Victims of infamous Brooklyn detective Louis Scarcella, including some men who have been recently released after decades in prison, joined families of the wrongfully convicted at a news conference on the steps of New York City Hall to ask new Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson to hasten his review of the Scarcella related cases and other questionable convictions by former Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes. Derrick Hamilton (21 years), Sundhe Moses (18 years), Kevin Smith (27 years), all recently released, claim they were wrongfully convicted based upon false evidence obtained by Detective Louis Scarcella and used by prosecutors.
Derrick Hamilton was sentenced to life in prison after Detective Scarcella coerced an eyewitness to change her testimony to implicate him in a murder. Although the woman recanted, Brooklyn prosecutors hid the fact. Paroled, Hamilton recently won a landmark appellate ruling reopening his case based upon an actual innocence claim. Hamilton said, “There is tremendous frustration among those wrongfully convicted. While some of us have been released, we are still on parole and continue to suffer as we begin to rebuild our lives. Prosecutorial and police misconduct is not only a serious problem in Brooklyn, it happen in every district attorneys office in the city.”
The Need for an Independent Commission to Review Wrongful Convictions
Many believe only a truly independent conviction review process can be effective as there is little faith that New York City’s district attorneys can effectively review their own cases. Recent “conviction reviews” that were deeply flawed and resulted in maintaining the wrongful convictions include Manhattan DA Cy Vance’s 18-month review of Jon-Adrian Velazquez’s case and Nassau DA Kathleen Rice’s three year review of Jesse Friedman’s case, made famous by the film, Capturing the Friedmans. In both of these cases, the conviction reviews were conducted by prosecutors with little input from defense attorneys and no transparency. “When the Federal Appeals Court for the Second Circuit stated that I was ‘likely wrongfully convicted’ and asked DA Rice to conduct a reinvestigation I was thrilled. I turned over tremendous evidence of my innocence including victim recantations, all my thousands of case files and gave the DA approval to contact anyone involved in my case. To my and my attorneys shock, the DA spent three years trying every which way to undermine my innocence, and she succeeded,” Friedman said.
Experts recommend the Brooklyn DA establish a Conviction Review process modeled on one currently in place in the Dallas District Attorney’s office by DA Craig Watkins. The Dallas CIU has helped to overturn approximately 44 wrongful convictions.“The most important aspect of these relationships is information sharing: the petitioner seeking relief presents evidence of innocence or due process claims to the Dallas CIU and the CIU, in turn, gives complete access to the prosecution file. There are open, cooperative discussions as to which witnesses will be interviewed and by whom. The results of witness interviews and forensic testing are shared.”
In an article by investigative journalist Hella Winston, defense attorney Ron Kuby who has worked with CIU in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Nassau County, said, “The Dallas model is far superior. Number one, [in Dallas there is] complete transparency. Both sides share all of their information. We get everything in their file, they get everything in our file, except certain privileged communications. And, second, the investigation is undertaken in a collaborative way. We sit down together and we discuss witnesses. And we discuss…what would be the best side to approach this witness. Should we do it together? Should the defense pursue this witness because frequently the defense is able to win trust where the police don’t, or should the police pursue this particular witness?”
NYPD Should Record All Interrogations and Conduct “Double Blind” Live Police Lineups
Families are asking NYPD to institute universally recognized methods of preventing wrongful convictions, by recording all custodial interrogations of suspects and witnesses to prevent false confessions and false testimony. They also want “double blind” procedures in live police lineups and photo arrays, to prevent witness misidentification. These practices have been endorsed by the International Association of Police Chiefs. Both New Jersey and Connecticut routinely video record interrogations and use “double blind” live witness identification procedures successfully. Marty Tankleff, who recently settled with the New York State Attorney General in his wrongful conviction, said, “There is no reason that police departments across the city and state should not immediately begin recording all interrogations and witness interviews. It could go a long way to curtailing false confessions and false testimony, and reduce the incidence of wrongful convictions like mine. It is universally recognized as a benefit to both police and defendants alike.”
Louis Scarcella is a symptom of a broken system that continues today. There is no Scarcella without a Brooklyn District Attorney who was complicit in encouraging and condoning his actions, and a judiciary that allowed tainted evidence before jury after jury after jury. This happens not only in Brooklyn, but in every borough in this city. It has to stop, and it will only stop when those responsible are held accountable.
There are changes that can be made today that can help prevent wrongful convictions. If custodial interrogations were recorded it is likely that Anthony Yarborough’s false confession would not have happened, nor Sundhe Moses or Marty Tankleff, nor dozens more in New York City and hundreds from around the country.