District Attorney Kenneth Thompson says he plans to spend more than $1 million to review questionable convictions over the next year. Thompson told the City Council during a budget hearing that his office is dealing with an “epic” number of questionable convictions. He said his Conviction Review Unit has already overturned the convictions of 6 men.

“With every case that’s publicized, additional cases are sent to my office for review.”

Thompson said he assigned 10 of his 153 prosecutors to the unit, along with 3 investigators. He came into office this year promising to address wrongful conviction allegations.  Fueled by a prison inmate who was framed by a detective in 1990, the Brooklyn D.A. has undertaken one of the most ambitious efforts yet to revisit cases of inmates to determine if they are wrongfully convicted. Thompson is currently re-examining 90 cases (mostly homicide) from the 1980s and 1990s, an era during which NYC’s murder rate was high. These cases include 60 linked to Louis Scarcella, a retired controversial detective with questionable methods.

Former NYC police detective Scarcella has been accused of fabricating confessions, manipulating witnesses, and intimidating suspects. He denies all wrongdoing. Recently, a man who served 23 years in prison for murdering a rabbi was exonerated after new evidence emerged that Scarcella coached a witness to implicate him.  At a recent rally, ex-convicts and their families complained that the process is too slow.

Derrick Hamilton who served 21 years for murder says he was wrongfully convicted as a result of Scarcella’s actions, “I feel…humiliated. How long must we wait for justice?”

While other prosecutors have undergone such projects, few have tackled such a large amount.

“No one else is dealing with this type of volume,” said Samuel Gross, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School who heads the National Registry of Exonerations, “They’re starting out on a long journey, and they don’t know where it will take them.”

Thompson, who has only been in office for 5 months, dedicated an increasing amount of financial resources and time to the project even hiring a Harvard Law School professor to guide the unit and appointing a panel to give input.

“These actions not only foster public trust in the criminal justice system but also begin the process of righting an injustice committed against these defendants,” Thompson said.

While some projects have closed, other projects have been successful, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins cleared more than 30 people in the last 7 years. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. has examined more than 150 cases, reinvestigated 12, and exonerated 4 people in the last 4 years.  The process is difficult because witnesses can be hard to locate, be deceased, evidence can be lost or destroyed, memories fade, and lab work isn’t usually possible.  In recent months, defendants, lawyers, relatives, and even the D.A.’s office’s appellate bureau have contacted the unit about wrongful convictions. The unit has prioritized claims. They look at “viable” claims of innocence made by those still incarcerated.


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