Gotham Gazette Gotham Gazette is an online publication covering New York policy and politics as well as news on public safety, transportation, education, finance and more. http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/brooklyn-district-attorney-s-office 2017-10-23T18:37:03+00:00 Webmaster webmaster@gothamgazette.com Brooklyn District Attorney Candidates Address Criminal Justice Reform at Forum 2017-07-22T18:29:00+00:00 2017-07-22T18:29:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7078:brooklyn-district-attorney-candidates-address-criminal-justice-reform-at-forum Samar Khurshid <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/dfnjhhbv0aazwy-.jpg" alt="dfnjhhbv0aazwy " width="600" height="450" /></p> <p>Brooklyn DA candidates at Thursday's forum (photo: @FaithinNewYork)</p> <hr /> <p>The candidates for the Brooklyn District Attorney race gathered at St. Francis College in Brooklyn on Thursday for a forum hosted by criminal justice and civil rights advocacy groups, focusing on contentious issues revolving around criminal justice in the borough. Five candidates offered their takes to an audience of community advocates and Brooklynites concerned about mass incarceration, police abuse, bail, and other contentious issues.</p> <p>The candidates present were Acting DA Eric Gonzalez, City Council Member Vincent Gentile, Ama Dwimoh, Marc Fliedner, and Anne Swern. Candidate Patricia Gatling, who attended a previous debate in June, was not present.</p> <p>The presence of former DA Ken Thompson, who died in 2016 after a bout with cancer and for whom Gonzalez stepped in, hung above the forum throughout the night. Thompson had widely been praised as a reformer after replacing the controversial longtime DA Charles Hynes. Gonzalez, in his opening statement, framed himself as a continuation of Thompson’s legacy.</p> <p>“I stand with all of you to say that I believe that we can end mass incarceration while continuing to keep our city and our borough safe,” Gonzalez said. “In 2014, Ken Thompson chose me to help him run that DA’s office, and I stand with all organizations who want to see a continuation of the policies that started in Brooklyn and the expansion of those policies, because I believe we can send less people to prison than we’re currently doing, and make sure that Brooklyn continues to be safe.”</p> <p>Fliedner was formerly chief of the Civil Rights Bureau under Thompson; he left after a dispute over the handling of the Peter Liang case, in which an NYPD officer received no jail time despite being convicted of manslaughter in the shooting death of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man. Fleidner jumped out of the gate with stinging criticisms of Gonzalez.</p> <p>“You cannot vote for acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez into office,” Fliedner said, eliciting both claps and boos. “In the short time that he was in charge of that office, he’s committed more acts exhibiting a disregard for the rule of law, a lack of respect for victims, and out and out acts of corruption.” Audience members frequently and freely engaged with the candidates throughout the night, loudly calling them out on answers they deemed unsatisfactory or dishonest.</p> <p>Dwimoh, a former prosecutor under Hynes, also left the office due to a “difference in values” with the then-DA, she said. She emphasized “proactive justice,” meaning a focus on prevention rather than punishment, and “rebuilding trust between the community and law enforcement.” But she also erred towards a “tough on crime” mentality in some areas, saying that crime is going up in some neighborhoods and being the only candidate who didn’t support ending mandatory minimum sentences for gun possession.</p> <p>Swern, a former Assistant District Attorney (ADA) under Hynes who also has experience as a defense attorney, claimed her experience as the latter gave her a unique connection and empathy among the candidates for those on the other side of the justice system: the defendants. In her opening statement and throughout the night, she focused her argument on making the DA’s office more transparent and the DA him- or her-self more accountable. She said she would hire a statistician for her office to determine how actions and policies undertaken by the DA disproportionately affect people of color.</p> <p>City Council Member Gentile, who is term-limited from running again for his current position, framed himself as the “only independent person” running in the race. Gentile, who had a career as a prosecutor under the Queens DA rather than the Brooklyn DA, was referring to the fact that he was the only candidate at the forum who was not working at the DA’s office in the time period where numerous wrongful convictions occurred under Hynes, which were later uncovered and undone by Thompson.