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New Jersey Man Dies Soon After Exonerated of Sex Offense

This flawed identification carried the day in a trial court despite the fact he was playing a basketball game during the time the rape occurred. One of his teammates was a police detective. He could not have committed the rape and fought unceasingly to clear his name.

Thus began a long string of “catch-22” situations for the hapless Harrell that would plague him until he died January 15, 2021 outside of his home in Long Branch, New Jersey. The cause of death was not disclosed.

His beloved cousin, Bryan Brodie, believes that, “He was dealing with a lot of demons from this case, and that’s what ultimately killed him.”

After his parole in 1996 Harrell discovered he could ·not be with his own children unless he was supervised. He would twice be convicted of failing to comply with the byzantine labyrinth of New Jersey’s draconian sex offender registration laws.

His housing and employment conditions were both negatively affected, making his survival difficult as he continued his efforts to obtain DNA to prove his innocence.

New Jersey’s Innocence Project accepted Harrell’s case. Newly hired attorney Vanessa Potkin would champion him as her first client and eventually win his exoneration, but not before slaying those “catch-22” dragons that continued to emerge in the case.

To begin with, Long Branch prosecutors put up a 20 year long fight to stymie access to the DNA for testing. First, they said the evidence had been destroyed. After the DNA evidence had been found, they relied on a New Jersey law that denied access to DNA once the convicted party was no longer in prison. Fighting against that particular catch-22 would eventually see that law changed.

Finally, in 2016, the DNA results unequivocally proved Harrell did not commit the crime. It only took 20 years of dogged persistence on the part of Harrell and Potkin, now the Innocence Project’s director of post-conviction litigation.

Like the majority of states, New Jersey has a law providing for compensation to wrongfully convicted prisoners. It is apparently as byzantine as its sex offender registration statutes, as Harrell was likewise thwarted in his attempts to invoke it. He supposedly waited too long to file a claim.

Losing in the trial court, he pursued an appeal. In 2020, an appeal court denied Harrell the wrongful conviction compensation to which he was rightfully entitled. Based on the adverse publicity and backlash from Harrell’s defenders, Governor Phil Murphy relented and reached a settlement with him in 2020.

He received an unspecified payment in April, eleven months before his death.

Deputy Chief Communications Officer of the Innocence Project Carlita Salazar stated: “Dion was such an incredibly kind, gentle soul who persevered to prove his innocence and to fight alongside our policy department to change the system. His story highlighted the collateral consequences that continue to damage people’s lives even after their release from prison.” 


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