This fall will mark 18 years since a New York judge sat at her bench with a clear view of two Black families whose lives had been ravaged by gun violence. On her right of the full courtroom sat supporters of Ronnie Wright, who faced being separated from his young daughter for the rest of his life. And on the left was the grieving family of Andrell Napper, a bystander fatally shot while running away from gunfire.

In Judge Cheryl Chambers' hands, a note from the jurors who reached a verdict in the case against the man accused of killing Napper in August 2006.

Shanita Drummond sat inside that Brooklyn courtroom during the five-day trial in October 2007. She says she couldn’t believe the lies that the prosecutor’s only eyewitness, Valerie Smith, told the jurors about her cousin, Wright. Smith’s testimony also left an impression with Oresa Napper-Williams, Napper’s mom. She approached the 46-year-old stranger in the hallway after testifying and thanked her for coming forward.

Wright was found guilty. The judge sentenced him to 40 years to life in prison.

As the still-grieving mother remains confident in the prosecution’s case, nearly 18 years later, Wright’s supporters continue to say there’s no way he killed the 21-year-old Napper. A hearing that started in September 2021 was expected to have proven that by now, they said.

“The man who actually did it already told y’all he did this and was convicted of it,” Drummond told Worldacad in March of this year. “And here Ronnie has to wait over 15 years for a hearing to prove something that they already knew back then. This is crazy.”

The prosecution of Wright’s case and an evidentiary hearing that has dragged on for nearly three years underscore questionable tactics by law enforcement officials and alleged witness tampering, attorneys and Wright’s supporters say. The ongoing delays — partially due to the current judge’s schedule — haven’t changed the evidence that had been withheld from Wright’s attorneys since his arrest. But from the start, the investigation into the shooting of Napper was rife with rumors about it being retaliation for another man’s death and confusion about who did what.

Andrell Napper was killed after being caught in the crossfire of a shooting in August 2006. (Courtesy of Oresa Napper-Williams)

The narrative that has never changed is that Napper was caught in the crossfire of a botched revenge plot, and Wright says he was not at the scene of the shooting. It’s a one-witness case with no forensic evidence that connected Wright, who was 27 at the time, to Napper’s murder. This wasn’t a gang-related homicide case and federal agents weren’t involved, Julie Clark, Wright’s original trial lawyer, said. That, she is sure of.

In an April interview, Napper-Williams told Worldacad that she’s not interested in what’s happening at the hearing that began in 2021. She said her confidence in Wright’s conviction leans heavily on Smith. Smith, a hospital security guard, was the first person to mention Wright and the other defendant to police as they investigated the shooting on Throop Avenue in Brooklyn. Worldacad spoke to family and acquaintances of Napper and Wright, and no one knew who Smith was prior to her testimony in October 2007. Worldacad has also attempted to contact Smith.

Drummond is certain that Wright was at home that night because he was serious about not violating his parole. If Wright were guilty, Drummond said she wouldn’t stand by him.

The legal team for Wright has been arguing to introduce evidence that could’ve been favorable to Wright’s defense, such as the written statements from a man involved in the plan and execution of the shooting. Wright was convicted along with 14-year-old Stephon Williams, who pleaded guilty and was not questioned by the lead case detective.

Wright's hearing continued last week with testimony from a former prosecutor, but there’s still no resolution.

The prison visit that changed everything

Wright has stood firm that he was wrongly convicted in 2007 for orchestrating a revenge plot against Charles Saunders for allegedly killing John “Popcorn” Hayes. Wright was Hayes' cousin.

In 2017, Wright had an unexpected visit from a defense attorney who wasn’t his own. Jeremy Schneider, a federal public defender, showed up at Auburn Correctional Facility in upstate New York to let Wright know that his client, Nicholas Washington, was on trial with Demetrius Morris, who is expected to testify that Washington organized the hit that Wright had been sitting in prison for.

(Washington was Hayes’ brother, and when he died, Washington became the inherited leader of the G’z Up gang, authorities said. Washington put out the botched hit that Morris pleaded guilty to.)

After meeting with Schneider, Wright rushed to the law library. With the assistance of jailhouse lawyers, Wright submitted his own appeal to the court. He also asked for help from New York defense attorneys dedicated to post-conviction cases.

Had Clark, Wright’s trial lawyer, known about another possible suspect or a written admission, her trial strategy would have been “drastically different,” she told Worldacad. “It's just a shame that it was not disclosed to the defense because it's supposed to be.”

Wright is eligible for parole in July 2045.

The key detail that could prove his innocence

Prosecutors with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office have denied withholding information from Clark and Wright’s defense team about a 10-year multiagency investigation connected to the G’z Up gang. But in court records, prosecutors said that federal investigators ran a “parallel investigation” that landed different outcomes. They said federal prosecutors from the U.S. Justice Department’s Eastern District of New York didn’t ask for any records from their office until 2018 — 10 years after Wright was sentenced.

They also argued that Morris' October 2006 written statement wasn’t under a category of evidence that would benefit Wright’s defense. Ruth Shillingford, a former Brooklyn judge, disagreed with prosecutors in 2021. Before retiring, Shillingford ordered a hearing and for prosecutors to provide copies of Morris’ statement and other evidence to Wright’s new defense team, Dennis Kelly and John O’Hara.