</p> <p>The candidates were all largely in agreement on many of the major, big picture issues: all candidates supported either diminishing or eliminating reliance on cash bail, which has come under intense scrutiny after young Bronx resident Kalief Browder committed suicide following a two-year stay on Rikers Island after not being able to post bail. All the candidates supported diminishing the use of broken windows policing, though they didn’t offer specific solutions, with the exception of Fliedner who noted low-level drug offenses and gravity knife offenses as two crimes that wouldn’t be prosecuted under his stewardship.</p> <p>The candidates also all stated their support for Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ call for an independent commission into wrongful convictions, as well as for term limits of two or three terms -- there are currently no term limits for District Attorneys.</p> <p style="text-align: center;">[Related:&nbsp;<a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6978-candidates-for-brooklyn-district-attorney-seek-to-set-themselves-apart">Candidates for Brooklyn District Attorney Seek to Set Themselves Apart</a>]</p> <p>The shouting matches, interruptions, and audience interjections mainly concerned the candidates’ records. The candidates routinely accused Gonzalez of malfeasance and not 'walking the walk,' as well as co-opting the legacy of Ken Thompson.</p> <p>Hertencia Petersen, the aunt of Akai Gurley, a young black man killed by NYPD officer Peter Liang in an apparently accidental stairwell shooting, rose to ask a question and accused Gonzalez of mishandling the Liang case. Liang was sentenced to five years probation and 800 hours of community service, a move that had been widely criticized by criminal justice reform advocates. Petersen chastised the DA’s office, then under Thompson, for failing to adequately communicate with the Gurley family during the legal process and for recommending that Liang serve no jail time, which the family only found out about in press reports.</p> <p>For Petersen, Gonzalez is a continuation of that kind of leadership; she referred to him as having been a “crony” to Thompson throughout the legal process. Petersen also explicitly admonished Gonzalez for seeming to run as the second Ken Thompson without necessarily presenting his own plan. “Run on your own vision, she said to loud applause. “Give the people of Brooklyn what you want for your family.” After the debate, Petersen <a href="https://twitter.com/Jehovah1212/status/888223027456094209" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">tweeted</a>, “#ERIC GONZALEZ IS NOT FOR THE PEOPLE OF BROOKLYN.”</p> <p>Defending himself, Gonzalez pointed to the fact that Liang had been convicted, and denied that the office had maintained inadequate contact with the Gurley family.</p> <p>“She’s upset because Ken Thompson recommended a no jail plea on Peter Liang,” he said. An audience member shouted to Gonzalez, pointing out that he had been Thompson’s “chief advisor” (Gonzalez was Chief Assistant District Attorney under Thompson).</p> <p>Gonzalez also received criticism for continuing to impose punishingly high cash bail despite his stance that its use should be diminished. “$500 is asked for bail for a homeless person who steals cheese, and the Assistant District Attorney responds to the defense attorney, ‘well, it was expensive cheese,’” said Swern. “We will never close Rikers Island,” she said, referring to the fact that many held at the jails there are pre-trial detainees unable to post bail.</p> <p>Fliedner said that if he is elected, his office would not seek bail “on cases where we’re not seeking jail,” and further reprimanded Gonzalez on his supposed failure on bail reform, citing a case where bail was set at $1,000 for a turnstile jumper.</p> <p>Gonzalez was also singled out on the issue of wrongful convictions -- since he worked for the DA’s office under Hynes -- despite the fact that all candidates with the exception of Gentile had worked at the Brooklyn DA office under Hynes in some capacity.</p> <p>In this regard, Gentile seized the opportunity to paint himself as the only candidate separate from the failures of the Hynes era. Concerning the spate of wrongful convictions, Gentile said this “all happened under the tutelage of Charles Hynes...and Eric Gonzalez is a creation of Charles Hynes. He spent most of his years as prosecutor under Charles Hynes and only three years under Ken Thompson.” He proceeded to say that he has “never gotten the answer” to his inquiries into the policies that led to the Hynes-era wrongful convictions.</p> <p>Nonetheless, Gonzalez resolved to defend his record, touting for example a “Young Adult Court” diversionary program for young offenders created by Thompson’s office (Swern insisted that it was created in 2012, prior to Thompson’s ascendancy to the office). He also said that he has “done more work on wrongful convictions than all the other candidates put together.”</p> <p>

