Taylor Thornton — April 20, 2018 @ 3:20 PM — Comments (0)
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is one of many district attorneys operating conviction integrity units in their offices.
In the last few years, an awareness seems to be growing in our society for those who are wrongfully convicted and a support for the exoneration of those people. Wrongful conviction stories are showing up more and more frequently in the media across television, movies, and even podcasts as public interest grows (you can read more about some of those here). Over the past few decades, as well, it appears that public opinion is shifting on the way we view crime and punishment as a society, seeming to favor rehabilitation over more punitive measures and harsh mandatory sentences. As this cultural shift grows, we are now seeing support coming from an unusual source: prosecutors.
Typically, the goal of a prosecutor is to get as many guilty verdicts as possible, because that is just their job. But, it appears that a new generation of prosecutors have come along that are placing a greater priority on the quality of their convictions. Across the country, more than 30 district attorneys have created conviction integrity units. A conviction integrity unit is a unit established within a prosecutorial office that serves to go through and investigate the past cases of that office in search of wrongful convictions. The reasons for these wrongful convictions can be intentional malfeasance by the prosecutors or the police, but it can also include bad forensic science or flaws in the investigation.
The conviction integrity unit created within the Brooklyn district attorney’s office had massive success since its establishment in 2011. In just a short amount of time under Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson’s leadership, his unit has been able to overturn over 19 convictions since he took office in 2014. It has become a national leader in exonerations, particularly for murder convictions. This number includes Vanessa Gathers, the first female to be exonerated by this unit. Gathers is one of a number of defendants accusing retired NYPD detective Louis Scarcella of using tactics to extract false confessions from suspects. She has finally had her name cleared after serving 10 years in prison and 5 more on parole for a manslaughter conviction that she was innocent of.
Despite the very quickly growing success of these units, there is still a long way to go before a real dent is made in the number of inmates wrongfully incarcerated throughout the country. Only about 30 district attorney’s offices of the few thousand nationwide have created these units. That being said, these have been a huge and very positive step in the right direction. Changing the culture of the way we view wrongful convictions, especially by those in powerful positions inside prosecutorial offices, gives hope for less injustice moving forward.
One issue not yet being tackled by these units, however, is addressing those cases in which the conviction was valid but the punishment might not be. This is a much more daunting task to address for prosecutors but it is an idea that would likely render much public support. Philadelphia is likely to soon create the first sentence review program in our nation’s history. A sentence review unit would work similarly to conviction integrity units but would instead evaluate if the punishment was fair. New Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is making plans with his staff to create such a unit. Numerous other district attorneys across the country are also working with an organization called Fair and Just Prosecution to create their own units as well.
While this task is a lot easier said than done, moves are being made in the right direction to help repair the important flaws in our system. These new progressive prosecutors are starting the important conversations about what success and justice should look like within our nations prosecutorial offices. Raising the integrity of these office and their convictions serves to lessen time spent behind bars by innocent people. It can also serve to find those true assailants left on the streets before they offend and cause harm to anyone again. These units can educate prosecutors and the public alike to raise their awareness on where they might have gone wrong in the past so that these mistakes can be learned from and the tragedies of wrongful convictions can be minimized.
Innocence Project of Florida, Conviction integrity units, district attorneys office, innocent, ken thompson, larry krasner, Louis Scarcella, sentence review units, vanessa gathers, wrongful conviction
Alejandra de la Fuente — January 13, 2016 @ 2:00 PM — Comments (0)
Roger Logan spent 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He was convicted for the 1997 murder of Sherwin Gibbons. Authorities claimed Logan shot Gibbons when his gold chain was stolen after a dice game. His conviction was predominantly based on the eyewitness testimony of one woman, Aisha Jones. Jones claimed to have seen and heard Logan shooting, then ran home and watched Logan finish shooting from her upstairs apartment window. The Conviction Review Unit of the Brooklyn district attorney’s office exonerated Logan in 2014 after an investigation. This investigation revealed that Jones was arrested the day of the murder and was not released from jail until after 7 PM, and therefore could not have witnessed the crime. In addition, investigators mimicked the details of Jones’ testimony and concluded that she could not have possibly witnessed the entire shooting from the street then her window in such a short time frame.
While in prison, Logan lost the chance to say goodbye to some of his family members, including his parents and younger brother who all died while he was behind bars. In addition, Logan’s daughters, who were young girls at the time of his incarceration, now had children of their own. Although nothing can compensate for the time he lost behind bars, Logan announced after his release that he planned to sue both the state of New York and New York City.
Last week, a settlement was reached. Logan will receive $3.75 million from New York City, and $2.975 million from the state of New York.
The comptroller’s office in New York has been settling several wrongful conviction cases before they are filed as lawsuits, Logan’s included. Since 2014, the office has settled eight wrongful conviction cases, totaling $41 million.
