Calvin Buari’s former crew put him in prison. Prosecutors and detectives made sure he stayed there.
Elijah and Salhaddin Harris were shot dead in their car in the Bronx, beer bottles still in their hands and takeout food still in their laps, on Sept. 10, 1992. The sun had just set and the block was not yet dark. Elijah was 24 and Sal was 25.
The standout suspect was Calvin Buari. Twenty-one and smooth as hell, Buari ran the crack trade on the corner where the pair was shot. The tall, sleepy-eyed hustler had popped up on the scene in 1991 and within a year he was suddenly rolling through the block in a new BMW, stepping out with gold ropes around his neck and the freshest Air Jordans on his feet. The cops had been eyeing him.
Buari denied having anything to do with the murders, but the cops stayed after him. It wasn’t until three years later that prosecutors got the charges to stick. Damn near Buari’s whole crew turned against him and testified in court that Buari was the killer.
“I don’t know where you came from or where your parents are, but I know they have to feel something,” Daniel Harris, father of Elijah and Sal, said to Buari after the guilty verdict was read. “They have to know, and I want them to know, that they have brought into this world a monster.”
Buari didn’t dispute that he had gotten away with other crimes for years. But, he said, he was not a murderer. He said he was framed. He had nothing but his word to back that up at first. But then Dwight Robinson, his former friend, employee, and eventually business rival, confessed. The confession was signed and notarized in an affidavit on Dec. 30, 2003.
“In 1995, I testified at the double murder trial of Calvin Buari,” Dwight Robinson’s confession stated. “At that time I claimed that Calvin Buari killed Elijah and Sal Harris on September 10, 1992. That was a lie. I killed the Harris brothers. I killed them due to a drug dispute.”
Buari had held Robinson most responsible for his imprisonment. And yet now here was Robinson, trying to take it all back.
“When they went inside the restaurant, I went to the alley where I kept my nine millimeter gun,” the confession said. “When they got inside their car to eat their food, I shot them both numerous times.”
Robinson was in prison himself now. He had caught a murder conviction two years after Buari did, and by December 2003 both men were locked up at Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York. When they encountered each other — for the first time in many years, the first time since Robinson was on a witness stand and Buari was at a defense table — they hugged and reconciled. Robinson told Buari he would make things right and that no man should be behind bars for a crime he did not commit.
“In 1995, I pinned this double murder on Calvin Buari because of a dispute between Calvin and me, and because I wanted complete control of my drug spot in the corner of 213th Street and Bronxwood,” the confession continued. “My first attempt to seize the corner from Calvin was to shoot him and Jay Parris in June of 1995. I tried to kill them but they survived the shooting after being hospitalized.”
“When my attempt to kill Calvin failed, I decided to use the judicial system to frame him for the murder I committed. I did this by telling Jerry Connor, Lamont Seabrook, and Brian Johnson what to say to police, the same story I told the police. I believed that they wanted to convict him badly, and believed that they would welcome this story from these witnesses.”
Dwight Robinson had confessed to the crime Calvin Buari was in prison for. It wouldn’t be long, Buari thought, before he was a free man.
Calvin Buari is still in prison today, even though Dwight Robinson confessed a decade ago and two other witnesses said that they lied on the stand.
“I’m just so confused,” said Erica Morris, daughter of Buari’s godmother. “Why is he still there if he has a confession?”
The way Buari tells it, he was the target of two conspiracies. One by his former crew to get him locked up, and another cooked up by the prosecutors and detectives who didn’t want to let him go now that they had him behind bars.
It’s easy to see why the authorities might want Buari locked up — in the mid-’90s his turf was among the bloodiest neighborhoods in the city. “If [police] blame the precinct’s unwanted claim to fame on anyone, it is Calvin Buari,” the New York Daily News concluded in 1995. Authorities had tried to get Buari off the street for years, but had never succeeded.
“You want to get the bad guy off the street, but you want to get the right guy,” said Jay Saltpeter, a former New York City Police Department detective. A few of his colleagues, he said, didn’t seem to mind getting the wrong guy for a crime if it meant getting a guy they knew was guilty for something else. Their mind-set, he said, was “I didn’t get him for that one, so I’ll get him for this one.”
“It’s very, very frustrating,” said one retired detective who was involved in a conviction that was overturned in recent years. “You know this person is guilty and to see them go free and be talked about like they’re innocent — it’s mind-boggling. It’s anger.”
The standard of proof a convicted man must meet is higher than the standard prosecutors must meet at trial to get the conviction. To get a conviction overturned, you need everything to go your way in a system built to keep you behind bars.