***
by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

</p> <p>Note: This article has been updated.</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/dfnjhhbv0aazwy-.jpg" alt="dfnjhhbv0aazwy " width="600" height="450" /></p> <p>Brooklyn DA candidates at Thursday's forum (photo: @FaithinNewYork)</p> <hr /> <p>The candidates for the Brooklyn District Attorney race gathered at St. Francis College in Brooklyn on Thursday for a forum hosted by criminal justice and civil rights advocacy groups, focusing on contentious issues revolving around criminal justice in the borough. Five candidates offered their takes to an audience of community advocates and Brooklynites concerned about mass incarceration, police abuse, bail, and other contentious issues.</p> <p>The candidates present were Acting DA Eric Gonzalez, City Council Member Vincent Gentile, Ama Dwimoh, Marc Fliedner, and Anne Swern. Candidate Patricia Gatling, who attended a previous debate in June, was not present.</p> <p>The presence of former DA Ken Thompson, who died in 2016 after a bout with cancer and for whom Gonzalez stepped in, hung above the forum throughout the night. Thompson had widely been praised as a reformer after replacing the controversial longtime DA Charles Hynes. Gonzalez, in his opening statement, framed himself as a continuation of Thompson’s legacy.</p> <p>“I stand with all of you to say that I believe that we can end mass incarceration while continuing to keep our city and our borough safe,” Gonzalez said. “In 2014, Ken Thompson chose me to help him run that DA’s office, and I stand with all organizations who want to see a continuation of the policies that started in Brooklyn and the expansion of those policies, because I believe we can send less people to prison than we’re currently doing, and make sure that Brooklyn continues to be safe.”</p> <p>Fliedner was formerly chief of the Civil Rights Bureau under Thompson; he left after a dispute over the handling of the Peter Liang case, in which an NYPD officer received no jail time despite being convicted of manslaughter in the shooting death of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man. Fleidner jumped out of the gate with stinging criticisms of Gonzalez.</p> <p>“You cannot vote for acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez into office,” Fliedner said, eliciting both claps and boos. “In the short time that he was in charge of that office, he’s committed more acts exhibiting a disregard for the rule of law, a lack of respect for victims, and out and out acts of corruption.” Audience members frequently and freely engaged with the candidates throughout the night, loudly calling them out on answers they deemed unsatisfactory or dishonest.</p> <p>Dwimoh, a former prosecutor under Hynes, also left the office due to a “difference in values” with the then-DA, she said. She emphasized “proactive justice,” meaning a focus on prevention rather than punishment, and “rebuilding trust between the community and law enforcement.” But she also erred towards a “tough on crime” mentality in some areas, saying that crime is going up in some neighborhoods and being the only candidate who didn’t support ending mandatory minimum sentences for gun possession.</p> <p>Swern, a former Assistant District Attorney (ADA) under Hynes who also has experience as a defense attorney, claimed her experience as the latter gave her a unique connection and empathy among the candidates for those on the other side of the justice system: the defendants. In her opening statement and throughout the night, she focused her argument on making the DA’s office more transparent and the DA him- or her-self more accountable. She said she would hire a statistician for her office to determine how actions and policies undertaken by the DA disproportionately affect people of color.