Minutes into New Year’s Day 1987, a French couple visiting New York fell behind their companions while walking in Midtown Manhattan’s holiday crowds and were attacked.
The couple, Jean and Renée Casse, were on 52nd Street when Mr. Casse was robbed, assaulted and thrown to the ground. Days after Mr. Casse, 71, died from injuries to his neck and head, two people — Eric Smokes and David Warren — were arrested in the attack. By the summer, the two had been convicted.
For nearly the next four decades, Mr. Smokes, who was 19 when he was arrested, and Mr. Warren, who was 16, would try to clear their names without success. On Wednesday, under a new district attorney, the two men’s convictions were overturned and their indictments were dismissed.
“Eric Smokes and David Warren lost decades of their life to an unjust conviction,” said Alvin L. Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, in a statement. “I am inspired by the unyielding advocacy of Mr. Smokes and Mr. Warren and hope that today’s decision can finally bring them a measure of comfort and justice.”
In months of hearings that started in November 2018, the Manhattan district attorney’s office fought an attempt by the men, who had been paroled years before, to have their convictions overturned.
A judge denied the defense’s motion in January 2020. Now, four years later, the office has reversed its position.
A new investigation begun in 2022 in cooperation with the men’s lawyers uncovered fresh evidence and “the People believe that the only legally correct and just outcome is to move to vacate these convictions,” Terri S. Rosenblatt, the chief of the office’s Post-Conviction Justice Unit, wrote in an October court filing.
On Wednesday, the same judge who had denied their application four years ago agreed with Mr. Smokes and Mr. Warren.
“Thirty-something years later, you are still fighting for your right, for a court to say to you that those convictions were not warranted, and so today to you I am going to grant that,” said Judge Stephen Antignani as the courtroom burst into whoops and applause.
A growing number of convictions from the 1990s — when soaring crime led New York City law enforcement agencies to pursue arrests at all costs — have been vacated in recent years. Those who have had their names cleared have been overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic.
Since 1989, about 124 murder convictions have been overturned in New York City, a notable portion of the 1,317 overturned nationwide, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. In the 2022 fiscal year, the city settled cases involving 16 wrongful convictions, the most of any single year, according to the city comptroller’s office. The settlements totaled nearly $87 million.
Mr. Warren, 53, and Mr. Smokes, 56, spent long years in prison before being paroled in 2007 and 2011.
The re-investigation into their cases began around the same time that Mr. Bragg announced the creation of the Post-Conviction Justice Unit, which works collaboratively with people hoping to have convictions overturned. Since then, along with the cases of Mr. Smokes and Mr. Warren, the office has successfully moved to vacate nine cases, according to a spokesman.
“I am done,” Judge Antignani told Mr. Smokes and Mr. Warren, as the hearing concluded on Wednesday. “You are out of my life.”
They could walk out, the judge said, “with the knowledge that you are not criminals.”
Mr. Warren leaned toward the microphone at the defense table to respond: “We never were.”
The pair, who have been friends since before their arrest, were met with applause as they left the courtroom, accompanied by their lawyers, James Henning and Carissa Caukin. With beaming smiles and a gaggle of friends, family and supporters, Mr. Smokes and Mr. Warren made their way toward the elevators, pausing repeatedly to exchange hugs and back slaps.
“You don’t try to pressure young people,” Mr. Smokes said at a news conference outside, adding: “If you just follow the basic steps of police work, you’d get the job done.”
Their convictions, he said, had been the result of “tunnel vision.”
Just weeks after Mr. Casse’s death, prosecutors in Manhattan filed paperwork with the court saying that both Mr. Smokes and Mr. Warren said they knew each other; had gone into Midtown together on New Year’s Eve and had spent the night together; and that Mr. Smokes had “punched a young man in the head” on 41st Street.
Both denied going north of 48th Street. Still, four witnesses identified the two young men in a lineup and gave testimony that placed them on 52nd Street, according to court documents.
Five teenage witnesses identified Mr. Smokes and Mr. Warren as the ones who assaulted and robbed Mr. Casse, according to prosecutors.
One witness initially testified during the trial that he had “seen the old man fall down, hit his head on the concrete wall,” and later that he had “seen the next guy going through the pockets.” However, during the re-investigation, he told prosecutors that he was made to feel like a suspect and that he had fingered Mr. Smokes and Mr. Warren partly to “avoid getting arrested himself.”
In July 1987, it took a jury three days of deliberations and what the foreperson called “great emotional turmoil” to find Mr. Smokes and Mr. Warren guilty, prosecutors said.
The now-suspect witness testimony was vital in the jury room, according to one member. The juror, Luana Dunn, said in a July affidavit that the first vote at the start of deliberations had been 7 to 5 in favor of acquittal. But, after rereading the testimony, “votes started to flip to guilty,” she said.
After hours, the vote was 11 to 1 for a guilty verdict, except for one “Spanish lady who would not change her vote,” Ms. Dunn said.
“She cried and got very emotional, because she did not believe the police testimony at all,” she said. “We couldn’t convince her, even though things got a little intense and we started to bully her to avoid a hung jury. Eventually she voted guilty.”