A man who spent more than 12 years in prison for a robbery that didn’t happen is now free.
Keyontay Ricks was serving a 20-year sentence for first-degree robbery when a State Supreme Court justice last month tossed out his 2005 conviction and ordered Ricks released.
The ruling was the result of about a year’s worth of work by attorney Robert M. Goldstein, who was hired by Ricks’ family to review the case. And though it went against the prosecution, the District Attorney’s Office praised the ruling.
"There was no evidence linking Ricks directly to the robbery,” Goldstein said after Justice Christopher J. Burns issued his decision.
“There was no robbery here," District Attorney John J. Flynn said. "The ‘victim’ was in on it. It was grand larceny.”
Flynn and Assistant District Attorney David Heraty, who handled the prosecution’s response to the motion, believe that Ricks, now 34, was guilty of the lesser charge of possession of stolen property, and he was convicted of that.
"He’s long past served his time on that,” Heraty said.
There was a crime, but it could be viewed as a botched caper, and Ricks paid the highest price. According to both sides, the crime went down roughly like this:
On June 28, 2004, a Rent-A-Center employee entrusted with taking cash to the bank decided to steal the money. He arranged to hand it over to a 15-year-old accomplice while on the way to make the deposit. The 15-year-old got the money and jumped into a car with Ricks.
Investigators believe they took the money to pay off a debt, and that the employee would later say he had been robbed. They got tripped up when someone else reported it faster than they expected.
Ricks and the 15-year-old "were arrested after civilian witnesses saw the money being handed over and interpreted that as a robbery,” Goldstein said. “They saw the person with the money get in a car, took the license number and the car was stopped by Amherst police.”
Police recovered $3,488 from the vehicle, and Ricks was charged with robbery and criminal possession of stolen property
He was convicted in October 2005, because of a prior felony on his record, Ricks was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the robbery and a maximum of seven years for having the stolen property.
It appears that no one at the time paid much attention to what the 15-year-old told police when they questioned him.
“The best evidence we had was a statement by the person who actually took the money,” Goldstein said.
The teenager initially denied that a violent crime occurred, according to Heraty. He told police how they staged the fake robbery so the “victim” could pay back what he owed, using Rent-A-Center’s money.
"It struck me that, for a 15-year-old talking to police for the first time, it was a pretty sophisticated story,” Heraty said.
Also, the alleged victim never showed up to testify at Ricks’ trial. It could be because, as court papers say, he had given “conflicting versions” of how Ricks fit into the crime.
The district attorney did not challenge the new evidence or its timing. The only thing to consider was whether it was enough to change the verdict.
Justice Burns determined that it was.
“In this court’s view, the new evidence is sufficient to establish that ‘no juror, acting reasonably, would have voted to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt’ with regard to the robbery charge.”
Burns agreed with prosecutors on the validity of the stolen property conviction. He pointed out that testimony from the trial showed that Ricks acknowledged that he had the money the 15-year-old gave him when he got in the car.
Prosecutors call the resolution that freed Ricks “fair and just,” even though it was achieved despite a lack of cooperation from Ricks and other witnesses.
"Ricks was skeptical that we wanted to find the truth,” Heraty said, and demonstrated an attitude that one attorney described as “outright hostility.”
That could have been influenced by the fact, at the time of his trial, Ricks, then 22, already had one prison term under his belt.
When he was 14, he stabbed an 18-year-old in the back while another man held a gun to the victim’s head. The pair got away with $40, but were captured and convicted.
“He wasn’t a sympathetic figure,” Heraty acknowledged.
Nevertheless, Flynn made it clear that should not affect the outcome.
“You can’t judge these situations by the person you’re dealing with, how good or bad they are," he said. "If a wrong was committed, we need to fix it.”
Flynn said that the statue of limitations has passed to bring charges against the Rent-A-Center worker and that the 15-year-old who was involved served an “appropriate” sentence. What was left was seeing Ricks released, seven and a half years earlier than expected according to the law, much later than deserved.
Goldstein said it is the best they could hope for.
“We were able to put what we believe is the truth forward,” he said. “And that is, he was set up. He spent over 12 years in jail for it.”