Jury Acquits N.J. Man Who Defended Himself in Multiple Homicide Trial

The faulty testimony of a cousin seeking a plea deal was enough to set a Newark brickmason free.

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AP / Mel Evans

Lee Evans, left, of Irvington, N.J., who defended himself, stands with his advising attorney Bukie O. Adetula

On hiring a good attorney, onetime barrister Abraham Lincoln once said: “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Well, Abe might have been honest, but he wasn’t always right. And Lee Anthony Evans is no fool.

The 58-year-old Newark, N.J., brickmason has been acquitted in the 1978 murder of five teenagers in a case that went unsolved for a generation and bewildered the city. “It’s a situation where I heard them say not guilty, but the way they put a horrible thing on you, you still feel guilty, ” he told the New Jersey Star-Ledger on Wednesday.

That Evans was acquitted in the case, however, is not as remarkable as the fact that he successfully defended himself, proving that the testimony against him was not plausible.

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Prosecutors claimed that Evans murdered the teens by locking them in an abandoned home and setting it on fire. They said he did it in retaliation for the boys stealing marijuana from him a few days earlier. The bodies of the teenagers were never found, and the homicides remained a cold case for decades. It was classified as a missing persons case until two detectives, always haunted by what happened, decided to reopen it in 2008.

That’s when Evans’s cousin, Philander Hampton, 54 — a career criminal seeking a plea deal in exchange for a 10-year jail term and $15,000 in relocation money — confessed to the crime, telling authorities that he helped Evans trap the teens. Hampton testified that the boys, who often did odd jobs for Evans, had come to the house thinking they would be moving boxes and instead were sealed in a closet, after which Evans poured gasoline around the house and lit it with a match, torching the home.

But since there were no bodies and no DNA evidence linking Evans to the crime, the testimony was already deemed questionable. Evans and attorney Bukie Adetula, who helped him prepare his defense, pointed out Hampton’s long criminal record — he had already done 10 years in prison for robbery and admitted on the stand that he had been a heroin addict, who also sold dope out of the house where the crime supposedly took place.

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Hampton’s testimony during the trial was so inconsistent that, despite needing assistance with questioning, Evans was able to convince a jury in his final arguments that Hampton was not a credible witness.

Evans, who always maintained his innocence and had earlier accused Essex County district attorneys and Newark Mayor Cory Booker of corruption, said he was still anguished over the accusation. “It’s like someone put you in the oven and burned you up. You can’t undo that.”