Free Robert Webster: Wrongly-convicted at age 17, seeking clemency after 34yrs in prison
Free Robert Webster: Wrongly-convicted at age 17, seeking clemency after 34yrs in prison
Robert Webster of Queens, New York, was only 17 years old when he was wrongfully convicted of arson and sentenced to a disproportionate sentence of 50 years to life imprisonment. He has already served almost 34 years, and won’t be eligible for parole until he’s 67 years old.
Robert’s case was plagued with issues from the outset. Evidence of his innocence was never fully explored at trial, with alibis, key witnesses and police evidence excluded from the trial, and the judge refusing to account for the fact that he was a minor when sentencing him.
During sentencing, the court imposed a 50-to-life year sentence on Robert, influenced by the tragic fact that a young police officer who was stationed outside the arson victim’s home following the arsons, was murdered. This was a high-profile case and influenced the severe sentence, a violation of due process. Robert is innocent of both arsons and there is no evidence connecting him to any crimes. The sole basis of the conviction is a witness identification. Setting aside Robert’s innocence, the 50-to-life sentence is not proportional to the harm. Robert received twice the maximum sentence imposed on those who killed the police officer.
Despite his incarceration, Robert, a loyal, family-oriented man has invested so intentionally in his relationships that his family members call him “the bridge” and credit him for helping them stay close with each other. Robert’s family point to him as the peacemaker of the family and a role model for them all.
At age 51, after almost 34 years of fighting for his freedom, Robert now seeks clemency from Governor Kathy Hochul. Robert hopes that Governor Hochul will acknowledge the grave injustices of his case and release him so that he will have the opportunity to live the rest of his life as a free man and contributing member of society.
This petition will be submitted to Governor Hochul along with Robert’s clemency application. Please help Robert come home by signing and sharing as widely as possible.
Please also consider supporting Robert with a financial contribution via his Go Fund Me fundraiser. These funds will directly help Robert with his fight for freedom and will help him to fund his education in paralegal studies, preparing him for a successful and fulfilling life when he finally gets home. Please note: once you have signed the petition, change.org will also give you an opportunity to donate. Funds donated through the change.org link are not received by Robert but are instead used by change.org to help promote and circulate the petition. To donate to Rob directly, the Go Fund Me link must be used. To help promote the petition, you can use the change.org link or share via social media.
For more information about Robert’s case, his achievements, and his future aspirations, read the full story below. You can also follow his progress on Instagram @freerobertwebster
On behalf of Robert, his friends and family, thank you for your support!
In 1980’s New York, the sale and distribution of drugs was on the rise, as was the associated violence stemming from the crisis. Police began mobilizing against the crack epidemic in 1985 and there was a major anti-narcotics operation in the 103rd precinct, where Robert Webster lived.
In the early morning hours of November 10, 1987, in Jamaica, New York, a home was twice firebombed. The firebombings were later confirmed to be an act of retaliation for the homeowner having informed police about the activities of local drug dealers. The homeowner’s cousin, who was asleep at the house when the firebombings occurred, testified that he saw ‘two guys’ walking away from the house afterwards. Police apprehended one man after the first firebombing. Not long after he was arrested, the second firebombing occurred.
The day after the firebombings, Robert was walking to a nearby store with his cousin, Dwayne, when police pulled over and asked him to get in the back of their car. They told him that a crime had been committed nearby and that they wanted his help to find the perpetrator. Having never been in trouble with the police before and not wanting to cause any problems, Robert obliged. He was driven to the home that was firebombed, and upon arrival the homeowner’s cousin was walked over to the car and asked to take a look at Robert. To Robert’s surprise, the police asked the man whether Robert was the second person that he saw during the firebombings. The man said definitively that Robert was not the second perpetrator, so the police released Robert, who then walked up the street in search of Dwayne.
Soon after Robert was released the two police officers once again pulled up next to him in their car, this time with the homeowner’s cousin in the back seat. The man had suddenly changed his mind about Robert’s involvement in the firebombings, now claiming that he was in fact the second perpetrator he saw leaving the scene of the crime. Robert was arrested and taken to the station where he was read his charges. While at the station he was instructed by officers to remove the grey coat he was wearing and put on a black jacket with gold stripes, a coat that did not belong to him but fit the victim’s description of the second perpetrator. He was then photographed in the jacket, with the images later used as evidence of how Robert looked at the time of his arrest.
