DNA Exonerates NJ Man Imprisoned for Nearly 20 Years

Richardson was convicted in 1996 of murdering 19-year-old Monica Reyes.


Gerard Richardson spent almost 20 years in prison saying he was innocent and demanding a DNA test to prove it. Last year, he finally got that test. It proved him right.

“It felt real good knowing that finally after all these years they finally found the truth and I was going to be set free. It felt real good,” he said.

Richardson had insisted on going back into the courtroom to be officially exonerated, even though his lawyer told him he could have simply gone home.

“I said, the same way that they put me in the news and in the courtroom saying I was the killer and all that, I want it done again in the courtroom and I want my family there. My mother was sitting right there in the front row. She got a chance to see it happen,” he said.

The world has changed in those 20 years. His neighborhood in Elizabeth has changed. Smartphones have replaced beepers. He’s had to adjust.

“I could be mad and bitter and all of that. I used to be. But I’m not no more because it’s not going to do me no good,” he said.

Richardson was convicted in 1996 of murdering 19-year-old Monica Reyes. Her body was dumped in a ditch.

Police zeroed in on Richardson — a drug dealer who’d done time for robbery. Reyes sold drugs for Richardson and she owed him money.

When her body was found, there was a bite mark on her back — a pivotal piece of evidence in the case.

Inside that bite mark was a tiny bit of saliva, captured on the tip of an evidence swab. From behind bars, Richardson knew that a DNA test of that saliva would clear him.

But in the 1990s, scientists needed a sample the size of a quarter to get a result. Today, they only need a sample the size of a grain of sugar.

Finally, last year, a lab in California was able to isolate the genetic profile from the DNA in the bite mark — and it did not belong to Richardson.

If Gerard Richardson is not the killer, then somebody else is. Authorities ought to be able to use the same genetic profile that freed Richardson to find the real killer.

Richardson’s lawyer, Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project, a group that specializes in DNA exonerations, would like the authorities to run the DNA profile from the bite mark through an FBI database called CODIS. It has nearly 11 million genetic profiles of convicted felons.

But FBI regulations say the private lab Richardson’s lawyers used had not been pre-approved by a New Jersey state lab. So the 10-minute computer search is out of the question.

“What’s missing in this case is any desire it seems on the part of the state to try to find the real killer. You would expect the prosecutor’s office to be pushing for an exception with the FBI,” Potkin said.

The Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office refused repeated requests for comment.

Last month, Richardson testified in Trenton in support of a bill that would cut through the red tape and allow the results of private labs to be run through the CODIS databank. The bill is sponsored by Assemblyman Gordon Johnson and Sen. Loretta Weinberg and is moving through both houses.

Even if the bill is passed, it will be too late to help Richardson and give him peace of mind.

“Even though I know I didn’t do it but if they did put it in the database and get a hit and they do come up with somebody and they have somebody then it really proves that I’m not the one,” he said.

Richardson has one last battle to fight. He was exonerated 10 days before New Jersey changed its laws on compensating the wrongly convicted from $20,000 for each year served to $50,000 per year — a difference of about $600,000 for him. He’s suing the state.


Montclair State | New Jersey

Tara George

Tara George is a Associate Professor of Communication and Media, School of Communication and Media.