New York High Court Hears Wrongful Conviction Compensation Case

New York’s Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, heard arguments Tuesday in the case of a man seeking compensation for the nine years he spent behind bars after being wrongfully convicted of murder. Douglas Warney, 49, asked the court to reinstate his damages case against the state, which was dismissed in 2008 by the New York Court of Claims.

Warney, who has a history of mental illness and suffers from AIDS, was convicted in 1996 of stabbing a man to death in Rochester after he signed a confession and plead guilty to the crime. His sentence was vacated in 2006 following DNA tests that implicated another man as the actual killer; this man has since confessed to the crime and is now in prison.

The Court of Claims dismissed Warney’s lawsuit after ruling that he would be unable to successfully prove that he did not cause or bring about his own conviction through his false confession. The judge made her decision, however, without even ordering a hearing. The Appellate Division subsequently confirmed the lower court’s decision.

Attorneys for Warney argue that the Rochester police were aware of his mental illness and provided him with the crime details he needed for the confession. In addition to being diagnosed with AIDS-related dementia, Warney had an IQ of 68.

Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, stated, “If his entire interrogation had been videotaped he never would have been convicted…The only way he could have gotten those details was if police fed them to him during the interrogation.”

Although the Court has not issued a ruling, Neufeld also said after the hearing that “it was clear from the comments of the judges that they find Mr. Warney’s version of what happened much more credible than the police.”

New York is one of only 27 states that has passed a statute to provide compensation to wrongfully convicted individuals. Unlike many states that offer a fixed amount for each year spent in prison, the New York Court of Claims Act (Article II, Section 8-b) allows judges to make the determination of the compensation award. This Act, however, makes it very difficult for exonerees to seek compensation if they falsely confessed or offered a guilty plea. The legislation states that the claimant must prove that “he did not by his own conduct cause or bring about his conviction.”

According to the Innocence Project, in 25 percent of DNA exoneration cases, defendants falsely confessed, pled guilty or made incriminating statements. Evidence that guilty pleas and false confessions often occur as the result of outside influences – such as police coercion or the threat of a long sentence – can only lead to the conclusion that statutes disqualifying those exonerees from receiving compensation need to be amended.

Marty Tankleff, a false confession exoneree and member of the advisory board, advised Douglas Varney on his wrongful conviction appeal while they both were in prison. Tankleff filed a federal lawsuit in 2009 for the 17 years he spent behind bars. Jeffrey Deskovic, who served nearly 16 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, also has a pending suit.