(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Campbell Hall School

Eternal vows — The 21-year false incarceration

Standing on the same street where his friend Colin Warner was arrested at the 67th Police Precinct in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, 40 years ago, Carl King remembers telling him: “We are not going to give up.” For King, this required proving Warner’s innocence by reinvestigating the 1980 murder of a 16-year-old boy in Brooklyn. 

At the age of 13, he moved to Crown Heights in Brooklyn from Trinidad in the 1970s. King notes that it was a “culture shock,” after sometimes hearing New York police officers use racial slurs, and recalled feeling like he “didn’t belong.” His friend Warner was later incarcerated for a crime he did not commit, and King was determined to get him out. 

Throughout Warner’s false internment, King faced an uphill battle, as he was not a legally-trained investigator and had no prior experience in the field. Despite the many obstacles in reopening the case — including locating key witnesses and the actual killer who admitted sole responsibility, splitting up with his then-girlfriend and carrying out fundraisers to assist with related-expenses — King remembered what Warner meant to him. 

“He was my childhood friend from Trinidad,” King said. “I knew that he was innocent, and I [was not] going to be there for him only in good times but in times of difficulty. So I made a vow that I would champion for him.”

Though King spent many years of his life fighting against injustice, King sees nuance in the current debate around defunding the police. The ongoing protests that are occurring now to propel this effort, protesting police brutality and demanding justice all parallel Warner’s story.

Additionally, both King and Warner agree that while not everyone took part in Warner’s conviction, they are part of a larger flawed system. According to the New York-based organization the Innocence Project, 1% of United States prisoners, about 20,000 people, are wrongfully convicted.

“As far as investigations in serious cases, defunding could be a problem,” King said. “Maybe you can take that same funds to the defense attorney to do their own private investigation. I think that would be part of the funds if you want to defund the police and direct the funds to the defense attorneys to give them more hours to reinvestigate the serious cases.”

Recalling that Warner made a vow that he would never take responsibility for a murder that he did not commit, King continued to fight for Warner’s freedom. While Warner’s promise did relinquish some hope that Warner would eventually be declared innocent and allowed to leave prison, it also fueled King to keep pushing for his freedom.

“He went to the parole board, and he was denied because he would not accept responsibility,” King said. “That was very tough. But it also gave me an inner strength that we are going to keep going [and prove his innocence].”

King admits that fighting for Warner’s freedom was not just about Warner. His goal was to assist other people who are either wrongfully accused or imprisoned.

“‘This is all about the big-system, it’s not just about what happened to you’,” King recalls telling Warner. “‘But … it will help a lot of other folks in the same predicament.’” 

After reassembling the entire case from the day the murder took place and finding witnesses, King was able to prove to the courts that Warner was innocent. Though this was a triumph, King admits, there are still many psychological effects of being in prison that haunt Warner today.

“Colin was actually in solitary confinement: he spent almost five years [in those conditions],” King said. “So it does a lot of damage, knowing that you’re innocent. When he reads the police reports, showing that he did this crime, on such and such day, that alone within itself will have you thinking ‘Wow, there’s a system in place. And he went through the system. And nobody saw that anything was wrong.’”

Though it’s been nineteen years after Warner was released, King is advocating for those who are wrongfully accused. The Innocence Project, using DNA evidence, strives to help those who have been falsely incarcerated gain freedom. It reports that in its 26-year history, 2018 brought about the most exonerations. Unfortunately, many cases do not involve DNA evidence, like Warner’s case.

“I believe if I can help one person, it will be so great to make a change that others might see and help others,” King said. “I’m grateful to be a friend of Colin and to be championing for others up to the day I’m still currently. I’m doing a few cases and just trying to make a difference with the experience that I learned from working Colin’s case.”