</p> <p>City Council Member Gentile, who is term-limited from running again for his current position, framed himself as the “only independent person” running in the race. Gentile, who had a career as a prosecutor under the Queens DA rather than the Brooklyn DA, was referring to the fact that he was the only candidate at the forum who was not working at the DA’s office in the time period where numerous wrongful convictions occurred under Hynes, which were later uncovered and undone by Thompson.</p> <p>The candidates were all largely in agreement on many of the major, big picture issues: all candidates supported either diminishing or eliminating reliance on cash bail, which has come under intense scrutiny after young Bronx resident Kalief Browder committed suicide following a two-year stay on Rikers Island after not being able to post bail. All the candidates supported diminishing the use of broken windows policing, though they didn’t offer specific solutions, with the exception of Fliedner who noted low-level drug offenses and gravity knife offenses as two crimes that wouldn’t be prosecuted under his stewardship.</p> <p>The candidates also all stated their support for Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ call for an independent commission into wrongful convictions, as well as for term limits of two or three terms -- there are currently no term limits for District Attorneys.</p> <p style="text-align: center;">[Related:&nbsp;<a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6978-candidates-for-brooklyn-district-attorney-seek-to-set-themselves-apart">Candidates for Brooklyn District Attorney Seek to Set Themselves Apart</a>]</p> <p>The shouting matches, interruptions, and audience interjections mainly concerned the candidates’ records. The candidates routinely accused Gonzalez of malfeasance and not 'walking the walk,' as well as co-opting the legacy of Ken Thompson.</p> <p>Hertencia Petersen, the aunt of Akai Gurley, a young black man killed by NYPD officer Peter Liang in an apparently accidental stairwell shooting, rose to ask a question and accused Gonzalez of mishandling the Liang case. Liang was sentenced to five years probation and 800 hours of community service, a move that had been widely criticized by criminal justice reform advocates. Petersen chastised the DA’s office, then under Thompson, for failing to adequately communicate with the Gurley family during the legal process and for recommending that Liang serve no jail time, which the family only found out about in press reports.</p> <p>For Petersen, Gonzalez is a continuation of that kind of leadership; she referred to him as having been a “crony” to Thompson throughout the legal process. Petersen also explicitly admonished Gonzalez for seeming to run as the second Ken Thompson without necessarily presenting his own plan. “Run on your own vision, she said to loud applause. “Give the people of Brooklyn what you want for your family.” After the debate, Petersen <a href="https://twitter.com/Jehovah1212/status/888223027456094209" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">tweeted</a>, “#ERIC GONZALEZ IS NOT FOR THE PEOPLE OF BROOKLYN.”</p> <p>Defending himself, Gonzalez pointed to the fact that Liang had been convicted, and denied that the office had maintained inadequate contact with the Gurley family.</p> <p>“She’s upset because Ken Thompson recommended a no jail plea on Peter Liang,” he said. An audience member shouted to Gonzalez, pointing out that he had been Thompson’s “chief advisor” (Gonzalez was Chief Assistant District Attorney under Thompson).</p> <p>Gonzalez also received criticism for continuing to impose punishingly high cash bail despite his stance that its use should be diminished. “$500 is asked for bail for a homeless person who steals cheese, and the Assistant District Attorney responds to the defense attorney, ‘well, it was expensive cheese,’” said Swern. “We will never close Rikers Island,” she said, referring to the fact that many held at the jails there are pre-trial detainees unable to post bail.</p> <p>Fliedner said that if he is elected, his office would not seek bail “on cases where we’re not seeking jail,” and further reprimanded Gonzalez on his supposed failure on bail reform, citing a case where bail was set at $1,000 for a turnstile jumper.</p> <p>Gonzalez was also singled out on the issue of wrongful convictions -- since he worked for the DA’s office under Hynes -- despite the fact that all candidates with the exception of Gentile had worked at the Brooklyn DA office under Hynes in some capacity.</p> <p>In this regard, Gentile seized the opportunity to paint himself as the only candidate separate from the failures of the Hynes era. Concerning the spate of wrongful convictions, Gentile said this “all happened under the tutelage of Charles Hynes...and Eric Gonzalez is a creation of Charles Hynes. He spent most of his years as prosecutor under Charles Hynes and only three years under Ken Thompson.” He proceeded to say that he has “never gotten the answer” to his inquiries into the policies that led to the Hynes-era wrongful convictions.</p> <p>Nonetheless, Gonzalez resolved to defend his record, touting for example a “Young Adult Court” diversionary program for young offenders created by Thompson’s office (Swern insisted that it was created in 2012, prior to Thompson’s ascendancy to the office). He also said that he has “done more work on wrongful convictions than all the other candidates put together.”</p> <p>

