Brooklyn Boro

So far, it has freed 28 people. New report highlights Brooklyn’s Conviction Review Unit

July 10, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced on Thursday that his office has published a report on its Conviction Review Unit (CRU). The unit has so far freed 28 people who were wrongly convicted.

The report, which was made in conjunction with the Innocence Project and the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP (Wilmer Hale), explains the findings and processes followed by the CRU, its first 20 cases and the exoneration of 25 individuals.

“I am very proud of Brooklyn’s Conviction Review Unit and the commitment to justice it represents,” Gonzalez said. “With this report, we hope to share the methods, analyses and findings of the CRU with others around the country who are engaged in this critical work, and with the public at large. Wrongful convictions devastate lives — each one of the 25 cases in this report is its own tragedy — and strike at the heart of our criminal justice system.”

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The CRU was created in 2014 by then-DA Ken Thompson. After he died in Oct. 2016, Gonzalez kept it intact and kept Mark Hale on as chief of the CRU. So far, the unit has led to the reversal of 28 wrongful convictions.

“Today’s groundbreaking report marks the first time an elected district attorney has conducted a comprehensive study of his office’s own wrongful convictions,” said Nina Morrison, senior litigation counsel with the Innocence Project.

“This report shows the devastating human toll caused by these miscarriages of justice — and how many of them could have been prevented before they became wrongful convictions. We look forward to working with policymakers and advocates to take the lessons learned from this study to reform the system and prevent future injustices like these,” she said.

Debo Adegbile, a Wilmer Hale partner who also co-chairs the firm’s anti-discrimination practice and helped oversee the firm’s pro bono team, which helped put together the DA’s report.

According to the report, there were eight factors that each of the exonerations had in common that led to a false conviction — false or unreliable confessions, eyewitness misidentifications, significant witness credibility issues, nondisclosure of favorable evidence, police misconduct, prosecutor misconduct, defense misconduct, or new evidence that came forward.

“Doing justice must be the first duty of district attorneys,” said Debo Adegbile, a partner at Wilmer Hale. “This report is born of that duty and recognizes that in these cases the system failed. Wrongful convictions are tragedies for the individuals whose lives are damaged, for their families and communities, and they also erode the trust in the legal system that our democracy requires.”

The cases examined ranged in age from 1963 to 2011 and most of them occurred in the 1980s and 1990s when Elizabeth Holtzman and Charles Hynes were the district attorneys. All but one of the exonerees were people of color.

The report says that the CRU sets a standard of “legally innocent,” which means the person is either actually innocent, or there was grossly insufficient evidence, insurmountable reasonable doubt, or the investigations revealed credible facts, circumstances or events that grossly corrupted the fact-finding process to the point where the defendant was denied a fair trial.

The report relied on internal memos that the CRU routinely issues for each case, a recounting of its investigation and analysis of the circumstances. The authors conducted no independent or new investigations. The initial review of the internal memos was done by people from outside of the DA’s Office.

“Mistakes happen — but when someone’s life is at stake and a mistake means decades list behind bars there MUST be a robust process for correction,” Miriam Krinsky, the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, wrote on Twitter in regards to the report. “The [Brooklyn DA’s] report models what that process should look like.”

The report, which is titled, “426 Years: An Examination of 25 Wrongful Convictions in Brooklyn, N.Y.” is available to download on the Brooklyn DA’s website.

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