Morris’ written statement sat in a manila folder until it was turned over 16 years later in 2022.

This year, during the ongoing evidentiary hearing in June, lead case detective Christopher Hennigan agreed with Clark that the investigation into Napper’s death didn’t have gang-related elements. Hennigan denied speaking to federal law enforcement agents about any gangs in connection to Napper's state homicide investigation.

When Napper was killed, Wright was an aspiring rapper who did not have any gang affiliation, his previous and current attorneys as well as family members confirmed to Worldacad.

With Smith coming forward, Hennigan said he stopped canvassing for more witnesses and didn’t interview Williams after he pleaded guilty. Prosecutors at the time of Napper’s death concluded that there was “insufficient evidence” to charge Morris, court records show.

“This case is subject to an ongoing hearing and will continue to be litigated in court,” Oren Yaniv, a spokesperson for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, told Worldacad over the phone.

Read More: Wrongful Convictions Reveal the Flaws of the Criminal Justice System

Wright would later learn that Morris pleaded guilty in July 2013 in federal court for his role in a gang-related conspiracy, drugs, and guns operation that are connected to two homicides, including Napper's. Two witnesses who submitted sworn affidavits on Wright’s behalf, Smith, Williams, and a federal grand jury all identified Morris as one of the two shooters.

Legally, Brooklyn state prosecutors cannot charge Morris for the same murder he already pleaded guilty to in federal court. But, somehow, Morris was able to plead guilty to a homicide that Wright had already been prosecuted and sentenced for seven years prior.

Had Wright been charged for the role Morris said he played in Napper’s killing, would the trial prosecutor have the same strategy that Wright was the mastermind and shooter, or would the jury convict Wright if they knew about another alleged retaliation plot where Wright allegedly pointed out the location of Hayes’ murderer, his attorneys argue.

As a condition of his guilty plea, Morris turned on Washington by becoming a cooperating witness. After Washington’s 2016 federal trial concluded in February 2019, Morris was sentenced to 84 months in federal prison that will run concurrently with a 10-year sentence for a 2009 drug conviction also connected to the G’z Up gang.

Conflicting accounts of what happened

The morning Napper was killed, Wright wore a T-shirt with the words “Rest In Peace Popcorn” printed on the front. It was Hayes' funeral, and Wright knew he had to get home before his 10 p.m. curfew.

Wright had been on parole for two years after being incarcerated for 10. He was a teenager when he was sentenced for a second-degree attempted murder case. His parole would have expired in September 2007. Wright’s legal team says having a previous guilty plea on his record made their client the perfect target for law enforcement to connect him to a crime. But they didn’t expect him to testify at the grand jury, go to trial, and have a post-conviction hearing granted.

As he headed back home, Wright passed the corner of Throop and Myrtle Avenues. That’s where Smith told Hennigan that she saw Wright wearing a Hayes memorial T-shirt minutes before the shooting. But she misconstrued the time of day they had an encounter, Kelly, one of Wright’s attorneys, said.

Read More: Black Men Continue to Be Overrepresented in Annual Wrongful Conviction Report

The only firearm recovered from the scene was a pistol found under Smith’s SUV and nearby Payton. It wasn’t the murder weapon, prosecutors said. A firearms analysis couldn’t tell what type of gun fired the fatal bullet. Wright’s DNA was never tested. The DNA of a woman and two unidentified men were found on the gun.

Approximately 10 bullets flew between three different shooters as more than two dozen people ran away or dropped to the ground. One of those bullets pierced the back of Napper’s head, three injured Jerard Payton, another bystander, and Williams was shot in the leg during crossfire allegedly with Payton.

The day after the shooting, Smith and her friend, Tammy Atkins, went to police and provided conflicting accounts about when they saw Wright that day. Smith identified Williams and Morris in a line-up as the shooters, and she pointed out Wright in a photo array. Atkins did not identify Wright in a photo array or line up.

Wright was arrested days later. He told police that he wouldn’t have been outside after 10 p.m. because he didn’t want to violate parole.

Two months later, Hennigan and FBI Special Agent Anthony M. Grubisic traveled to Altoona, Pennsylvania, to arrest Morris on federal drug trafficking charges. Morris gave a written statement that laid out the entire retaliation plot to kill Hayes’ alleged killer, Saunders, on behalf of Washington. As members of the gang and Wright traveled in separate cars to the location, Morris wrote, he “bitched up” and decided to let Williams and another G’z Up gang member do his dirty work.

Wright allegedly pointed out their target, and Morris wrote he did not fire his weapon. When Grubisic transcribed Morris’ written statements a few days later, Wright’s role changed from an accomplice to one of three shooters.

Williams pleaded guilty as a juvenile offender and was sentenced to 9 years to life in prison. He did not testify at Wright’s trial, despite Clark’s request to have him made available as a defense witness.

Any details about Wright’s case, Napper-Williams said, may disturb her peace and she doesn’t want her mission to be interrupted.

“People always say that both families lose when dealing with the criminal justice system. And no, it is not that same loss,” Napper-Williams said. “You may have lost a physical daily action, but you could still get a visit, hold hands, hear a voice, send a card and it's read, all of that.”

Christina Carrega is a criminal justice reporter at Worldacad. Twitter @ChrisCarrega