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.

Man Arrested for DUI After Hitting Sheriff’s Vehicle

DUI charges

Photo: Weber County Sheriff’s Office/KSL News

Icy roads were to blame for many accidents on Saturday, Jan. 10, but it was driving under the influence (DUI) that landed one man in jail. Other charges included drug possession and leaving the scene of an accident.

“Wrong Place at the Wrong Time” Doesn’t Mean You can Leave

According to a report from KSL News, on Saturday evening, Weber County Sheriff’s deputies were called to the scene of several accidents in Ogden Canyon near 4500 East, just east of the Pineview Reservoir spillway. Four vehicles had slid off the road due primarily to the icy conditions (the DUI would come shortly). Fortunately only minor injuries were reported, however, deputies were on the scene to shut down State Route 39 while road crews could put down salt and sand.

At approximately 10:40 p.m., one deputy had his patrol pickup truck parked with his overhead flashers on to stop oncoming traffic when another pickup truck came around a corner at high speed, lost control, and crashed into the back of the deputy’s vehicle. The driver of the truck sped off, and the deputy was able to pursue in the damaged vehicle, catching him near the spillway.

The driver of the truck, Bruce Southwick, was arrested for investigation of DUI, drug possession, and leaving the scene of an accident.

DUI Severity Depends on Circumstances

While most people think of a DUI as referring to alcohol, according to Utah Code 41-6a-502, a person is guilty of a DUI if he/she is driving “under the influence of alcohol, any drug, or the combined influence of alcohol and any drug to a degree that renders the person incapable of safely operating a vehicle.” Given the fact that Southwick also was charged for drug possession, this is probably the case.

The lowest charge for a DUI is a class B misdemeanor, even on a second offense. It goes up to a class A misdemeanor if the driver inflicts “bodily injury” on another, had a passenger under 16 years of age, or was 21 years of age or older with a passenger under 18 years of age. The charge jumps to a third degree felony if the driver inflicts “serious bodily injury” or has two or more prior convictions within ten years.

Even the lowest charge of a class B misdemeanor can result in jail time of up to six months and a fine of up to $1,000. If you or someone you know has been charged with a DUI, don’t leave your defense in the hands of a public defender. Contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who will have your best interests in mind.

Drone Bans Raise Questions on Both Sides of the Issue

Drone bans raise questions

Photo: Halftermeyer/Wikimedia Commons

As the popularity of drones—unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)—continues to rise, so do concerns over how they should be used. Concerns have arisen over privacy issues, both in drone usage by private individuals as well as government usage. Issues of national security have also come into play. Drone bans by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over certain stadiums, with prosecution including fines and imprisonment of up to one year, have found opponents and supporters among drone enthusiasts. However, most would say the drone bans are a knee-jerk reaction and that definitions are too broad, especially considering the fact that jail time can be a result.

FAA Increases Scope of Drone Ban Prosecution

Near the end of October 2014, the FAA posted a notice on their website updating a previous policy about aircraft flying below 3,000 feet and within 3 miles of any stadium that has a capacity of more than 30,000 people. The policy was originally issued after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and applies to U.S. Code 40103(b)(3) regarding sovereignty and use of airspace. This particular code was designed to “establish security provisions that will encourage and allow maximum use of the navigable airspace by civil aircraft consistent with national security, the Administrator, in consultation with the Secretary of Defense.” It is meant to “establish areas in the airspace the Administration decides are necessary in the interest of national defense; and by regulation or order, restrict or prohibit flight of civil aircraft that the Administrator cannot identify, locate, and control with available facilities in those areas.”

Breaking this law is considered a misdemeanor and can be punished by a fine of up to $10,000 and/or up to a year in prison. Previous to the October 2014 notice, drones and model aircraft were not included. Attorneys representing drone users have called these new drone bans the first time the FAA has sought to criminalize drone and model aircraft use.

Many Sides to the Issue of Drone Bans

Even given those attorneys’ statements, this isn’t the first time drone use at or near a stadium has caught the attention of law enforcement. According to an AP report, in August of 2014, a man was detained by police for using a drone at a Carolina Panthers football game, and in September, a student at a University of Texas football game was detained for the same reason. Even though most drone enthusiasts don’t support drone bans, they are critical of those users at football games, recognizing the fact that loss of control in such a large crowd could cause injury to an innocent bystander.

However, drone enthusiasts say that should be the real concern which precipitates drone bans, not national security. New York attorney Brendan Schulman said the new restrictions on drones and model aircraft “do little or nothing” to prevent terrorist attacks since the perimeter designated as national security safe zones can be traversed in a very short amount of time, even by a civil aircraft.

Professional sporting teams have expressed concerns on both sides of drone bans. On one hand, they said drones with the capacity to video or photograph games can negatively impact contracts with television networks. However, they also still want permission to use their own drones for use in training.

In addition, some animal rights activists look at drone bans as another way to enforce ag-gag laws, agricultural interference laws such as in Utah which prohibit an individual from “knowingly or intentionally” recording “an image of, or sound from, the agricultural operation.” Activists see these ag-gag laws as being clearly designed to protect corporate farming interests.

Another question is what exactly constitutes an “aircraft,” given that definitions by different FAA representatives seem to include a wide variety of seemingly innocent items, from Styrofoam airplanes to children’s toy helicopters.

Drone bans in Utah?

Besides the drone bans within four miles of airports and three miles of stadiums (which would include the University of Utah Rice-Eccles Stadium and BYU’s LaVell Edwards Stadium) and subsequent potential prosecutions, currently Utah doesn’t have any laws applicable to Utah residents.

However, the “Government Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Act,” which was enacted in 2014, addresses the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and other privacy concerns. Even though the Department of Homeland Security is currently encouraging local governments to use drones, SB 167 “prohibits a law enforcement agency from obtaining data through an unmanned aerial vehicle unless the data was obtained pursuant to a warrant.” It also outlines requirements for obtaining that data from a “nongovernment actor” and establishes reporting requirements for a law enforcement agency that operates an unmanned aerial vehicle.”

With drone usage still being so new by both government and citizens alike, it may be awhile before all of these concerns can be addressed in a manner which will satisfy everyone.