After leaving the precinct, Robert was taken to central booking where he was photographed again for his official ‘mugshot’. This time the photo was taken in the grey coat Robert was wearing when he was arrested, evidence that he did in fact have a grey coat with him at the time of his arrest.
During Robert’s trial, not only did he receive ineffective representation, but his rights were repeatedly violated. He was also denied due process during sentencing.
Robert’s trial lawyer failed to present evidence showing that he was arrested wearing a grey coat rather than the black Lakers jacket the homeowner’s cousin described seeing worn by the second perpetrator on the morning of the firebombings. During trial, his lawyer also prevented two critical alibis from testifying. The first of these alibis was Robert’s then girlfriend, Robin, who was with him at his mother’s house when the firebombings occurred. The second was his mother, who saw Robert asleep in his bed when she entered his room around the time of the second firebombing to get clothes from their shared closet before going to work. Robert’s lawyer believed that testimonies from Robert’s girlfriend and mother lacked credibility due to the close, personal relationships he had with them.
The prosecution violated Robert’s Brady rights when it suppressed a 911 call, the contents of which refuted the theory that Robert was selling drugs outside the firebombed home on November 9th. In suppressing the 911 call the prosecution knowingly obtained false testimony from the homeowner and one of the arresting police officers that Robert was one of the people selling narcotics outside the home that night. A police radio run from the night of the firebombings that confirmed no perpetrator was seen at the scene of the crime, and a police report and memo books containing information about the second arson and that may have proven Robert’s innocence, were also suppressed.
The homeowner, who was one of the two main witnesses to the arson attacks, claimed there were two people involved in the second arson, and originally identified Joseph Martin as the person conspiring with Robert. When he went to the police station for a line-up however, he incorrectly identified a different man, calling his recollection of events and credibility as a witness into question. The homeowner’s credibility was further called into question when he claimed he saw the perpetrators drive away in a beige Chevrolet with a license plate ending in ‘999’. Officers eventually spotted a beige Chevrolet with a license plate that matched the one described by the homeowner. When the car’s owner was questioned however, police learned that on the night of the arsons, he was at work at JFK Airport and his Chevy was parked in the airport parking lot.
The suppression of evidence and questionable testimonies of the homeowner, his cousin, and the arresting officers are particularly significant in Robert’s case since eyewitness testimony was the primary basis for his conviction. Without this eyewitness testimony, there is no other evidence whatsoever that connects Robert to the crimes.
In addition to these serious violations of Robert’s rights, he was also denied due process at sentencing. The court imposed a sentence based on a crime for which he had no responsibility, being the murder of a young police officer who was stationed outside the firebombed home following the arson attacks. Robert’s sentence of 50 years to life, imposed without consideration for his youth, violates the Eighth Amendment. The Constitution requires that judges consider the youthfulness of children undergoing prosecution, but the judge that sentenced Robert refused to do so and imposed the harshest possible penalty for which he was eligible.
Robert was convicted of first-degree arson, criminal mischief, reckless endangerment and intimidating a witness, and sentenced to 50 years to life. Not only is Robert’s sentence equivalent to a death-by-incarceration sentence, but it is disproportionate to the harm that was caused by the arsons. Both arsons caused light property damage, and according to a fire department report, the homeowner and his cousin suffered minor burns on their hands while putting out the fire. It also far exceeds the sentences that would be imposed today for the same crime.
Since the 1980s, the way that the State of New York handles cases prosecuting children has changed significantly. New York determined in 2018 that state laws should protect children more vigorously than they did in the 1980s. Had Robert been prosecuted today, he would not be held criminally responsible, and would most likely be treated as an “Adolescent Offender.” Prosecuted as an adult in 1988 and unfairly punished in precisely the manner that the new ‘Raise the Age’ program now seeks to prevent, Robert was deprived of the chance to benefit from the rehabilitative services and reintegration support that New York would ensure him today. These services include diversion, entry and discharge planning, and supervision and treatment services. Unless granted earlier relief, the criminal-legal system will not allow him the chance to re-integrate into his community before he is an elderly man.