“After conviction, there’s no presumption of innocence but a presumption of guilt, and the burden of proof is on the defendant,” said Rebecca Freedman, an attorney at the Exoneration Initiative. “In a climate like that it’s hard to recognize the innocent ones.”
If Buari had been convicted in Manhattan or in Brooklyn, he might have had some help. The district attorneys in those boroughs, and in a handful of other counties nationwide, have units devoted to reviewing questionable convictions. Units like those are part of the reason why there were 125 exonerations in America in 2014, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, more than in any previous year on record and far surpassing 2013’s old record of 91.
Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson has no such unit in his office — no such unit even though the Bronx had more documented wrongful convictions per-capita than any other county in New York state from 1989 to 2013, according to the registry. Over that span, the Bronx had the fifth highest wrongful conviction rate in America.
“These are all old allegations that have been litigated in the trial court,” Terry Raskin, a spokesperson for DA Johnson, said in an email declining to comment further on Buari’s case. “Bottom line is that after a full hearing, these recantations were deemed incredible, as were any allegations that this office acted improperly in any manner regarding our dealings with these witnesses.”
Calvin Buari decided to become a drug dealer when he was 15 to support his younger brother and his mother, who struggled to find work. His mother had been kicked out of the house by her father when she got pregnant with Buari and a local pastor took her in. Buari’s father, a singer from Ghana, had already left the picture by then. From the time he was a young boy, Buari realized he would be his family’s breadwinner.
He went to Harlem to get his start in the drug game because he did not want his relatives, neighbors, or anybody else in the Bronx who knew him to see him out on the corners. His family was a good, respectable, church-every-Sunday family and Buari was determined not to tarnish their reputation.
Buari started as a lookout. He kept his mouth shut whenever he was arrested, won the crew’s trust, and moved up quickly. “I was nervous at the beginning,” he said. “But so many other people I knew were doing it, and after a while you kind of lose that fear.”
He made connections with wholesalers in Harlem, learned the business, and by 1991, he was back home, running his own operation near the northern tip of the Bronx. Charming and soft-spoken, Buari became known more for squashing beefs than starting them. He was respected on the block, and he soon built a team of dealers that would own the local crack trade.
He gained enemies too. Twice police arrested him on murder charges. Both times the sole witness against him stopped cooperating with prosecutors, and Buari was out of jail and back on the streets within months. The way Buari tells the story, rival drug dealers in the neighborhood had tried to frame him but the truth had won out.
To the authorities, though, Buari had somehow mastered the art of slipping away. He had risen to power so quickly and silently, and had escaped the law’s grasp so effortlessly, that his reputation began to take on mythic proportions. Lt. John Walsh, commander of the 47th Precinct detective squad, told the Daily News in 1995, “There were rumors going around that Calvin knew black magic and people were afraid of his power.”
Dwight Robinson was 16 when Calvin Buari, three years his senior, took over the crack scene on 213th and Bronxwood. Buari didn’t know him then, but Robinson knew Buari.
“He was the superstar of the neighborhood,” said Robinson. “I looked up to him. I had a lot of respect for him.”
Robinson wanted Buari’s lifestyle, with the mink coats and the pretty girls and the awe of everybody around him. The two teenagers shared a sharp intelligence and a laid-back demeanor, even looked a bit alike — some in the neighborhood thought they were brothers — and they soon became friends. Not long after that, Robinson joined Buari’s operation.
At the time, in the early ‘90s, rival drug dealers coexisted on all four corners of 213th and Bronxwood. Buari’s crew was small, with six to 10 guys over the years. When Buari was initially arrested for murdering the Harris brothers in 1993, Robinson provided a statement saying that he was with Buari on the other side of the block when the murders took place. Several dealers who worked for Buari provided corroborating alibis as well. Buari spent just three months at Rikers Island, before a judge told prosecutors they had no case.
Buari was arrested on another murder charge in 1994. This time he spent eight months at Rikers before the prosecution’s case crumbled. During that stretch, Robinson and his older brother Peter filled the void and opened their own business. They sold Buari’s stash for him, splitting the profits, and expanded their customer base.
When Buari returned to the neighborhood in February 1995, he found things had changed. All four corners of 213th and Bronxwood now belonged to the Robinson brothers, and tensions were high. Robinson and Buari’s friendship soured in the months after Buari’s homecoming.
“All our enemies were gone,” Robinson said. “What happens after the lions eat all the sheep? They turn on each other.”
The war began in June 1995. Five men would be killed by the second week of July. The Daily News dubbed 213th and Bronxwood “The Bloody Corner.”
