Karen Dannett stared at her computer screen on June 9, 2014, and thought about what she might write. Finally, she typed:
“I really don’t know where to begin but you are in jail for killing my father.”
Jairam Gangaram had been shot while he was working at a Brooklyn bodega one night more than 30 years before. Four men, one wearing a stocking over his face, had come into the store, which was a front for a marijuana dealer. They demanded the drugs before shooting Mr. Gangaram and another clerk, who survived. Two men were eventually convicted and prosecutors named one, Detroy Livingston, as the killer.
Ms. Dannett had hardly known her father in life, but in death he was with her constantly.
She unearthed his autopsy report, filed a public records request for the case file and even tracked down the stenographer who had sat through Mr. Livingston’s trial. The evidence — based entirely on the testimony of one witness — had riddled her with doubt about the conviction. But she had never tried to get in touch with Mr. Livingston, whose name she had read countless times in more than 100 pages of documents.
Then, she saw a television report about the wrongful conviction of two brothers who were freed after a witness came forward with new evidence. Ms. Dannett thought of Mr. Livingston, who had already served more than two decades in prison since his conviction in 1987, and knew she had to act.
Karen Dannett, convinced of Detroy Livingston’s innocence, saw years of effort come to fruition in 2023. Credit…Anna Ottum for The New York Times
As she typed that first letter, she felt both motivated and scared. This man did not know her. She knew nothing about him or his family. But the need to contact him was overwhelming.
It felt like God was telling her to reach him.
Ms. Dannett kept writing. She described visiting the bodega in the summer of 2002 only to find an empty storefront; the sympathetic officer at the 79th Precinct who remembered the murder from his rookie days and gave her the file number; the pain of her grandmother, who had cried every day over her only son’s death.
“I really need to hear your side of the story,” Ms. Dannett wrote. “If you are an innocent man, I truly am sorry that you have spent most of your life locked up for a crime you didn’t commit while the real killer runs free. But if you are guilty then know that I have forgiven you, and you only have God to ask for mercy.”
Ms. Dannett sent the letter to Green Haven Correctional Facility in upstate New York and waited.
Three Shots, Two Lives Destroyed
Detroy Livingston was 18 years old on Dec. 11, 1982, the day of Mr. Gangaram’s murder.
He was an aimless teenager who lived with his mother and stepfather on Monroe Street, about 10 blocks from the bodega. He would later tell the police that he had never walked into the store.
Mr. Livingston had his high school equivalency diploma, but no clear career goals. He hoped he would one day get a job he liked, find a nice place to live, raise a family.
He figured life would get better.
Jairam Gangaram, 32, was also hoping for more for himself and his daughters — after Ms. Dannett, he fathered three more girls. He had come to New York from Guyana with visions of building a business and buying a house. Instead, he was living in his sister’s apartment and working nights at the bodega, a job he desperately wanted to quit.
Mr. Gangaram was at the store on that December night with another clerk, Edward McClean, when the four men burst in. The one with the stocking over his face shot Mr. McClean in the stomach.
As he lay bleeding, Mr. McClean heard three more shots, and the men fled with the marijuana that the bodega sold. He survived, but Mr. Gangaram, who had been shot in the chest and leg, died shortly after.
Less than two weeks later, Tracey Evans, a 19-year-old woman from the neighborhood, went to the police and said she had heard the men brag about the killing while they smoked the stolen marijuana with her, according to court documents.
She did not initially name Mr. Livingston, but her story was only the first of several versions she would tell the police over the next four years. She eventually told investigators that Mr. Livingston was the man who had shot Mr. Gangaram. Another man she identified, Dwayne Cook, was later convicted of shooting Mr. McClean, but no one else was ever charged.
Mr. Livingston went on trial in November 1987. He was confident he would be acquitted — he did not remember ever meeting Ms. Evans — and he refused a deal that would have had him serve six to 12 years.
When the jury found him guilty, Mr. Livingston began screaming.
“Father!” he bellowed, begging God for help.
Searching for Fathers
By then, Mr. Livingston was a father himself. His daughter was born in 1986, while he was jailed at Rikers Island, awaiting trial. His mother helped take care of the baby, but Mr. Livingston would rarely get to see his daughter throughout his imprisonment.