***
by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

</p> <p>Note: This article has been updated.</p>
'Making A Murderer' Flaws All Around Us 2016-02-16T00:10:50+00:00 2016-02-16T00:10:50+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6172:making-a-murderer-flaws-all-around-us Super User <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/making_a_murderer.jpeg" alt="making a murderer" width="600" height="287" /></p> <p>photo via Making A Murderer on Twitter</p> <hr /> <p>The Netflix documentary "<a href="https://www.netflix.com/title/80000770" target="_blank">Making A Murderer</a>" challenges the moral core of our criminal justice system: that the police and prosecutors are objective and unbiased. The film follows Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who spent 18 years in prison for rape before being exonerated, then arrested for murder two years later, found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. The highly questionable police methods—a key piece of evidence miraculously appears; an improbable confession is coerced from a developmentally delayed adolescent—and the glaring conflicts of interest of many of the participants will infuriate any fair-minded viewer.</p> <p>The criminal justice system's legitimacy is founded on our secular faith in unbiased police-work, forensic science, and truth-seeking prosecutors. However, many of these pillars are structurally unsound, as supported by reams of scientific studies and the wisdom of leading observers.</p> <p>The problems with forensic science were first exposed systematically in a National Academy of Sciences <a href="http://www.nap.edu/catalog/12589/strengthening-forensic-science-in-the-united-states-a-path-forward" target="_blank">report in 2009</a>, but the legal system has been slow to incorporate its findings. Official misconduct of the type suggested in Making A Murderer is not isolated to small towns in Wisconsin. Alex Kozinski, one of America's foremost jurists and scholars, and a judge on the United States Court of Appeals, has <a href="http://georgetownlawjournal.org/articles/criminal-law-2-0-preface-to-the-44th-annual-review-of-criminal-procedure/" target="_blank">recently written</a> an opus which probes these problems in depth. And Kozinksi is no liberal; he was appointed by Ronald Reagan.</p> <p>Take confessions. It is unfathomable to most of us, but it is <a href="http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/11/20/why-innocent-people-plead-guilty/" target="_blank">not unusual</a> for people under duress to confess to crimes they did not commit. And for minors sweating under the bright lights, their inherent anxiety and propensity for pleasing authorities, coupled with the various ruses, all legal, which the police can employ, render them easy prey. New Yorkers cannot forget that the Central Park Five (teenagers at the time) falsely confessed and spent several years in prison before being exonerated.</p> <p>Eyewitness testimony is also subject to manipulations and the plasticity of human memory. In Steven Avery's first case the victim mistakenly identified him, after several inappropriate prompts from the police. And misidentification is even more likely when victims and perpetrators are of different races, an expected occurrence in multicultural communities like New York City. A New York State Bar Association <a href="http://www.nysba.org/wcreport/" target="_blank">study</a> found misidentification to be the leading cause of wrongful convictions. Numerous expert panels have outlined model procedures for police to use when investigating eyewitness testimony and the NYPD should incorporate these findings.</p> <p>High tech forensic science, despite its aura of infallibility, is less than perfect and many familiar methods have been tossed on the junk pile. Bite mark analysis, arson science, fiber and hair analysis, are among those that are now discredited as completely lacking in scientific validity. The Justice Department and FBI have <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/02/10/exonerations-dna-convicted-forensic-criminal-justice-column/80056392/" target="_blank">acknowledged</a> that evidence presented by an elite forensic unit over a two-decade period was based on methods now recognized as invalid.