Derrick Hamilton was convicted of the 1991 murder of Nathaniel Cash. He served 20 years in prison and is currently on parole, but insists he is innocent. Now, he gets a chance to clear his name in the legal system. For the first time in New York history, an innocence claim is enough to merit a second analysis of a conviction. The court found that incarcerating an innocent person is unconstitutional even when all legal protections and precautions have been taken. It may be surprising to some, but there are legal authorities who do not believe that innocent people should have legal avenues to gain release if all legal protections were taken in their case, including a dissenting opinion expressed by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in an unrelated Supreme Court case.
“While I’m thankful for the appellate court,” Hamilton said, “it is a crime that it has taken this long for me to receive a shot at justice.”
Prosecutors have been looking into Hamilton’s case along with 50 other homicides handled by controversial ex-Detective Louis Scarcella in an unprecedented review. The ruling could impact other inmates arguing actual innocence, but it sets a high standard of proof.
Hamilton, 48, has been fighting for years to overturn his conviction arguing that he has 4 alibi witnesses who put him somewhere else at the time of the shooting and the prosecution’s star witness has recanted their testimony. Over the years, judge after judge cited procedural reasons to deny his request. Most recently, Brooklyn Supreme Justice Raymond Guzman denied him a hearing in 2011. That decision was overturned in the most recent ruling.
Hamilton showed he could be innocent “based upon evidence of a credible alibi and manipulation of the witnesses, and the fact that the witness against him has recanted,” the appeals panel wrote, “Accordingly, there should be a hearing on his claim of actual innocence.”
The Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department stated in its ruling that if a judge finds that Hamilton has proven his innocence, the indictment should be dismissed unlike the average post-conviction hearing in which a judge would uphold the conviction or order a new trial.
“We’re happy that the court has recognized that the conviction of an actually innocent person is a violation of our constitution,” said Hamilton’s lawyer Jonathan Edelstein.
Until this ruling, an inmate in New York had to cite another reason for appeal, such as ineffective counsel or prosecutorial misconduct in order to gain a hearing, actual innocence was not enough. Hamilton called on the D.A. Kenneth Thompson “to stop this charade and vacate the conviction once and for all.”
The court victory fell on Hamilton’s 9th wedding anniversary.