Ms. Dannett barely knew her own father, Mr. Gangaram. He and Ms. Dannett’s mother were young when she was born in 1972 in Georgetown, Guyana, and the couple soon split. Her mother married another man, who raised Ms. Dannett as his own.
When Ms. Dannett was about 5, a great-aunt brought her to visit Mr. Gangaram at his family’s home in Georgetown. When it was time to go, he picked her up, kissed her and said goodbye.
That was the only time she remembered meeting him. In 1979, she moved to New York with her mother and stepfather.
Ms. Dannett reconnected with her father’s family about six years after his murder, when she was a teenager and learned they had also moved to Brooklyn’s Guyanese enclave. She began visiting her father’s sisters and grew close to her grandmother.
At 18, Ms. Dannett joined the Army; she served in the Gulf War and then joined the National Guard. On Christmas Eve, 2000, she visited her grandmother, who wept so bitterly that night over her son’s death that Ms. Dannett resolved to learn more.
Her research brought her to Brooklyn criminal court, and in 2004, she found one of the stenographers who had transcribed the trial.
The case had been one of the stenographer’s first, and it had never left her. It had troubled her so much that for years she had kept her copies of the transcripts, waiting for someone to ask for them. No one came, and she finally threw them away.
When Ms. Dannett appeared 17 years after Mr. Livingston’s conviction, the stenographer was stunned and eager to help. She called a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office, who gave Ms. Dannett the names of the four men whom Ms. Evans had originally identified as the perpetrators, but he warned her that the police and the district attorney’s office would not be eager to reopen the case.
One of her aunts also told her to stop researching — why dig up the past?
Ms. Dannett pressed on. She tried without luck to find the men and the detectives. She considered visiting Mr. Livingston in prison, but he was in upstate New York, too far away.
By then, she had fallen in love with an Army officer and started a family. They had moved to Savannah, Ga., in 2007 after he retired from military service and took a civilian job. Soon, she was caring for a son, then a daughter, and getting her real estate license while working as a government contractor.
The nagging doubts about the murder case receded in her mind.
Then Ms. Dannett saw a news report about the Highers brothers, who had been sentenced to life in prison for a 1987 shooting in Detroit. They were freed after a new witness came forward with evidence about the real perpetrators.
If that person was willing to help total strangers, Ms. Dannett thought, she had to do the same.
After her children went to bed that night in 2014, she confronted her computer screen and pondered how to begin.
Mr. Livingston was in prison, serving a sentence of 20 years to life, but he refused to give up on his freedom. He scoured law books, taught himself to formulate legal motions and wrote, sometimes with a pencil, pleadings that he hoped would get him a hearing before a judge.
He won small victories in court over prison conditions — there was a federal jury award of $5,000 after he was denied meals and another $400 in state court after guards damaged his belongings, including the typewriter he used to write legal papers.
But his requests to have his conviction reviewed kept going nowhere. And in 1996, he had a tremendous setback when he was accused of possessing a razor blade. Mr. Livingston said correction officers had planted the blade on him, but he was convicted.
He received 18 years to life, during which he would not be considered for parole.
Ms. Dannett’s letter gave him a surge of hope he had not felt in years. She asked him to put her on the visitors’ list so she could see him.
“I am compelled to know the truth and I feel as though my father is pushing me to dig even deeper,” she wrote. “I’d like to talk to you face to face.”
Mr. Livingston wrote back immediately. Please help, he asked.
They wrote each other dozens of letters. When Ms. Dannett paid into Mr. Livingston’s phone account so he could make outside calls, they talked almost every day.
She was struck by his determination and lack of bitterness. He was struck by spiritual signs — they were both Tauruses and she had the same first name as the mother of his daughter.
Ms. Dannett repeatedly called the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office and sent messages to its Facebook page. A prosecutor told her in 2014 that he was examining the case, but she heard no more. At the time, the office had just revamped its conviction review unit, which re-examines what it calls “credible claims that have emerged,” and it was being inundated with pleas from prisoners.