The bodies brought heat. The 47th Precinct formed a task force to investigate the string of murders. Detectives concluded that Calvin Buari, the neighborhood’s reigning drug mogul with three murder charges already on his rap sheet, was at the center of the conflict.
“It was all for control of that particular corner,” Lt. John Walsh told the Daily News in 1995. “There’s always somebody else who wants to be king.”
On June 25, somebody chased Robinson with a gun. He believed it was Buari. That night, two men opened fire on Buari and his friend Jay Parris. There were 32 rounds fired. Buari took one bullet to the leg. Parris was hit five times. Both survived. Buari believed Dwight and Peter were the shooters. A week later, Peter was shot dead. Dwight believed Buari did it.
“I had to get him back somehow,” Robinson said.
A month later, he got his chance. Police officers showed up at his mom’s house looking for him. They wanted to speak to him about the murders. Robinson went to the precinct and met with a couple of detectives. In the room, behind where they stood, he saw a push-pin board covered with names and photos. He saw his name near the bottom. He saw Buari’s near the top. The detectives began asking him questions about Buari.
“That’s when I saw how I could get him,” he said.
He told the detectives that Calvin Buari had killed Elijah and Sal Harris.
The trial began two months later. Two witnesses testified that Buari was not the shooter, that he had been down the block from the shooting and had run away when the shots rang out. Six witnesses testified that they saw Buari shoot the Harris brothers. Their stories were consistent: Buari had his friend Kintu Effort retrieve his gun from an alley, and then Buari unloaded on the brothers as they were eating in their car.
Four of the witnesses received leniency on pending gun or drug charges in exchange for their testimony. Effort received immunity on the case, as well as a letter from the DA’s office recommending him for early release on his current prison sentence.
The six also testified that they were once Buari’s allies. “All of the witnesses were friends with and worked for Calvin Buari,” Assistant District Attorney Allen Karen told the jury. “It’s rare to have people come forward on a double homicide, but here you got the whole corner. Calvin’s whole crew.”
Robinson testified that they had decided to turn him in now, three years after the murder, because they had become scared of him. Robinson said that Buari had turned on the crew, and so he told the rest of the crew that they should go to the police.
Buari’s defense attorney argued that Robinson and the others had tried and failed to kill Buari, so now they were trying to eliminate him through the courts. Prosecutor Karen shot down that theory in his closing statement.
“I would suggest it’s absurd to say to you that these guys, drug dealers, street guys, would come forward to the police to trust the system, would walk into the police and say, ‘Yo, let’s fight crime together.’ It doesn’t work that way. It’s their last resort.”
The jury found Buari guilty. In December 1995, he was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison. He was 24. His reign as kingpin had lasted less than four years.
Getting a conviction reversed is hard because the court system was built upon faith in the jury trial, said Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia who serves on the advisory board of the National Registry of Exonerations. “Beyond a reasonable doubt,” the legal standard at trial, is no longer good enough. The legal standards for reversing a conviction are intended to be high, but whether an argument meets those standards is up to the interpretation of a judge, who has discretion to overturn a conviction and call for a new trial.
Certain forms of evidence — such as a witness who recants — tend to be less persuasive. “There is the concern that motives may change over time,” said Garrett. “We don’t know whether the person lied then or now. Either way we know that they’re a liar. And judges tend not to trust evidence that comes up years and years later.”
The most persuasive new evidence is DNA evidence, present in less than 10% of criminal cases. Perhaps the next most effective type is when another person confesses to the crime. That’s the sort Buari thought he had.
He got the first letter from Dwight Robinson in 2001, two years after Robinson was sentenced to 25 years to life on charges that he murdered a rival dealer. Robinson said he had become overcome with guilt shortly after he began his prison term. He had done a few stints in jail for drugs, but had never done heavy time in a penitentiary before. “This ain’t a place for nobody,” Robinson said.
He had personal interests in mind too. Robinson maintained his innocence on his own case. One of the witnesses who identified him was cousins with a good friend of Buari, and Robinson hoped that Buari could persuade that witness to recant.
“Maybe we could help each other,” said Robinson. “At the end of the day, it’s two men locked away for no reason, and maybe one day we’ll both be free.”
But he did not bring up his case in those early letters. Instead he wrote about the mistakes he had made that led to Buari’s imprisonment.
“What’s good?” Robinson wrote to Buari. “I know that you ain’t hear from me in a while. I’m having it hard living with what I did to you, my brother.”
