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Twenty-three Years Later: Anthony Sims’ Murder Conviction Looks Shaky After Star Witness Stumbles

Issue 268

Theodore Hamm Dec 20, 2021

Although Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez regularly touts his office as a “national model” for redressing the office’s own wrongful convictions, the ongoing inquiry into the 1999 murder conviction of Anthony Sims highlights the problems that arise when any bureaucracy investigates itself.

Sims was convicted of killing Li Run Chen at a Bushwick Chinese food joint in May 1998. A jury reached that verdict almost entirely based on the testimony of Sims’ then-best friend, Julius Graves. The trial was handled by veteran Brooklyn homicide prosecutor Mark Hale.

In May 2021, the DA’s office agreed to Sims’ legal team’s request for a judicial hearing regarding the conviction in response to witness statements that could exculpate Sims. At the end of June, Mark Hale retired from the office. Since 2014, Hale had been head of Brooklyn’s Conviction Review Unit, which Gonzalez inherited from the late Ken Thompson.

As The Indypendent has reported, during the hearing in October and November, Graves gave wildly contradictory testimony about his role in the murder but did not dispute that after the deadly shooting, he wiped the gun clean of fingerprints and gave it to a 14-year-old neighbor to dispose of. Although he was granted immunity for the murder in return for his testimony against Sims, Graves could be charged with perjury for his statements in the current hearing.

That is not likely to happen, for the same reason that the DA’s office is fighting to preserve Sims’ conviction — ai.e. Gonzalez’s team would be admitting that Hale prosecuted the wrong person for the murder.

During the three decades he spent in the DA’s office prior to 2014, Hale won scores of homicide convictions. Under his watch, the CRU exonerated 30 people. None were cases in which Hale was the lead prosecutor.

Hale’s handling of the Emmanuel Cooper case is currently the focus of a federal lawsuit in the Eastern District of New York. According to the complaint, Hale withheld a raft of exculpatory information from Cooper’s defense and threatened a witness who tried to recant.

Jabbar Collins, a leading Brooklyn exoneree who advocates for others wrongfully convicted, says Cooper sent a letter to the CRU asking for an inquiry into his case but never received a reply. Anthony Sims similarly contacted Hale’s unit but the response informed Sims that there would be no investigation.

In January of 2020, the Brooklyn DA’s office agreed to vacate Cooper’s 1993 conviction but then spent 10 months deciding whether to retry him. Although Gonzalez’s team opted not to do so, the CRU chose not to exonerate Cooper.

The Sims hearing is scheduled to resume in the first week of January, and Hale will testify before it concludes. Among the things he may be asked about is Julius Graves’ testimony in November that he met with Hale only for “three minutes” prior to the 1999 trial.

If true, such a lack of discussion may seem mystifying, given that Hale’s case against Sims depended almost entirely on Graves’ account. But then again, if Hale had some questions about Graves’ veracity, he was better off not meeting with Graves so that Hale could claim not to have any reason to doubt him.

Meanwhile, as of mid-December, DA Gonzalez had not yet named Hale’s successor as head of the CRU. Tough shoes to fill, indeed.

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