Mr. Livingston’s trial transcripts were destroyed in a warehouse fire in 2015, but Ms. Dannett continued to push his claim, emailing and sending messages to prosecutors in an effort to speed them along. The conviction review unit began re-examining the case in 2019.
It fell to a newly hired prosecutor, Rachel Kalman. Ms. Dannett started communicating with Ms. Kalman, sharing her theories and the information that she had collected over the years.
Late in 2019, a judge who had received Mr. Livingston’s latest motion to have his conviction reviewed appointed the nonprofit firm Appellate Advocates to help him.
The firm’s lawyers also began sharing information with Ms. Kalman. They managed to recreate court transcripts after locating stenographic notes and having the shorthand translated.
Ms. Kalman was immediately troubled by Ms. Evans’s changing testimony.
She visited Ms. Evans, who told her she could not remember anything about the murder because she was a heavy crack user at the time. She said the police had pressured her, but she ended the interview with Ms. Kalman after 20 minutes.
Efforts to locate Ms. Evans for comment were unsuccessful.
In March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, Ms. Kalman spoke by phone for at least an hour with Mr. Livingston. Mr. Livingston talked about his relationship with the men Ms. Evans had accused of the crime. He had no recollection of her, but he knew them from committing low-level street crimes together while growing up in Brooklyn. He described to Ms. Kalman a criminal past that included drug possession and theft, but not homicide or guns.
A year into her investigation, Ms. Kalman was sure Mr. Livingston should never have been prosecuted.
In March 2021, Mr. Livingston finally went up for parole after one of the lawyers from Appellate Advocates, De Nice Powell, argued he had been wrongly sentenced in the razor-blade contraband case and got the sentence reduced.
The District Attorney’s Office wrote in support of his release, though it was still reviewing the conviction. So did Ms. Dannett. He was released that April.
Ms. Kalman delivered to her superiors a 55-page report detailing the case, and they filed a motion asking that his conviction be overturned.
On Nov. 3, 36 years after his trial, a judge in Brooklyn cleared him of killing Mr. Gangaram.
Ms. Dannett, who testified in favor of the decision remotely, watched from a conference room at Fort Stewart in Georgia, where she works. She fought back tears as Mr. Livingston, dressed in a sharp white suit, waved at the screen, then walked out of the courtroom.
An Uncertain Future
It was a long-awaited victory, but Mr. Livingston’s freedom did not secure happiness.
In January, several months before his exoneration, Mr. Livingston was living at a Queens shelter when another resident accused him of robbing him at gunpoint after they went to an A.T.M. The police arrested Mr. Livingston and he was indicted on charges of armed robbery.
A spokesman with the Queens District Attorney’s Office said the office does not comment on active cases. Mr. Livingston’s lawyers say the case is weak, that the man has admitted he lied and that there is video footage from the A.T.M. undermining his claims.
But Mr. Livingston is nervous. He was convicted once on the word of an unreliable witness. Why couldn’t it happen again?
Mr. Livingston’s release also caused a rift between Ms. Dannett and some of the half-sisters and aunts whom she had come to know long after Mr. Gangaram died.
One of the aunts accused her of setting Mr. Gangaram’s killer free and told the rest of the family to avoid her, Ms. Dannett said. And prosecutors have told Ms. Dannett that they do not believe they will ever find out who killed Mr. Gangaram.
Still, she would not do anything differently. She is sure her father would be proud of what she did. Her only regret was not getting the chance to know him.
“I would give a lifetime just to spend a day with him,” she said. “Just to have one day.”
Mr. Livingston finally has his own place — a studio apartment in Brooklyn. He is working as a paralegal for Levitt and Kaizer, a law firm helping him seek compensation from the state.
Ms. Dannett visited Mr. Livingston at his apartment over Thanksgiving during a visit to the city with her daughter, now 16, and son, 27.
Mr. Livingston shook hands with them and showed them a picture of him with his own daughter, the one born when he was held in Rikers, who now lives in Hawaii with her children.
Ms. Dannett and Mr. Livingston hugged and posed for a photo of their own.
Then, they said goodbye.
Sheelagh McNeill and Susan Beachy contributed research.