Adams calls for state commission to investigate Brooklyn’s wrongful convictions ‘crisis’
No one exempt, including former top officials; Brooklyn DA candidates react to proposal
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams on Tuesday called for an independent state commission to investigate who was responsible for dozens of wrongful convictions over the past decades at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office.
Out of 70 cases investigated since 2014, 23 have been overturned by Brooklyn’s Conviction Review Unit (CRU), initiated by former Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, now deceased. One of the exonerated men died in prison. Dozens of cases originating during the era of former DA Charles Hynes are still under review under Acting DA Eric Gonzalez.
“This is not a criticism of one particular individual, one particular prosecutor, one particular office,” Adams emphasized. “We believe this is a statewide — if not a national — problem.”
Adams said that no one would be let off the hook.
“For all we know there’s a district attorney who’s still in some office in the state who played a prominent role in this. Or that person could be a policy maker,” he said. “We can’t just pretend as though nothing went wrong. Something went wrong. A large number of innocent men went to jail. Not for a day, not for two days, but in some case 20 years, 27 years. These numbers are unbelievable to think about.”
He added, “And if 20-plus men were released, that means that 20-plus killers are still on our streets.”
The latest exoneration took place on July 12, with the release of Jabbar Washington, 43, who spent 20 years in prison for a 1995 robbery and shooting in Brownsville. The CRU investigation found that Washington’s lawyers were blocked by prosecutors from obtaining key information, particularly that the witness who identified him in a lineup later retracted her statement.
Six or more of the wrongful convictions in Brooklyn were secured on cases investigated by disgraced ex-NYPD Detective Louis Scarcella, and Adams pointed out a disturbing pattern in these cases.
“When you use the same person who was addicted to drugs [as a witness] on a number of cases without a red flag going up, that means the entire system is broken,” Adams said. “If you have a rogue detective, it is the system that is supposed to identify that detective’s behavior and make sure the detective does not continue to influence or impact justice in an unfair manner.”
Adams was joined by former Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals Jonathan Lippman and former New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Norman Siegel, who backed his call for a statewide commission.
Attorney Siegel called Brooklyn’s wrongful convictions a “frightening and troubling story.” Falsifying and manufacturing evidence, using coerced testimony and failing to disclose exculpatory evidence were regular practices at the Kings County DA’s Office in the 80s and 90s, Siegel said.
“Throughout the period, one false conviction after another were secured, and dozens of innocent men and women, if not more, were sent to prison from Kings County alone,” he said. The criminal justice system, he added, remains unfair today.
Siegel called for the panel to have subpoena power to obtain documents and to openly report the facts uncovered. He also wants the panel to openly address the racial aspects of the false convictions.
Lippman said his career has been focused on fairness for everyone in the criminal justice system.
“One wrongful conviction is one too many,” Lippman said. “There is nothing that undermines the criminal justice system more than a person who is convicted of a crime that they didn’t commit. This goes to all players … everybody is responsible, no finger-pointing. The judge, the prosecutor, the district attorney, the police — we’re all players in the system … There are systemic lessons we have to learn.”
Adams said Cuomo’s staff indicated the governor was willing to meet and “flush out the concept” of the blue-ribbon commission.
In response to a reporter’s question, Adams said there was a “clear, documented history” of his own role when he was a police officer. “A person like Scarcella is a person I fought against for 22 years when protecting the people of this city,” he said.
When asked if the investigation would delve into the role of previous top officials in Brooklyn, Adams told the Brooklyn Eagle, “I can’t investigate my own office. Investigations should be done by outside entities to ensure the integrity of the investigation.”
Even former DA Hynes would not be exempt, Adams added.
“Let the truth be revealed. Everyone involved should be examined to determine who had a role. That’s what we’re calling for: A Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” he added, referring to South Africa’s post-apartheid investigation.
See below for Brooklyn reactions to the idea.
Acting DA and DA candidates back the statewide commission on wrongful convictions
By Rob Abruzzese, Legal Editor
Borough President Eric Adams and former NYS Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, with New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Norman Siegel, proposed a statewide commission for independent review of wrongful conviction cases, and it has the support of the acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and those running against him for district attorney in Brooklyn in the September primaries.
Twenty-three wrongful convictions have been overturned in Brooklyn in total, and the District Attorney’s Office sees this as their plan being implemented on a state level.
“I worked hand in hand with my predecessor, Ken Thompson, to create Brooklyn’s Conviction Review Unit, which Justice Lippman and other criminal justice experts rightfully consider a national model because of its independence, groundbreaking work and proven results,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “The mission behind it is simple: that there could be no faith in our criminal justice system as long as individuals who were wrongly convicted remain incarcerated. I will not rest and I will not stop fighting until every miscarriage of justice in Brooklyn is corrected and I have already implemented reforms to make sure they don’t happen in the future.”
There have been a total of 23 wrongful convictions overturned in Brooklyn, including 21 while Ken Thompson was in charge. The most recent case was of Brownsville man Jabbar Washington, who spent 20 years in prison after a wrongful conviction.
On the day of Washington’s release, his attorney, Ron Kuby, blamed “institutional problems” for the wrongful conviction and blasted NYPD Detective Louis Scarcella for beating a confession out of his client. Scarcella has, so far, faced no repercussions for any actions tied to wrongful convictions even though he has been involved in six in such convictions.
In his statement reacting to the news, acting DA Gonzalez laid out some of the changes that he has made to the office. He explained that a big part of changing the office has been changing the mindsets of those working in it.
“We have changed the ethos of the DA’s Office from convictions at all cost to seeing that justice is done in each case,” Gonzalez said. “We have mandated training regarding ethical obligations, witness identification and evaluating confessions; and have hired a retired judge (Hon. Robert K. Holdman) to serve as Ethics and Best Practices Consultant.”
DA candidate Ama Dwimoh used the opportunity of the announcement to call for further cleanup within the DA’s Office. To date not a single prosecutor, detective, or judge has been held accountable for any of the 23 convictions.
“I have repeatedly called on DA Gonzalez to submit to an independent review of these cases, and to allow for a full-scale investigation of alleged misconduct by police officers, assistant DAs and other DA office staff—and for punishment to be handed down appropriately,” Dwimoh said in a statement. “I fully support Borough President Adams’s and Judge Lippman’s call for a state commission to get to the bottom of this far-reaching scandal, and to clean up the Brooklyn DA’s office so that we can begin restoring the trust in our criminal justice system.”
Dwimoh held a press conference last month where Jabbar Collins and Shabaka Shakur, two other men who were wrongfully convicted, where she called upon systemic changes in the DA’s Office and the appointment of a special prosecutor to prosecute potential misconduct that led to an overturned conviction.
However, a group calling itself the Families of the Wrongfully Convicted, released a statement on Tuesday that praised the Kings County DA’s Office for its CRU and called for its immediate expansion into the rest of NYC.
“More than any other district attorney’s office, Kings County, established a robust Conviction Review Unit (CRU) and has become a leader in New York in reviewing cases of wrongful convictions,” said the statement from the Families of the Wrongfully Convicted. “With many cases still under review, we call for additional funding for the Brooklyn DA’s CRU and for the expansion of the Brooklyn DA’s CRU model throughout the city to district attorney’s offices in Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island.”