It was a long letter, four pages on binder paper, written in black ink in neat looping print, explaining the murders, the squashed beefs, the squad of loyal soldiers — and the Machiavellian plot to eliminate the block’s previous kingpin.
“I’m the puppet master,” the letter stated. “How you think I got them to sit down and aim on you?” But the purpose of the letter was not to gloat.
“I know for a fact you wouldn’t of [sic] flipped on us like we flipped on you,” it said. “I hope you find it in your heart of hearts to forgive me for all this sucka shit. … Yo Cal I’m gonna make this shit right. If I have anything to say about it you’ll be back in court to clear your name.”
Robinson acted on his words. In summer 2003, he approached an inmate, Kenneth Smith, who worked as a law clerk at the library. Robinson initially spoke to Smith about his own case, but then “Dwight told me about another crime, a double murder that took place in the Bronx,” Smith stated in an affidavit. Robinson told him that he was the killer “and he had his friends come into court and lie so some else [sic] got convicted for the crime,” Smith said.
A few months later, on Nov. 18, Robinson gave a statement, signed and notarized at Clinton Correctional Facility. “I was the one who shot Jay and Cal on June 25th, 95,” it stated. “When I didn’t succeed, then utilized the judicial system by orchestrating a murder case against Cal with the help of my faithful friends. … My decision to use that Judicial system was easy being that I’ve witnessed that very system on numerous occasions wrongly arrest Cal in 93 and 94 for murders he didn’t commit. … I capitalized on the benefits of avoiding investigations, while obtaining a get out of jail free card.”
The detectives and prosecutors, Robinson said, “wanted Cal just as much if not more than me.”
In December, Buari’s lawyer, Brian Stull, told him about a letter that he had received from Dwight Robinson. Robinson had written, “I would like very much for you to put together a full confession affidavit saying that I, Dwight Robinson was the person who committed the September 1992 double homicide of the Harris brothers that Calvin Buari is currently incarcerated for.”
The affidavit was finalized by the end of the month.
By chance, Buari was transferred that December into Clinton, where Robinson was serving his time. Buari’s first week there, he was eating lunch in the mess hall when Robinson spotted him and called his name. Robinson stood beside two other inmates. One of them, Dondi Youmans, later recalled in an affidavit that Robinson said to Buari, “I already talked to your lawyer. They know you innocent. Come out to the yard tonight so we can talk.”
Buari and Robinson met in the yard that night and walked over to an empty corner. They embraced tightly.
“Love you, man,” Robinson said to Buari.
“Love you more,” Buari replied.
According to Buari, Robinson said that he had killed the Harris brothers because he didn’t want to share the profits from a stash of pilfered cocaine. Robinson disputes this story. But, he said, he did assure Buari that he would do what he could to get him free.
“I felt the remorse,” Buari said.
Over the following weeks, Robinson worked to tear down the case against Buari. He called Buari’s wife Pam for help tracking down the other witnesses.
“As a man I already know what I did was wrong and I’m gonna correct my mistakes,” he told her, in a call recorded by the prison.
Pam told Robinson that she didn’t believe he could undo what he had done. “These dudes ain’t gonna speak, never gonna speak,” she told him. “They don’t care. Y’all have to realize that not everybody cares.”
But some of them did care. Two witnesses, Kintu Effort and Lamont Seabrook, recanted their testimony in signed affidavits. Effort said he testified to avoid being indicted, and that he was with Buari running away during the gunfire. Seabrook said he was afraid Robinson would kill him if he didn’t cooperate, and that he and another witness, Jerry Connor, were at his grandparents’ house when they heard the shots.
Buari’s lawyers prepared a motion to vacate the conviction. Robinson’s confession was the centerpiece of the argument, with statements from Effort, Seabrook, and Kenneth Smith providing support. Buari believed he was about to be free again.
“I thought, Finally truth is gonna come out,” he said. “I thought about being back in the Bronx soon.”
For the third time he would slip away from authorities when they thought they had him trapped. That damn black magic! he imagined them cursing.
“If I have something to say about it you should be going back down soon,” Robinson told Buari in another letter. “I’m going to ride this all the way out until you touch down.”
Dwight Robinson did not understand what his confession had meant for his own future. One day, in spring 2004, two detectives showed up at the visiting room at Shawangunk Correctional Facility to break it down for him.
He was shocked when they rattled off all the times he had linked up with Buari at Clinton to discuss the case, from their talk in the lunch room to their night in the yard to their various other conversations over their months incarcerated together. He realized that the authorities had been tracking him and Buari on the prison’s security cameras.