</p> <p>The Manhattan District Attorney's office is, however, disregarding the scientific consensus and fighting tooth and nail to continue using bite mark evidence. In contrast, the new Brooklyn District Attorney, Ken Thompson, recently moved to have an arson-murder conviction overturned, in part due to now discredited "arson science," and Mr. Thompson's office is garnering national attention for its commitment to review cases and rectify wrongful convictions.</p> <p>To a prosecutor, the most important bit of data is his or her conviction rate, and the resultant zeal to convict at all costs detours our system away from objectivity towards something like a witch hunt. Prosecutors routinely withhold exculpatory evidence from the defense. As Justice Kozinski puts it, "there is an epidemic of Brady violations [duty to disclose any vital evidence] in the land."</p> <p><a href="http://www.pnas.org/content/111/20/7230" target="_blank">According to</a> the National Registry of Exonerations, official misconduct was a factor in 45% of false convictions. In Orange County (CA) the district attorney's office is rocked with scandal after revelations that the police and prosecutors colluded in a decades long campaign of frame-ups and perjury. And in Brooklyn, as noted above, the new district attorney has begun dealing with the fallout from years of dubious tactics used by his predecessor, Charles Hynes.</p> <p>This short list of prosecutorial abuses and junk science is only a glimpse at the problem. To give some depth, consider that one study in a prestigious journal estimated that 4.1% of all persons on death row could be exonerated. With roughly 3,000 people on death row now, about 120 persons sentenced to die may be innocent. If this rate of wrongful convictions is extended to the 1.5 million persons in federal and state prisons, 61,500 persons could be declared innocent, set free, and have their criminal records erased.</p> <p>Though Steven Avery was not rich he had a competent defense team, yet still could not prevail (I am not claiming he is innocent, but that his trial was a travesty and he should not have been found guilty based on its proceedings.) But for poor people who cannot afford a private attorney, woefully understaffed and underfunded public defenders are their only option. That is why innocent people take plea bargains; without an effective defense they have no chance of winning. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 10% of exonerees pleaded guilty, despite their innocence, to avoid a trial.</p> <p>There is already a broad consensus that we send too many people to prison, for too long, and for behavior (e.g., drug use, sex work, nuisance offences) that should not be criminalized. Beyond that, we must ensure that police and prosecutors use valid methods to gather evidence and present that against the accused. The public election of prosecutors must be revisited to avoid the sort of uncontested transfer of power that occurred in the Bronx last year.</p> <p>Finally, the New York State Court system recently issued rules enabling video recording of courtroom proceedings and these should be interpreted as liberally as possible to ensure that a Making A Murderer type of injustice can't happen here.</p> <p>***<br />Christopher Beall works at a criminal justice nonprofit in the Bronx and is on Twitter&nbsp;<a href="https://twitter.com/JailedintheUSA" target="_blank">@JailedintheUSA</a>.</p> <p>

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

</p>
<p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/making_a_murderer.jpeg" alt="making a murderer" width="600" height="287" /></p> <p>photo via Making A Murderer on Twitter</p> <hr /> <p>The Netflix documentary "<a href="https://www.netflix.com/title/80000770" target="_blank">Making A Murderer</a>" challenges the moral core of our criminal justice system: that the police and prosecutors are objective and unbiased. The film follows Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who spent 18 years in prison for rape before being exonerated, then arrested for murder two years later, found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. The highly questionable police methods—a key piece of evidence miraculously appears; an improbable confession is coerced from a developmentally delayed adolescent—and the glaring conflicts of interest of many of the participants will infuriate any fair-minded viewer.