Since 2014, Brooklyn’s Conviction Review Unit has exonerated 17 men. The unit has been investigating cases, over 70 in total, linked to retired detective Louis Scarcella. Scarcella has been accused of using threats in order to coerce confessions and providing questionable evidence in cases, mostly witness statements that were later discredited. Logan recalls being taken by this detective and forced to sign a statement, placing him at the scene of the crime. Upon hearing of the investigations into Scarcella, Logan wrote to the district attorney’s office and asked them to reexamine his case. Despite the litany overturned convictions involving, Scarcella maintains his innocence of any wrongdoing and no charges have been brought against him.
Even more money may be headed the Logan family’s way, as Logan’s wife filed a notice of claim against New York City for $100 million, which is still outstanding.
Compensation,exoneration, Brooklyn Conviction Review Unit, civil settlement, false confession, Louis Scarcella, police misconduct, Roger Logan
Alejandra de la Fuente — June 09, 2014 @ 2:08 PM — Comments (0)
In a recent blog, we discussed how Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced that his office will re-examine 90 murder convictions. 57 of the 90 cases are associated with one man, increasingly infamous man: former NYPD Detective Louis Scarcella. Five men exonerated due to issues concerning Det. Scarcella’s detective work. These men suffered a combined 101 years of imprisonment for crimes they did not commit.
These men spent decades of their lives behind bars, separated from their loved ones, and treated like criminals because of Det. Scarella’s actions. Whether or not these actions were a result of incompetence or malice has yet to be determined. However, when one looks at the details of his cases it is difficult not to associate the term “dirty cop” with Det. Scarella. The details of his actions seem almost too disturbing to even have transpired in our modern justice system. Such actions include: intentional failure to follow up on credible leads, coaching of witnesses on who to pick out of a line up, the use of one (severely drug addicted) witness in no less than six murder trials, and a general disregard for the ethical standards of detective work.
However, despite how incriminating it may look, there is the possibility that there was no malicious intent behind Det. Scarcella’s actions. After all, these cases took place in Brooklyn during the Crack Epidemic of the 80s and early 90s. The crime rate had sky rocketed and the criminal justice system was overwhelmed. There were areas of the city that were turning into saturated centers of crime.
People make mistakes, even NYPD detectives. However, our criminal justice system is supposed to have enough checks and balances to prevent the mistakes of one man from destroying the lives of countless people. Yet, it is clear that our system has failed in that accord. People want to believe that the criminal justice system is an infallible machine, something that will continuously produce the same, perfect result each time it is put to use. Clearly, that is not the case. A perfect machine would not falter to the incompetence/agenda of one part. No, the criminal justice system is not a perfect machine. It is a fairly well-designed, usually competent machine which the public puts far too much trust in.
This blog is not meant to be overly critical of the criminal justice system. After all, the same system which put these innocent men away has now setup a task force to fix past mistakes. The point of this blog is to point out how easy it is for the system to become derailed and for justice to be denied. This is the reason why the mission of each innocence project and clinic is so critical. No matter how good we may believe the machine is, it only takes one broken part to destroy innocent lives.
exoneration,justice,post-conviction, Broken system, Convictions in New York City, Kenneth Thompson, Louis Scarcella, wrongful conviction
Alejandra de la Fuente — May 23, 2013 @ 9:55 AM — Comments (0)
Often times, wrongful convictions stem from shady police and detective practices, such as contaminated confessions and false eyewitness identification. Such practices are difficult to reform, especially when the public turns a blind eye to such corruptions.
These issues have reached a boil for acclaimed New York City homicide detective Louis Scarcella, an officer who handled some of Brooklyn’s most notorious crimes during the 1980s and 90s. Following the New York Times’ discovery of disturbing patterns in about a dozen of his cases, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office has ordered a review of more than 50 murder cases assigned to Scarcella, an acknowledgment of mounting questions about the officer’s tactics and the legitimacy of the convictions.
One particularly alarming pattern is the use of a single eyewitness, Ms. Teresa Gomez, a drug addict born in Trinidad, for several separate murders. In the late 1980s Ms. Gomez testified that she saw drug dealer Robert Hill commit two separate murders. Both times, she was the only eyewitness. Despite admitting outright that she lied during the first trial, Mr. Hill was still convicted. Ms. Gomez resurfaced for the trial of Mr. Hill’s stepbrothers, Darryl Austin and Alvena Jennette, a trial that also ended in conviction. According to Scarcella, she has testified in at least six cases and he has nothing but praise for her.
Scarcella may also have engaged in questionable tactics to elicit information from witnesses or suspects, or even completely fabricate testimonies. This was the case with Shabaka Shakur, who was convicted based on an incriminating statement Scarcella claims to have obtained during his interrogation, although the underlying interrogation notes were missing. Witnesses and suspects alike have come forward to claim that they were threatened and coerced into testifying how Scarcella coached them.
The incongruities in his cases shed a light on gaping flaws in the criminal justice system. The fact the the cases are under review suggests a much-needed move towards reformation. Improving fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system benefits all segments of society. Victims and their families can see justice; prosecutors and police can have the tools to do their jobs well; the public can have more confidence in the system; and innocent people and their families can avoid the tragedy of wrongful convictions.
Read the full article here.
justice,policy, Brooklyn, corruption, eyewitness misidentification, False Confessions, Louis Scarcella, New York, questionable tactics, reformation