“They told me that if I helped him, I’d never go home,” he said. “They wanted me to take back my confession to keep him locked up.” In exchange for his cooperation, he said, they also offered him money and promised to make it easier for his family to visit him. “They don’t play fair,” he said. “They really don’t play fair.”
Every other witness for Buari’s motion had a similar experience. Kenneth Smith claimed that an investigator from the Bronx DA’s office visited him in prison and threatened to prosecute him on another charge if he testified in Buari’s case. According to Buari’s lawyer Brian Stull, Seabrook told him that a detective dropped in during his meeting with his parole officer and threatened that he would be charged with perjury. Kintu Effort also said that an investigator visited him in prison and told him he would be charged with perjury. Effort’s lawyer, Edward Dudley, suggested that he back down.
“I advised him that if he didn’t say anything it would be much easier and he would be risking a lot less,” Dudley said. “But he thought it was the right thing for him to do. Somebody was in prison wrongfully and it was partially because of him.”
Effort testified. So did Smith. Seabrook did not.
When Robinson arrived at the courthouse for Buari’s hearing, his public defender suggested that he plead the Fifth, he said. By then, though, Robinson had already decided that he would testify. For weeks, Robinson said, he had had sleepless nights thinking about it.
“I wanted to help him, but I’m not going to fuck myself to help another man,” Robinson said. “Especially a man they wanted as bad as him. I knew I had to recant.”
Robinson testified that his confession was a lie, and that he feared Buari would have him and his family killed if he did not confess to the crime. He testified that Buari had probably also threatened Effort, Seabrook, and Smith. He testified that he had told the truth when he was on the witness stand in 1995.
Buari’s motion had been built on Robinson’s confession. Without the confession, Buari’s petition had little to stand on, and the judge rejected it. Two higher courts upheld the ruling.
“The record supports the motion court’s findings that none of the alleged newly discovered evidence was reliable,” said the Bronx Supreme Court Appellate Division decision in 2008. “There is no reason to believe that any prosecution witness committed perjury at defendant’s trial.”
In most wrongful conviction claims, there is no way to truly know if a person is innocent or guilty. There are only pieces to a picture that will never be complete, and all an inmate can do is try to find more pieces, and hope that at some point there will be enough pieces, whatever enough means.
Calvin Buari is still chasing whatever enough means. He sits in his cell and reviews his case and reads old court decisions that might apply, hoping to find another piece. On the outside, his relatives and friends run a website on his behalf and print out T-shirts and flyers that say “Free Calvin Buari” to hand out at the scene of the shooting. Two witnesses saw the shirts and came forward corroborating Buari’s claim that he wasn’t the shooter. Patricia Damm said that she saw Buari out her window when the shots rang out. Benson Headley claimed that he saw Robinson shoot the Harris brothers, and that Robinson then “tried to persuade me” to tell police that Buari did it.
Those witnesses will be part of Buari’s appeal. Same with the two inmates who said they heard Robinson confess. Same with the tape recording of Robinson’s phone call with Pam.
But for now this appeal is only theoretical. Buari does not have a lawyer. He is behind on payments to his private investigator. He struggles with the knowledge that his fate is not in his hands.
“Only thing I can really control is the peace I try to have inside me,” he said. “I’ve grown so much since I’ve been in here. Before that I was so young and I didn’t think I could do nothing else in my life but be about the streets. I have to look at the immaturity of both me and Dwight and just find it in my heart to forgive.”
Robinson has his own struggles. The thought of his recantation eats at him, he said.
“I’ve been wanting to get this off my chest,” Robinson said. “I wrestle with this in here. If everything had gone down the way it was supposed to, Cal would be home right now and the city would be giving him, like, $8 million.”
Buari has three decades before his first shot at parole. Robinson is up for parole in seven years. One call from the DA’s office to the parole board, he figures, and his chance at freedom is gone.
“I want to help him out,” he said. “But I don’t want to rot in here for the rest of my life. If they know I’m helping him out, I’m done. They’ll make sure I never get out.”
Sitting in the Sing Sing Correctional Facility’s visiting room in January, he explained his plan: “In an ideal situation,” he said, “I make parole, then give him all the papers he needs, then I’m gone.” Off to Jamaica, or somewhere. He’d be free from prison, and out of the NYPD’s reach.
“I was there,” he said. “I saw what happened. Cal was there too. The gun was not in his hand.”
Did Robinson kill the Harris brothers? Robinson stared at the floor, hand on his chin, and considered the question for a few seconds. Then he looked up and answered.
“Anybody coulda done it,” he said. “Coulda been anybody.”