus on Sims

Detectives focused on Sims as their suspect the day after the shooting, records show, largely based on a statement from Graves’ future brother-in-law, who said Sims and Graves were involved.

Graves came out of hiding first, three days after the murder. He told investigators Sims shot Chen as revenge for a months-old argument over a food order. Graves’ wife, mother-in-law and his friends in Sims’ car the night of the shooting backed up his story.

Shalema Rodriguez, who was at a friend’s second-floor apartment across the street from the Chinese restaurant, told police she saw several Black men run out of the restaurant, the taller, more muscular man — referring to Sims — carrying a long gun, according to police records and her trial testimony. Rodriguez recanted this account in February.

Rodriguez confirms that she saw people run from the restaurant and one of them carrying a long gun, but that she was not able to tell anything specific about the people she saw. She testified in February that she said all of this to police during their original investigation, and denied identifying the taller man as holding the gun, stating “I wouldn’t be able to have that information because I couldn’t see that from where I was in the window.”

No physical evidence implicated Sims: Records show that fingerprints from the restaurant did not match, and the recovered 16-gauge shotgun was not fingerprinted, according to a detective’s testimony.

Detectives learned that the shotgun was known to be in Graves’ apartment prior to the murder, but they never established how it came into Sims’ possession, or that Sims had anything to do with Graves taking, cleaning or hiding the weapon after the murder, according to lead detective Thomas Mooney’s testimony in December.

Despite police knowing Graves cleaned the shotgun, Graves and the friend who hid it were not charged.

Sims was arrested two weeks after the murder.

He did not testify at his criminal trial. When he testified in October, he spoke with the measured cadence of a man who had waited decades to do so.

He said he didn’t call the police out of fear of being charged as an accomplice. And he denied getting into any argument with Chen.

When asked why he didn’t say Graves killed Chen in his 2016 application to Brooklyn’s CRU, Sims said he worried that the office would discard his petition if he simply blamed Graves.

“I thought the CRU was designed to, like, help people wrongfully convicted and who didn’t get a fair trial,” Sims testified. “So I decided to just focus on what I thought was Brady violations, inconsistencies, and deal with the law.”

Sims included in his application a notarized affidavit purportedly signed by Graves, in which Graves states, “I did not see Anthony shot (sic) the Chinese guy and I do not know who did.”

The CRU denied Sims’ application in 2017, saying they found no credibility in Graves’ recantation, as presented in the affidavit. In testimony last year, Graves denied writing the affidavit.

Hale led the CRU when Sims’ request was turned down. The unit, however, requires that prosecutors recuse themselves from reviewing their prior work.

Perjury, probation and the prosecutor

Among the difficulties in arguing a decades-old case is discerning what happened — and who knew what and when. Central to Sims’ challenge in his latest appeal is that the trial prosecutor allegedly withheld evidence relevant to Graves’ testimony. In the many years that passed since his conviction, Sims’ trial attorney passed away, and his new attorneys have had a hard time showing what his attorney was or wasn’t told by the prosecutor.

On May 10, 1999, Graves testified he saw Sims pull the trigger.

Records show that when Graves testified, he had not reported to probation for his gun possession felony in three years. Records also show that a bench warrant was issued for his arrest on those violations on April 26, the day Sims’ trial began, and vacated on May 10, 1999.

On the stand that day, Graves said he knew he would be arrested after he testified. He also said he reported regularly and often to probation, which he admitted to lying about in testimony last year.

Sims’ lawyers believe that Hale knew that Graves was in violation of his probation, and neither corrected the record of Graves’ misleading testimony nor disclosed that detail to the defense.

“There was a serious criminal proceeding hanging over Julius Graves’ head,” Sims’ attorney Ilann Maazel said of Graves’ warrant. “The defense was entitled to cross-examine him about his compromised legal position and his interest in cooperating with the DA to get rid of the probation case and stay out of prison.”

The DA’s office denies knowing Graves’ probation status at the time. Graves testified last year he did not tell Hale about his violations and that Hale didn’t ask.

Hale testified on Wednesday that he didn’t “remember anything” about prosecuting Sims’ criminal trial.

