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Brooklyn pair battle to clear their names in 1987 tourist murder

New York Daily News logo New York Daily News 7/17/2017 ROCCO PARASCANDOLA
LEFT David Warren and RIGHT Eric Smokes contend that they did not commit the murder that landed them both in prison for decades. They plan to submit a motion to clear their names - photographed on Tuesday June 20, 2017 - (Susan Watts/New York Daily News) - Susan Watts/New York Daily News © Provided by New York Daily News LEFT David Warren and RIGHT Eric Smokes contend that they did not commit the murder that landed them both in prison for decades. They plan to submit a motion to clear their names - photographed on Tuesday June 20, 2017 - (Susan Watts/New York Daily News) - Susan Watts/New York Daily News

Best friends Eric Smokes and David Warren have endured a headline-grabbing murder trial and prison time — but now they’re facing their biggest test together: the fight to clear their names.

The two were convicted of murdering and robbing a 71-year-old French tourist, a crime emblematic of New York in the gritty 1980s.

More than three decades later, lawyers will file a motion Monday to vacate the guilty verdicts against Smokes and Warren, largely on the basis that witnesses have recanted.

The legal maneuver comes as the case is under review by the Manhattan district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Program.

Ten minutes into 1987, tourist Jean Casse was savagely pummeled to death as he walked with his wife in Midtown.

A gang of toughs pounced on the couple outside Ben Benson’s steakhouse on W. 52nd St., punching Casse to the ground and stealing his wallet.

He died of massive head injuries later that New Year’s Day.

Within a week, Smokes, then 19, and Warren, then 16, were charged in his death.

Smokes and Warren were buddies from East New York, Brooklyn, who ventured to Manhattan to see the Times Square ball drop. They said they made it as far as the Latin Quarter nightclub — just blocks south of Ben Benson’s — and then headed back to Brooklyn because they didn’t have money for the club’s cover.

The pair quickly became the focus of the police investigation.

“Although I knew I wasn’t guilty, I knew they were going to come back and arrest me,” said Smokes, now 49.

“The way they were approaching the investigation, it left me very uneasy. I kept telling them I have nothing to do with the crime.”

Smokes had no criminal record and Warren had a petty larceny charge that was about to be dismissed.

“I felt, We didn’t do anything, so I’m not worried,” said Warren, who is now 47.

A third teenager was charged with them, but a grand jury did not indict him. Instead, Smokes was painted as the leader of a vicious robbery crew and Warren as the accomplice who swiped the mortally wounded Casse’s wallet.

“I guess because I was the youngest, they believed, if I did the crime, I’d be more inclined to tell them everything,” Warren said.

“They kept like, ‘We know you really didn’t do anything. It was Eric, right? We know it was Eric. Tell us it was Eric.’ ”

He didn’t, because, he says, there was nothing to tell.

A jury disagreed, and the best friends were found guilty. Smokes was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Warren got 15 to life.

“I just went into shock,” Warren recalled. “I might have been in shock for two years, honestly.”

After 18 years behind bars, hope came in the form of a letter to Smokes.

James Walker, the first witness to implicate them, apologized.

Walker, a crack addict, admitted that when he was arrested the following day, Jan. 2, 1987, for an unrelated robbery, he lied, to stay out of jail, implicating Smokes in the New Year’s Day murder.

That was all Smokes needed to hear.

“There was only one way to go,” Smokes said. “Getting out and just letting it go, sucking it up — 25 years is just 25 years — that wasn’t an option for me.”

Warren got out of prison in 2009. His best friend followed two years later.

Now the duo has lawyers Craig Phemister and James Henning, of the firm Napoli Shkolnik, on their side with sworn affidavits from three witnesses who testified against Smokes and Warren, and others not called to testify.

The trial witnesses, the lawyers said, made up their stories to satisfy investigators who vowed to charge them with murder if they didn’t cooperate — or were promised favorable treatment for pending criminal cases.

The others, the attorneys claim, were wrongly described by police as having information about the guilt of Smokes and Warren.

“Everything points to somebody or a group of somebodies steering the witnesses,” Phemister said. “(One witness) told me when he was talking to detectives he was guessing what they wanted to hear. So he just went along with what they wanted him to say.”

The detective on the case, George Delgrosso, is retired and couldn’t be reached for comment.

The lead prosecutor, former Assistant District Attorney Michael Goldstein, declined to talk about the case.

“As a prosecutor,” Henning said, “your main job is to do justice. You’re not supposed to just secure convictions. There should have been some point with these witnesses where they took pause.”

It also appears, the lawyers said, that police did not investigate a call from a tipster who identified another man — now believed to be dead — as the killer. The caller provided a physical description and gave police the address where the person was at that moment, smoking crack and in possession of the victim’s wallet, the lawyers said.

The NYPD referred all questions about the case to the Manhattan DA’s office, which confirmed that the convictions are being reviewed.

Both Smokes and Warren have found steady work in construction and have married the women they were dating when they were busted. They say they do not harbor much anger toward those who testified against them, yet now say they were lying.

Warren said he can empathize with the witnesses’ predicament.

Likewise, Smokes said being angry would only consume him — and fly in the face of the promise he made his now-deceased mother not to be bitter.

“Empathy and forgiveness is a big thing,” Smokes said.

“They did what they did, but now, ‘What can you do to correct this problem? How can you help us?’ ”

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