Brooklyn DA Reviews Dozens of Wrongful Conviction Cases

Brooklyn DA reviews wrongful conviction cases

Photo: Joi Ito/Wikimedia Commons

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.

Police Body Cameras Subject of Debate in Utah

police body camera debate

Photo: Glogger/Wikimedia Commons

Two recent cases in Utah where deadly force was applied by police officers have raised questions about the use of police body cameras. In both cases, it has been determined by the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office that the use of deadly force was justified. This decision was made largely as a result of the fact that both officers were wearing body cameras at the time of the shootings and it was possible to evaluate their actions. While many have wondered if a national policy regarding police body cameras could have alleviated problems in the aftermath of the Ferguson, MO, incident, others are concerned about the potential implications of such a requirement.

Police Body Cameras in Utah

Two separate cases in Utah have made considerable news: the fatal shooting of Dillon Taylor and nonfatal shooting of Timothy James Peterson. While footage remains to be released regarding the Taylor incident as the result of a pending investigation, the officer in the Peterson case has been cleared as a result of the body camera he was wearing and inflammatory statements made by Peterson previous to the shooting.

In a recent Utah poll, 83 percent of Utahns stated that they strongly or somewhat agree with police body cameras or some other device that would record the officers’ interactions with the public. Currently, 145 Utah officers are wearing the cameras with 114 more scheduled to get them in upcoming months. However, the state’s largest police department, the Unified Police Department, currently prohibits police body cameras, even if an officer has purchased one on his/her own.

According to Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder, who oversees the Unified Police Department, he isn’t against them. He just believes they shouldn’t rush to equip every officer with a camera without making sure they have policies in place regarding privacy concerns and how the footage will be used.

“I think they promote better customer service,” Winder said. “I think they promote liability reduction for the agency. The reason to have them is not just to protect the cop.”

Pros and Cons of Police Body Cameras: Can Big Brother be a Good Thing?

Utah isn’t the only state mulling over the use of police body cameras. In a recent panel discussion on the topic, San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman stated that their goal was to have all 1,800 San Diego patrol officers equipped with body cameras by the end of 2015. However, as opposed to Utah where the footage from police body cameras is available to the public through the state’s public records law, California has chosen to only release records through the court system. Zimmerman said she would reconsider her stance if public safety was at stake, such as in the case of the Ferguson, MO, shooting. The public safety isn’t the only listed benefit of police body cameras. In addition to transparency, Zimmerman believes the use of body cameras can help restore public confidence in police.

Another benefit to the cameras directly links to the Ferguson incident, but a quick YouTube search of the term “racial profiling” indicates Ferguson wasn’t the only incident where law enforcement officers have been accused of this type of behavior. The behavior by some people to treating other people differently based on their race could be affirmed or acquitted regarding police actions if police body cameras were employed more regularly. Questions of abuse of power or unnecessary use of force could also be addressed. In September, the U.S. Border patrol stated that it would start testing body cameras on their agents as a result of numerous complaints.

Another benefit that was addressed at the San Diego panel was the fact that many situations that start as hostile become calmer once a suspect knows he/she is being filmed. Even though police officers are not required to notify an individual that they are wearing a body camera, many have found it to their advantage in tense situations. “[N]umerous officers have indicated they were glad they had them,” Zimmerman said.

While police body cameras can also be beneficial tools in officer training, one of the concerns regarding the cameras is that they would be used as part of performance evaluations. Another concern is that while many newer officers approve of using the cameras, many veteran officers are struggling with adapting to the technology, especially considering that many departments only require the officers to turn it on when dealing with individuals, something veteran officers may forget to do.

Other concerns relate to privacy and how the video might be used. For example, even though videos of failed sobriety tests are prevalent online, it is generally agreed that such video shouldn’t be used to make people look foolish. Also, this video could be used out of context. An example was used of an officer entering a home where child abuse may be reported. A house may look messy because of time of day or the child has been playing, but even though no abuse may be apparent, this type of video evidence of “unfit living conditions” might be misused in divorce proceedings.

The Future of Police Body Cameras in Utah

Sheriff Winder has raised other questions regarding the use of police body cameras that he feels need to be addressed before implementing a program with the Unified Police Department, questions such as how long video records need to be kept, how they are classified, and how editing will occur. Cost will be another issue.

