A man convicted in the 1997 shooting death of a Buffalo woman is now a free man. Friday morning, an Erie County Court Judge removed the murder conviction of 46-year-old Cory Epps after new evidence came to light indicating he was not involved in the crime.
Judge James Bargnesi vacated Epps' conviction and indictment. The order was unsealed Friday morning.
Back in 1998, Epps was convicted of killing Tameka Means as she sat in a car on May 26, 1997.
His sister, Michelle Williams, explained that shortly after the Means murder, Epps and his wife Jerrihia went downtown to talk with police about an auto accident.
"They never walked back out," she said. "They questioned him about a murder, and he was never released."
Erie County District Attorney John Flynn explained that Epps had volunteered to participate in a lineup, confident in his innocence. But the witness pointed to him as the supsect.
"At trial, Cory Epps' main defense was that it was not him and he had an alibi," Flynn explained. "He produced a receipt from Perkins Restaurant, at roughly the time the murder took place, and said he was not there, he was at the Perkins Restaurant with his wife."
Epps' case was taken by the Manhattan-based Exoneration Initiative. Attorneys Glenn Garber and Rebecca Freedman, speaking outside the courtroom, said the original case against their client was weak from the start.
"This was a one-witness identification case," Garber said.
"Zero corroboration," Freedman added.
"It was a very stressful short event and it's a case that, we think, probably wouldn't be prosecuted in today's climate," Garber continued. "We've learned a lot about witness identification over the last 20 years. Even back then the trial judge, in sentencing, had expressed grave concerns about the quality of the evidence."
Freedman said Epps' exoneration is not based on a technicality. Rather, he has truly been proven innocent.
"In this case, the motion was based on newly discovered evidence," she said. "That newly discovered evidence was evidence of innocence. It was not a technicality. It was not procedural. It was based on factual evidence that he was innocent of this crime."
That evidence, Flynn explained, was disclosed in a Thursday hearing that remains sealed, thus he is unable to disclose what resulted in Epps' reversal of fortune.
Prosecutors now believe Means' real killer is already in prison serving 25 years to life for another homicide conviction. Flynn would not name that suspect but said that person bears a strong resemblance to Epps.
"The photograph of him and Cory Epps are eerily similar," he said. "Like twins, similar.
But he added that the eyewitness who described the suspect in 1997 as having bumps or acne on the side of his face. Epps, Flynn said, has no bumps on the side of his face but the other suspect does.
As they awaited the release of their loved one, family members would not express bitterness about 19 years lost behind bars.
"The fact he knew he was innocent, his faith in God, his wife by his side and his family has kept him in a good position to know this day was going to happen," Williams said.