Tag Archives: Exonerations

Victims of Brooklyn Detective Scarcella Call For Justice

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.

Another Scarcella/Vecchione Case:NY Court Rules Actual Innocence

The New York State Appellate Court for the Second Department made a groundbreaking ruling in the case of Derrick Hamilton, allowing judges to rule on actual innocence claims in ordering a new hearing for Hamilton.

Derrick Hamilton was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years to life for a crime he did not commit. Although he was in New Haven, CT, at the time of the murder of a drug dealer in Brooklyn’s Bed Stuy neighborhood, notorious Brooklyn detective Louis Scarcella was able to “convince” a young drug addict to testify against Hamilton even though she had told cops at the scene she was nowhere near the murder. The judge in the 1991 case held off sentencing Hamilton for close to a year as he became aware of police and prosecutorial misconduct. That was until infamous Brooklyn prosecutor Michael Vecchione entered the courtroom.

Hamilton served over 20 years. While in prison he became a jailhouse lawyer and even received a paralegal certificate. He helped many men with their cases and helped free many others. He also filed a number of appeals on his own behalf based upon evidence of police misconduct, new witnesses, and even strong alibi witnesses including a decorated New Haven, CT policewoman. All to no avail.

Derrick contacted me from Auburn Correctional Faciilty in upstate New York after he read about my work in the Marty Tankleff and Damien Echols (WM3) cases. He asked me to review all the evidence and to help free him. I told him I could not take his case unless he was able to pay, as I had exhausted my ability to work pro bono on these matters. A few days later I received a $500 check from the Auburn Correctional Facility Commissary account…imagine my embarrassment. Derrick is a man you cannot say no to. Derrick was a street kid from Brooklyn with a record and he needed legal help and the resources of a large law firm. Unfortunately, although we tried, even those firms who profess their commitment to pro bono representation are not anxious to represent a Black man from Bed Stuy with a record. Luckily he found an excellent attorney, Jonathan Edelstein, who did take Hamiton’s case pro bono.

Although denied parole on numerous occasions, Derrick maintained his innocence and finally convinced the parole board in 2011 they should consider his innocence as well. Although he was free, Hamilton did not give up his fight to overturn his conviction. Now, this compelling man will have the opportunity to prove his innocence without the procedural bars numerous judges have used to prevent him from having a full review of his case. And along the way, he just might have helped an untold number of men and women in New York prisons who reside there innocently.




Marty Tankleff Settles Wrongful Conviction Suit for over $3 Million

While the settlement of the civil case is good news, it does not begin to repair the damage to Marty Tankleff from his false imprisonment and the murder of his parents, Arline and Seymour. Those responsible for the murders still remain free. In fact, Jerry Steuerman, the man most believe was behind the double murder, took the fifth 140 times in a recent deposition. Until there is justice, only then will Marty gain a measure of peace.

On September 7, 1988, on the first day of his senior year in high school, Marty awoke to find his mother brutally murdered and his father clinging to life. Marty was taken from his home by Suffolk County detectives who told him his father had awoken from a coma to implicate him in the attack. It was the first of many lies. A coerced confession, police and prosecutorial misconduct and a judge anxious for notoriety resulted in his wrongful conviction and a 50-year to life sentence

Marty Tankleff has always been innocent. Ten years ago a retired Suffolk County judge said, “That kid is innocent and everyone in Suffolk County knows it. But, he will never get a fair trial here. He will win in the Appellate Court.”

And, that is exactly what happened in December 2007.

Lonnie Soury, led public campaign to free Marty Tankleff

The Case of Debra Milke- Steve Drizin

Steve Drizin, one of the world’s leading experts on wrongful convictions and false confessions, writes: I love the unexpected e-mail or phone message announcing a win in a wrongful conviction case.  Such e-mails are rare, but even rarer in a capital case.  I received such an e-mail today in the case of Debra Milke, an Arizona woman on death row for more than two decades for allegedly hiring two men to murder her son.  I’ve always had my doubts about Milke’s guilt but I’ve never doubted that she was interrogated by a “bad cop” by the name of Saldate.  The only evidence against Debra was an alleged unrecorded confession that was the product of an interrogation by a detective who was ordered to record the interrogation but refused to do so.  The trial boiled down to a swearing contest between Milke and Saldate which Saldate won and these credibility findings have haunted the case ever since even as evidence of Saldate’s mendacious character surfaced again and again.  The  State knew that Saldate was a liar who had a long history of misconduct and disciplinary violations – yet they failed to produce this information to the defense.  It was only through the brilliant post-conviction and habeas work of Milke’s lawyers – Lori Voepel, Mike Kimerer, and Larry Hammond – that the full scope of Saldate’s misconduct came to light.  And the state court and the federal district judges paid little attention to it.

Their hard work finally paid off today in the stunning opinion of the 9th Circuit.  The opinion is based on Brady and Giglio but it is the concurrence of Judge Kozinski that deserves special mention for those who support electronic recording of interrogations.  Kozinski would have ruled that Milke should have been given a new trial on Miranda violations and on voluntariness grounds.  His opinion provides one of the strongest arguments for electronic recording of interrogations and raises questions about how much deference to give to state court factual findings when there was no basis for the interrogating officer not to record the interrogation.  Without a recording, Kozinski, writes the state of Arizona is prepared to execute a woman solely on the sayso of an admitted chronic liar, who disobeyed a direct order to record the interrogation.  That is simply too thin a reed upon which to rest a capital conviction (or any conviction, for that matter).  It’s hard to do justice to Judge Kozinski’s opinion which not only takes Saldate to task but takes his supervisors and prosecutors to task for continuing to let him interrogate suspects and build cases with confessions after his misconduct came to light.

Congratulations again to the lawyers and to Ms. Milke. After such disappointment, today is a day they can relish at least until they have to get back to work to prevent a higher court from snatching away their victory.  The Center on Wrongful Convictions has been proud to play a small role in this effort.  We filed an amicus brief in this case in 2007.  Much of Judge Kozinski’s opinion – especially his defense of recording and his lack of faith in factual findings based on unrecorded interrogations (at least in a case with Saldate) – tracks arguments we made in the amicus brief.  My colleague Laura Nirider, then “only” a law student, co-wrote the brief with me.

Steve Drizin, Center on Wrongful Convictions, Northwestern University School of Law