In order to address some of these issues, Winder has assembled a panel to study the use of police body cameras, including police officers, members of the community, and at least one person who has admitted to being “anti-police.”

Winder believes it is best to thoroughly research this before implementation in order to avoid a civil lawsuit. He referred to an article from the U.S. Department of Justice which included a letter from the Police Executive Research Forum which stated, “The decision to implement body-worn cameras should not be entered into lightly…once the public comes to expect the availability of video records–it will become increasingly difficult to have second thoughts or to scale back a body-worn camera program.”

Does Officer’s Ignorance of Law Violate the Fourth Amendment?

Question of Fourth Amendement violation

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The Fourth Amendment is once again up for review in the first case to be argued in the new U.S. Supreme Court term. In the case of Heien v. North Carolina, Nicholas Heien was arrested and charged with two counts of trafficking cocaine after the vehicle he was traveling in was pulled over. However, in-depth research into the law revealed that no laws were broken previous to Heien being pulled over, and subsequently there was no reason for the officer to pull over the vehicle. Therefore, it would seem that the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. The case bounced around the North Carolina court system and now has found its way to the Supreme Court.

The Original Case

In April 2010, Maynor Javier Vasquez was pulled over on I-77 in North Carolina after Sergeant Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff’s Department observed a broken brake light. When the officer pulled over the vehicle, he noticed Heien in the backseat lying under a blanket. This obviously raised concerns, and after speaking with both men and finding that their stories didn’t seem to match, he requested permission to search the vehicle. Permission was granted to Sgt. Darisse, and the search turned up a bag with 54.2 grams of cocaine.

[In this instance, Darisse had “reasonable suspicion” to search the vehicle but not “probable cause.” Heien could have declined the search. For more information on the topic of “search and seizure” and your rights when being pulled over, click our previous post, Questionable Focus on Highway Interdiction Nets Billions to Law Enforcement]

After being indicted on two counts of trafficking cocaine, Heien filed a motion to suppress the evidence based on his claim that a Fourth Amendment violation had occurred because technically Sgt. Darisse was in the wrong for pulling them over. In what is considered an antiquated law dating back to earlier models of vehicles equipped with only one “stop lamp”, North Carolina–as with many other states–still has on the books a statute stating that essentially only one “stop lamp” is required for a vehicle.

Heien argued that even though one of the brake lights on the vehicle was broken, the other was still functioning. Therefore the traffic stop was not objectively reasonable. The North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed and reversed the trial court judgment. However, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed this decision, stating that because the law was so antiquated and no one had really examined the statute in decades, the officer’s “mistake of the law” was reasonable. The case was sent back to the Court of Appeals who found no errors this time around with the trial court’s original judgment, but still expressed in the dissenting opinion that this raised questions of “fundamental unfairness” in regards to the fact that citizens traditionally aren’t allowed to use “ignorance of the law” as an excuse, so why should law enforcement be allowed this right?

Heien again went to the North Carolina Supreme Court, but the Court rejected his appeal. Now the case has found its way to the United States Supreme Court.

The Fourth Amendment, Exclusionary Rule and Good-Faith Exception

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, which is the question at hand in the case of Heien v. North Carolina. In his defense, Heien is citing the exclusionary rule, a legal principle which states that evidence obtained in violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights may be inadmissible in court.

The problem that Heien may encounter is the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule. This essentially states that if an officer was acting on “good faith” and had reasons to believe his/her actions were legal (such as in Heien’s case), the exclusionary rule doesn’t apply.

The interesting thing about this case is that while there are three ways the case could be resolved under federal law–essentially stating that the stop was lawful and evidence will be admitted, the stop wasn’t lawful and evidence shouldn’t be admitted, or the stop wasn’t lawful but the good-faith exception will apply–the Supreme Court is really only deciding if a violation of the Fourth Amendment occurred. They are not addressing the exclusionary rule or good-faith exception.

In other words, while the Supreme Court may decide that the stop was indeed unlawful, that doesn’t mean the evidence obtained during the search won’t still be used against Heien.

Only time will tell what the Supreme Court will decide, but one thing seems certain: the case of Heien v. North Carolina is most likely far from closed. In addition, if the Supreme Court rules for the state, many concerns could be raised regarding the fact that “ignorance of the law” is an argument which has always been denied to regular citizens but apparently doesn’t apply to law enforcement.