By Claude Solnik
When Raymond Blount was killed on 13th St. in the summer of 1991 after a fight in a Union Square nightclub, his friends were just a few feet away. Some helped whisk him off to a hospital, and one ended up hospitalized after being attacked.
But years after Mr. Blounts death, they took turns on the witness stand last week in a Manhattan court to tell a judge the man convicted of the shooting 18 years ago wasnt the killer and that they had been insisting on that fact for years.
Fernando Bermudez, 40, is serving a term of 23 years to life after his photo was selected by witnesses in police custody for a homicide following a fight at the Marc Ballroom, a Union Square club.
But at a hearing before Justice John Cataldo last week, a procession of people who said they stood a few feet from Blount and the shooter insisted the wrong man was convicted of the crime.
Hes taller than the guy who actually did the shooting, Terrence Hall, one of Blounts friends, said of Bermudez, who is 6 feet 2 inches tall. He [the shooter] wasnt that tall. He mustve been five-eight or five-nine.
Barry Pollack, the lead attorney in the motion, along with co-counsel Lesley C. Risinger and Michael Risinger, asked Bermudez to stand, as he would do repeatedly at the hearing.
He wasnt that tall, Hall repeated as Bermudez rose and returned to his seat beside his pro bono attorneys.
When Hall was asked minutes later if he was sure Bermudez wasnt the shooter, he gave a brief response.
Positive, he said.
The defense argues Bermudez may bear some facial resemblance to the shooter, which accounts for the selection of his photograph. But they argue he is far taller, wasnt at the scene, knew nobody at the scene and was caught up through mistaken photo identification. Prosecutors argue the identification should stand, and previous efforts have failed to overturn the conviction.
But Justice Cataldo a few weeks ago ordered a hearing regarding whether there should be a new trial after defense attorneys presented evidence indicating that witnesses who had picked Bermudezs photo sat together and conferred before photo arrays and lineups were done.
That would compromise the independence of identifications, Cataldo said when he granted the request for a hearing as to whether to overturn the conviction.
Justice Cataldo in his ruling also pointed to evidence that the main witness, the only prosecution witness who said he knew the shooter, committed perjury. Efrain Lopez told police in a videotaped interview that a friend of his nicknamed Wool Lou was the shooter. He in court repeatedly identified Mr. Bermudez as Wool Lou. But defense and prosecution now agree Wool Lou the name of the person Lopez originally said committed the crime is someone else.
Although much of the hearing, at least initially, focused on the handling of photos that witnesses said were passed around and discussed, the most dramatic testimony occurred as Blounts friends told their account of the murder, insisting the man convicted could not have committed the crime. The witnesses, called by the defense, said Bermudez, who is far taller than the man they saw commit the crime, wasnt the person they saw pull the trigger.
Nikosi William Boyce, who described himself as Blounts best friend, testified he saw the shooter, a thin Hispanic man with a goatee, a few feet away. He insisted Bermudez wasnt the man.
They had a big mob of people, Boyce said. But I could look directly and see who the shooter was.
Assistant District Attorney Peter T. Casolaro argued Boyce indicated he focused on the gun and might be mistaken, while Boyce insisted height alone made it clear Bermudez wasnt the shooter.
Im looking at the gun, Lawrence Darden, whose nickname was Truth, said later, noting the shooter wore a white T-shirt, blue-jeans shorts and white sneakers and socks. I didnt even see the persons face.
But he, too, indicated the shooter was about 5 feet 7 inches and 150 pounds, while Casolaro said confusion and time could cloud memory. Darden, who is 6 feet 4, said he looked down at the shooter, whereas Bermudez is closer to his own size.
Why are we even still going through this? Darden asked. Hes not the individual.
Darden described a night of pandemonium and mistakes extending to information about who had been murdered. He returned from the hospital where his friend had died, only to find out word got out that he himself had passed away.
Somebody called my mothers house and told her I got killed, Darden said. She was relieved. I wasnt [relieved].
Michael Thompson, another friend of Raymond Blount, said police, convinced they had solved the case, seemed eager to identify Bermudez as the shooter after his photo had been picked.
He kept pointing at the picture, Thompson said of how one officer handled the photo array. He was like, What about Number 2? I was like, I dont know him.
Thompson said the lineup was a similar process, with police making it clear who they believed committed the crime.
The cop was pointing at Number 2, Thompson said of the lineup. I said, No. Thats the guy in the picture.
Thompson said he would eventually say Bermudez was the shooter so I could go home, while Casolaro questioned why someone would implicate an innocent man simply so they could leave.
This was murder and you picked Number 2 because you wanted to go home? he asked, to which Thompson replied, Yes.
You pointed to a totally innocent guy and identified him as the murderer of your friend, Casolaro continued.
Yes, Thompson said. Everything I did I was forced to do. I didnt want to go to court. I was dragged out of my room and told what to say.
Police arrested Thompson at home as a material witness and took him to court to testify.
They said, If you dont go, were going to drag you over there, Thompson said. One cop sat on my bed.
Thompson said, even though he identified Bermudez in the original trial, Bermudez couldnt be the shooter: The dude was my height, he said of the gunman.
He said the prosecutor indicated he could help him with other cases. But Casolaro said gun and robbery charges against Thompson were dropped before the trial.
I had another case, Thompson said. My case wasnt dismissed.
Casolaro also questioned why Thompson wouldnt tell priests, lawyers or friend about all this.
Thompson, who has since obtained a degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he told his girlfriend, repeating, I was forced to lie.
Frank Marchany, who was stabbed the night of the shooting, identified the photo of Bermudez as that of the shooter, both while in police custody and at trial. He said, at the time, he thought the face in the photo was that of the shooter, but no longer believed that to be the case.
Marchany said when he saw other, similar headshots of young Hispanic men, he saw others that also resembled the shooter. Marchany said after finally seeing Fernando Bermudez standing, rather than seated in a lineup, there was no doubt that he couldnt be the gunman.
I couldnt believe he was that big, Marchany said of Bermudez, who repeatedly rose and sat during the hearing at Pollacks request. The dude I remember wasnt that big.