By Salvador Rizzo
Askia Nash is a stranger to his youngest son, missed his father’s death, was branded a child predator and lost a decade of his life — all for crimes that likely never happened, the state Supreme Court said today.
Nash, a librarian at Newark’s Morton Street Middle School, was convicted in 2002 of sexually assaulting a student and endangering the welfare of another. He served nine years of his 22-year sentence before being paroled in September.
The Supreme Court found the school principal misled the trial jury in a way that “destroyed Nash’s credibility” and guaranteed his conviction. On the principal’s orders, Nash’s colleagues stayed silent during the trial even though they held the key to his freedom, the court said.
The justices ordered a new trial for Nash today, acting as a last line of defense after a decade of appeals that went nowhere.
“It meant that I could be a father again, I could be my mother’s son again. My mom and my sons,” Nash said in an interview. “I can’t really describe how I feel, but I’m finally in my own skin again.”
Evidence that began to surface shortly after Nash’s trial would likely clear him of wrongdoing, the justices said. Anyone in that situation deserves a swift retrial and shouldn’t have to fight for a decade to get one, the court ruled in a 6-0 decision.
“The old phrase that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ is certainly apt here,” Justice Barry Albin wrote for the court.
Two students, identified as “J.B.” and “K.L.,” had accused Nash of molesting them from 1999 to 2000. A jury found Nash guilty of endangering K.L. and of repeatedly sexually assaulting J.B., both 12 years old at the time.
But the jurors did not hear key testimony from Nash’s colleagues that backed up his defense, the justices said, partly because the principal, Carl Gregory, ordered them to stonewall Nash’s lawyer.
Staff members began to speak up in Nash’s defense only after the librarian was convicted, and after J.B.’s mother sued the Newark school district for monetary damages.
At his 2002 trial, Nash argued that J.B. was a problem student who had a “personal aide” assigned to him at all times, which would have made an assault impossible.
But Gregory testified that J.B. had no “personal aide” at the school. It was only after Nash’s conviction that Gregory corrected himself, saying that while J.B. had no “personal aide” assigned, he had ordered a “classroom aide,” Crystal St. Louis, to escort J.B. everywhere he went.
The high court said Nash’s conviction was not surprising considering Gregory’s moves.
“Gregory’s words were the final piece of testimony heard by the jury. The principal’s testimony refuted the centerpiece of Nash’s defense — that he could not have committed the offense because an aide supervised J.B. Nash’s credibility was seriously damaged by the school’s most authoritative voice,” Albin wrote. “However, ten years after Nash’s trial, it is all but indisputable that the principal’s testimony was in error.”
St. Louis and another aide, as well as the school vice principal, all later submitted testimony that indicated J.B. had two staff members monitoring his every move at Morton Street. His classroom teacher, Saundra Sharp-Conte, said J.B. “was known to be a pathological liar,” according to the decision.
Gregory died in 2010, a month before he was to take the stand again in a follow-up hearing. Nash and his lawyer said they are still baffled by his moves.
“I would have liked to ask him those questions on the stand,” said Adam Toraya, Nash’s public defender.
Nash, who remains a registered sex offender, could be released from parole and from the state’s law policing child predators — Megan’s Law — if the trial court throws out his conviction.
Albin wrote that even though key witnesses started to come forward a month after Nash was convicted, New Jersey courts had been stumped on procedural grounds for years.
Judges had not confronted a case in which the defense attorney and prosecutor both acted appropriately, but key evidence still went missing, he wrote. However, Albin added, he was still “perplexed” no one took the initiative to “correct a fundamental injustice.”
Nash said he expects to win his next jury trial. The prosecutor who won his conviction acknowledged in a 2010 hearing that in light of all the evidence that came later, “it would probably have been a very different case.” A spokeswoman for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office said today’s decision is being reviewed.
In the meantime, Nash, 51, said he is beginning to rebuild his life and starting to get to know his youngest son, now 14. His father, who helped file appeals and fought for his case, died two years ago from diabetes.
Nash said the school staff members shouldn’t have waited for J.B.’s mother to sue to “tell the truth.”
“That took my life away from me,” he said. “That was my life.”
This article was written by Salvador Rizzo and originally published on nj