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Brooklyn judge overturns woman’s manslaughter conviction

After 10 Years in Prison, Vanessa Gathers, 58, First Woman Exonerated by Conviction Review Unit

February 23, 2016 Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Matthew D’Emic

Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson on Tuesday announced that following a thorough review by his Conviction Review Unit, he would move to vacate a manslaughter conviction against Vanessa Gathers, 58, who was wrongfully convicted of the charge following a 1998 jury trial.

“After a thorough and fair review of the case by my Conviction Review Unit and the Independent Review Panel, I have concluded that, in the interest of justice, the manslaughter conviction obtained against Vanessa Gathers should not stand and that she should be given back her good name.”

The DA’s Office moved to vacate the conviction on Tuesday, in the presence of Gathers, before Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Matthew D’Emic, who overturned the conviction that afternoon.

The DA described the facts of the case as follows: On Nov. 18, 1991, Michael Shaw, 71, called 911 and reported that he had been assaulted and robbed inside of his apartment located at 170 New York Ave. in Crown Heights. He was taken to a hospital by ambulance where he underwent two operations to stop the bleeding in his brain. He lapsed into a post-surgical coma and died on April 21, 1992. The cause of death was determined to be blunt force trauma to the head.

The case was classified as a robbery on Nov. 23, 1991, and was investigated by detectives assigned to the 77th Precinct, to no avail. Following Shaw’s death, it was classified as a homicide and assigned to Detective Louis Scarcella of Brooklyn North Homicide and others. Detective Scarcella and his partner approached Vanessa Gathers on the street on May 18, 1992, because she fit the description of one of the assailants. She denied being involved in the robbery and assault but identified another woman who may have committed those crimes. She was released without being charged.

Five years later, in 1997, following further investigation, Gathers was questioned again by Scarcella and gave a confession. Her confession was the sole evidence against her at trial. She was convicted in 1998 and imprisoned, then released to parole on March 2, 2007, after spending 10 years in prison and completed her parole in 2012.

After examining all of the facts and circumstances of the case against Gathers it was determined by the CRU that there is substantial evidence that she made a false confession based, in part, on the defendant’s inability to articulate her role in the assault, perceived inaccuracies in the statement itself and the lack of details in the statement. The CRU found that the complete lack of a coherent narrative in the defendant’s confession combined with apparent factual errors, amount to reasonable doubt in the validity of the confession itself.

The district attorney said that CRU examined the case because it was one of approximately 72 cases in which retired Detective Louis Scarcella was involved.

Gathers, 58, is the first woman to have her conviction vacated by the CRU.
To date, the work of the CRU, which is led by Assistant District Attorney Mark Hale, has resulted in 18 convictions being vacated. In addition, the CRU has found that of the cases reviewed thus far, 38 convictions are just and will not be recommended to be vacated. Approximately 100 cases are pending review.

—Information from the Brooklyn DA’s Office

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