At the beginning of January, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson stated that he is seeking to vacate the wrongful conviction of a man who served 20 years in prison for a 1991 murder. However, this isn’t the first wrongful conviction the new DA is seeking to vacate. It is simply the next in a line of cases that Thompson has been examining since his election in 2013. Many of these cases are being linked to a retired New York Police Department detective who has been accused of several indiscretions.
According to a report from the Daily News, Thompson was quoted as saying, “Correcting miscarriages of justice is very important. Having men in prison for murders they did not commit is not justice.”
The Release of Derrick Hamilton
The most recent case to make the news regarding a wrongful conviction involves Derrick Hamilton. In 1991, Hamilton was convicted of shooting Nathaniel Cash in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Even though Hamilton argued that he was actually in another state when the shooting occurred, one of the prosecution’s witnesses—Cash’s girlfriend, Jewel Smith—testified that Hamilton was the shooter. This testimony has since been questioned, partially at the request of Smith herself.
In 1991, Smith claimed that Cash was shot from the front, however, forensic evidence showed that he was actually shot from behind. Hamilton was sentenced to 25 years for the murder, but he maintained his innocence almost 20 years, even refusing to apologize before a parole board for “his” actions.
In 2011 Smith recanted her testimony and has since lobbied for Hamilton’s release. Hamilton was granted early release that same year, and as far as Hamilton is concerned, the recent exoneration by the Brooklyn DA has closed the door on that part of his past.
“I feel vindicated,” Hamilton told the Daily News. “It’s like a rebirth. I’m a new guy. I can live my life in happiness.”
A Pattern of Wrongful Conviction Cases
Besides the mismatch of forensic evidence, one issue that was brought up regarding the wrongful conviction of Derrick Hamilton is the alleged improprieties carried out by former NYPD detective Louis Scarcella. In the case of Hamilton, Scarcella allegedly coerced a witness in the case.
This isn’t the first such accusation. When this story first broke in May of 2013, the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal reported that then-District Attorney Charles J. Hynes was looking into at least 50 homicide cases that may have involved a wrongful conviction. When Kenneth P. Thompson was elected the new Brooklyn DA, he stated at a news conference that he had “inherited a legacy of disgrace with respect to wrongful conviction cases.”
As of this month, it is reported that the DA’s office is currently reviewing approximately 100 cases. The determination in the case of Derrick Hamilton was actually the 11th such exoneration of someone wrongfully convicted since Thompson was elected in 2013, two of which were exonerated posthumously.
The alleged misconduct by Scarcella first came to light in March of 2013 as the result of an internal investigation by the district attorney’s office. Scarcella, who was a homicide detective for 26 years and directed or assisted approximately 350 homicide investigations, was accused of multiple improprieties potentially resulting in several cases of wrongful conviction.
Allegedly, he directed witnesses—many of whom were already serving jail time—as to who to pick out in police lineups and used the same witness in six separate cases, a person who was addicted to crack cocaine. In addition, Scarcella allegedly rewarded some of these witnesses who were already serving time by letting them out of jail to visit prostitutes.
Scarcella has maintained his innocence, saying in 2013 that he couldn’t remember many details of the cases in question and even going so far as to say he would help investigators go over his convictions.
Time is definitely an issue. Even though both the former and current Brooklyn DA have said they want to move quickly to get any people out of prison who were victims of a wrongful conviction, the process is a lengthy one.
In a New York Times article, wrongful conviction lawyer Joel Rudin was quoted as saying, “Do you know how long it takes to read a 1,000 or 2,000-page transcript? It takes hundreds of hours to fully investigate an old conviction. It’s a huge undertaking.”
In addition to going through the paperwork, investigators also need to often locate witnesses—a daunting task in the case of the alleged crack-addict witness—and then get said witnesses to admit they lied under oath. In some cases, investigators need to reconcile why certain convicts tell parole boards they are sorry for committing a crime they didn’t actually commit, something Derrick Hamilton adamantly refused to do. While the motivation behind this action would seem to be an attempt by an innocent person to get out of prison sooner, it’s still another hurdle investigators have to overcome.
For Brooklyn DA Thompson, it’s one more task he is willing to undertake in the name of justice.