Questionable investigative strategy and questionable prosecutions during high crime era like the ‘90s have prompted conviction review units across the country to look in to decades-old cases, and release wrongly accused individuals.
This movement has resulted in a record 87 exonerations across the country in 2013, and the pace this year could exceed that. Hundreds of people who have spent years in jail for a crime they didn’t commit are being relieved of their convictions and sentences.
New York City has just jumped onboard and according an article from the NY Times Brooklyn’s task is enormous. Review units are looking at 57 cases involving retired New York Detective, Louis Scarcella — whose methods have come under attack — as well as dozens of other cases.
Most of these cases are from the 1980s and 1990s, when Brooklyn averaged 600 homicides a year. In the first six months of this year, Brooklyn’s district attorney’s office lifted the convictions of six men.
In those six cases, the unit found solid evidence proving that the men shouldn’t have been convicted and jailed. Two of the cases were overturned based on DNA evidence; three cases because the testimony of a crack-addicted witness used by Scarcella was discredited; and the sixth based on a simple receipt that proved the defendant’s alibi.
The remaining cases being reviewed are more challenging: most of them lack proof of actual innocence. The challenge lies in the fact that in these cases, the police work — or the trial — was so tangled and uncertain that the defendant would not have been convicted based on today’s methods and standards.
The New York district attorney, Kenneth P. Thompson, has lead the way and made this task a priority. When he took office, there were only two lawyers on the review unit and they were drowning in the cases that need to be investigated. Since then, Thompson has assigned 10 additional district attorneys and three detectives to take care of the remaining cases.
A professor at Harvard Law who directs the criminal justice institute is a consultant to the district attorney on the design and operations of the investigative unit: he ensures that the unit is running as efficiently and lawfully as possible. A panel of three independent lawyers reviews the unit’s recommendations for exoneration and Mr. Thompson makes the final decisions.
The effort costs a whopping $1.1 million a year, but in the end could save the state of New York a lot of money. It costs $167,731 a year to feed, house, and guard one inmate in New York City. That means that for the six inmates that were recently released as a result of the investigation efforts, the city was paying over $1 million a year. In five months the investigation has already brought the city back what it costs to fund the effort for one year.
This effort not only benefits the people who are being released, who were never meant to be in prison in the first place, it is also freeing the city of additional financial burdens. So, what was so bad about Detective Scarcella’s tactics that make his convictions the target of this huge investigation?
He was accused of fabricating confessions, coercing witnesses and failing to turn in evidence that would have freed the defendant from their alleged crimes. The most damaging pattern in the detective’s cases was the use of a crack addict as a witness in six separate murder cases.
This “witness” often got crucial details wrong and consistently contradicted other witnesses. One of the cases she testified in was completely dismissed because she did not show up for her cross-examination: clearly this witness was not reliable, and yet she kept appearing in many of Scarcella’s cases.
One of the most recent exonerations is a perfect example of the use of a witness whose story didn’t line up. Based on witness testimony, Roger Logan was sentenced 25 years to life 17 years ago, in 1997, for a murder that took place in Brooklyn.
Scarcella was the detective on the case and responsible for the conviction, and when Logan found out Scarcella’s cases were being reviewed he wrote the district attorney to make sure they took a second look at his case. Logan had always maintained his innocence.
The prosecution’s case, which landed Logan in jail, was based on an “eye witness” account in the witness claimed she was on the street when the shooting took place. Later, this witness identified Logan in a lineup, but a judge ruled that inadmissible in trial because the lineup “put a spotlight on Mr. Logan.
There was an additional hearing to determine whether the witness could identify Logan based on other means. She claimed to have seen him the day before the murder, and had also seen him several times the day of the murder. Based on this account, Logan was convicted and sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit.
Recently, the review unit discovered that this witness was in police custody after an arrest and wasn’t released until later in the evening on the day of the murder. There is no way she could have seen the defendant the day before the murder, or “all day” on the day of the murder.
With this information, and further testimony from more trustworthy witnesses, Logan has been released from jail. He spent 17 years waiting for a review of his case: he missed the death of his parents, the growth of his children, and the birth of his grandchildren.
As a criminal defense attorney, it is disheartening to know that so many people have spent years in jail for a crime they may not have committed. A statement from the article describes it best: “ the duty of a prosecutor is to do justice, not just to get convictions.”
Although the legal process has improved since the time many of these men were convicted, there are still unsanitary investigation and prosecutorial methods and innocent people are sometimes put behind bars. This effort is the first step in determining common characteristics of problematic cases and helping to avoid wrongful convictions in the future.
If you have been charged with a crime you did not commit, knowing where to find and experienced Brooklyn criminal defense attorney could mean the difference between freedom and undeserved penalties.
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