Race cannot be ruled out as a contributing factor in Robert’s harsh sentencing. The same year Robert was sentenced, the same judge sentenced three white teenagers responsible for contributing to rioting, that along with violence from other white rioters, contributed to a Black man’s death. Explaining that the teenagers played a “minor role” in the attack, the judge imposed a sentence of only four months of weekend-only jail time and 200 hours of community service work. The Task Force that enforces New York’s Raise the Age program today has acknowledged that “Black…youth continue to be disproportionally represented and differentially treated at all points in the system.”
Complicating Robert’s case was the murder of a young police officer who was killed while stationed outside the firebombed home more than three months after the attacks. The officer's murder was an extremely high-profile case, making national news and even drawing the attention of President Reagan. Although Robert had been in custody for over three months at the time of the murder, was confirmed to have no involvement in the crime, and the four people actually responsible for the officer's death were subsequently arrested and convicted, the judge sentencing Robert associated him with the murder in his decision-making. Robert received twice the maximum sentence of 25 years to life imposed on the officer's killers.
ROBERT’S EMPATHY FOR THE VICTIMS
Despite the fact that Robert is innocent of the crimes for which he is incarcerated, he has repeatedly expressed empathy for the terror and loss experienced by the homeowner and his family. Robert grew up in the same neighborhood as the homeowner and he too was affected by the drugs and violence plaguing the neighborhood at the time. Robert also had his own harrowing experience with a house fire before he was incarcerated, when his baby niece, Janiqua, tragically became trapped and died in a house fire in 1986. This tragedy affects Robert and his family to this day. He asserts that he would never subject a family to the kind of pain he and his family experienced from losing Janiqua.
Since 1997, Robert has been involved in the Honor Block program, reserved for incarcerated individuals who have been incarcerated without recent disciplinary reports.
Throughout his incarceration, Robert has dedicated a great deal of time to educating himself and helping others. He has accessed every educational opportunity available to him and taken on every possible mentoring or assistant role that has been offered.
Robert has completed his GED and his Associates Degree, making him the first person in his family to graduate with his degree, a huge source of pride for him and his family. He has also completed the Alternatives to Violence (AVP) program, the Aggression Replacement Training program, Hope Rising, Certificates in Basic Metaphysics, the Culture of Ancient Egypt and Ministry of Human Services and trained as an Inmate Associate Trainer. He was elected as the Vice President of PinPoint, an organization run by incarcerated people. PinPoint created the Lifers Committee and the Youth Assistance Program, the latter of which targets at-risk teens from the five boroughs in an effort to deter them from making poor life choices. Young people are given tours of the facility and then provided with an opportunity to sit with incarcerated individuals and learn about their life experiences. He joined the advanced AVP group, a safe space that offers group therapy and Training for Facilitators and eventually became an AVP facilitator, teaching others how to safely diffuse violent situations.
Between 1995 and 2001, Robert was a Teacher’s Assistant for the pre-GED and Adult Basic Education (ABE) courses, helping over 140 incarcerated students with their lessons. Motivated to understand what happened at his trial, Robert also obtained a legal research certificate, and over the course of twenty-five years spent in the law library building, has helped other incarcerated people represent themselves in seeking relief and encouraging them to retain a sense of hope through these processes.
Robert has now been away from his family for 34 years. He has missed the births of his nieces and nephews, countless weddings, birthdays, and family holidays. He has lost many family members and friends over the three decades he has been incarcerated, including his beloved father, and has not been able to attend their funerals or grieve as one would usually hope to do. The fact that Robert was unable to give his father a grandchild before he passed away is a great source of pain for him.
Robert plans to start studying towards a paralegal certificate in 2022 and dreams of obtaining his bachelor and master’s degrees once he leaves prison. Ultimately, he would like to find a job as a paralegal so that he can support young people in learning their rights and preparing for a productive life. He would also dearly love to have an opportunity to meet a wonderful woman one day and become a loving and supportive husband and father.
Robert’s family have missed him every single day of the 34 years they have been separated and will continue to do so until they are reunited. They consistently share that having him home will better their lives and the lives of others in their community.