Sims’ attorneys also say the Brooklyn DA’s Office did not inform the defense that Graves had entered its witness protection program the same day as his testimony. Records show Graves filled out a form on May 10, 1999, alleging threats made by Sims’ wife and his friends. The case supervisor testified in January she saw no record that the threats had been verified, and Sims and his wife deny them.

Graves collected more than $22,000 in housing vouchers and meal stipends during his year and a half in the program, records show.

A new witness account

Rachel was 17 in 1998. She lived next door to Graves, and had seen Sims when they were together. Her sister was, and is, friends with Graves’ wife, Charlique.

She did everything to avoid Sims’ hearing, ignoring three subpoenas to testify. The judge eventually issued a material witness order, which would have been used to arrest her had she not finally shown.

When she finally testified in February, Rachel made three claims that gave a radically different version of the events surrounding Chen’s murder.

She said that the killing was revenge for him touching Charlique’s hand earlier that day, that she saw Graves run out of the restaurant with a gun in his hand after she heard a shot, and that she called police to tell them it was Graves.

Rachel said that on the day of the shooting, she heard Charlique tell her sister that she and Chen argued and mentioned that Chen touched her hand, and that Graves was going to scare him.

Chen was known to touch female customers’ hands, according to Rachel’s and Charlique’s testimonies. Charlique denied that Chen’s gestures upset her, and that she ever told Graves about it. Graves denied that Charlique was upset and that he was going to scare him.

Charlique declined to comment.

Rachel testified that on the night of the murder she was across the street from the restaurant. She heard a gunshot, turned and saw Graves run out with a long gun, then get into a car that sped off. She said she has “no doubt” it was Graves because he and Sims “don’t look the same. One is taller and dark-skinned and the other one is lighter and shorter.” She said she did not see Sims that night.

Rachel told detectives in 1998 she did not see specifics because she wasn’t wearing her contacts, according to a police report. She said in February that she lied because in her neighborhood, “you didn’t talk to the cops.”

During the hearing, both Rachel and Charlique testified that they witnessed their mothers arguing around the time of Sims’ arrest. Rachel said Graves was there, that she yelled at him for “pinning” the murder on Sims, and that he then threatened to shut her up. Graves disputes this account, testifying he has never spoken to Rachel, and he and Charlique both denied he was present. Records show that the day Sims was arrested, Charlique told detectives her neighbors were harassing her about her cooperating with police, and that Rachel threatened her, saying she was going to tell police it was Graves.

Rachel did not address threats toward Charlique in her testimony and the allegations do not appear in the witness protection paperwork.

After Sims’ arrest, Rachel said she received a phone call from Sims’ wife, Kisha, who pleaded that she tell police what she saw. Kisha said in an interview she thought she spoke with Rachel outside of Rachel’s apartment. She called her “standoffish” and said Rachel didn’t give her much information, so she gave Rachel a detective’s card to call. Rachel testified she did call, telling a male detective over the phone that she saw Graves with the gun. She says she gave him her name, and never heard back.

No police report documenting that call is known to exist.

Graves testified last year that after Sims’ arrest, Charlique did tell him that Rachel said she was going to tell police he was the killer, but he didn’t know if she ever did.

“On the basis of (Rachel’s) testimony alone, it’s plain that Anthony Sims did not receive a fair trial and his conviction should be vacated,” Sims’ attorney Maazel said. “The jury never heard any of this evidence.”

The DA’s office had no comment on Rachel’s testimony.

The hearing has been ongoing for nearly five months, and additional witnesses may still be called.

“To say it’s been hard is an understatement,” Sims’ second wife Keisha said in an interview. She has barely missed a day, finding a silver lining in the countless hours spent listening to the case. “In a weird kind of way, it’s made us stronger,” she said. “I almost look forward to court. At least I get to see him for a few hours.”

Once testimony concludes, summations will follow, after which Supreme Court Justice Danny Chun will decide the outcome.

Should he vacate Sims’ conviction, the DA could retry him. Graves was granted immunity by New York state for testifying at the grand jury hearing.

Anthony Sims waited more than two decades to tell his side of the story. He got his day in court, but now waits, again, for judgment.

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