</p> <p>The criminal justice system's legitimacy is founded on our secular faith in unbiased police-work, forensic science, and truth-seeking prosecutors. However, many of these pillars are structurally unsound, as supported by reams of scientific studies and the wisdom of leading observers.</p> <p>The problems with forensic science were first exposed systematically in a National Academy of Sciences <a href="http://www.nap.edu/catalog/12589/strengthening-forensic-science-in-the-united-states-a-path-forward" target="_blank">report in 2009</a>, but the legal system has been slow to incorporate its findings. Official misconduct of the type suggested in Making A Murderer is not isolated to small towns in Wisconsin. Alex Kozinski, one of America's foremost jurists and scholars, and a judge on the United States Court of Appeals, has <a href="http://georgetownlawjournal.org/articles/criminal-law-2-0-preface-to-the-44th-annual-review-of-criminal-procedure/" target="_blank">recently written</a> an opus which probes these problems in depth. And Kozinksi is no liberal; he was appointed by Ronald Reagan.</p> <p>Take confessions. It is unfathomable to most of us, but it is <a href="http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/11/20/why-innocent-people-plead-guilty/" target="_blank">not unusual</a> for people under duress to confess to crimes they did not commit. And for minors sweating under the bright lights, their inherent anxiety and propensity for pleasing authorities, coupled with the various ruses, all legal, which the police can employ, render them easy prey. New Yorkers cannot forget that the Central Park Five (teenagers at the time) falsely confessed and spent several years in prison before being exonerated.</p> <p>Eyewitness testimony is also subject to manipulations and the plasticity of human memory. In Steven Avery's first case the victim mistakenly identified him, after several inappropriate prompts from the police. And misidentification is even more likely when victims and perpetrators are of different races, an expected occurrence in multicultural communities like New York City. A New York State Bar Association <a href="http://www.nysba.org/wcreport/" target="_blank">study</a> found misidentification to be the leading cause of wrongful convictions. Numerous expert panels have outlined model procedures for police to use when investigating eyewitness testimony and the NYPD should incorporate these findings.</p> <p>High tech forensic science, despite its aura of infallibility, is less than perfect and many familiar methods have been tossed on the junk pile. Bite mark analysis, arson science, fiber and hair analysis, are among those that are now discredited as completely lacking in scientific validity. The Justice Department and FBI have <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/02/10/exonerations-dna-convicted-forensic-criminal-justice-column/80056392/" target="_blank">acknowledged</a> that evidence presented by an elite forensic unit over a two-decade period was based on methods now recognized as invalid.</p> <p>The Manhattan District Attorney's office is, however, disregarding the scientific consensus and fighting tooth and nail to continue using bite mark evidence. In contrast, the new Brooklyn District Attorney, Ken Thompson, recently moved to have an arson-murder conviction overturned, in part due to now discredited "arson science," and Mr. Thompson's office is garnering national attention for its commitment to review cases and rectify wrongful convictions.</p> <p>To a prosecutor, the most important bit of data is his or her conviction rate, and the resultant zeal to convict at all costs detours our system away from objectivity towards something like a witch hunt. Prosecutors routinely withhold exculpatory evidence from the defense. As Justice Kozinski puts it, "there is an epidemic of Brady violations [duty to disclose any vital evidence] in the land."</p> <p><a href="http://www.pnas.org/content/111/20/7230" target="_blank">According to</a> the National Registry of Exonerations, official misconduct was a factor in 45% of false convictions. In Orange County (CA) the district attorney's office is rocked with scandal after revelations that the police and prosecutors colluded in a decades long campaign of frame-ups and perjury. And in Brooklyn, as noted above, the new district attorney has begun dealing with the fallout from years of dubious tactics used by his predecessor, Charles Hynes.</p> <p>This short list of prosecutorial abuses and junk science is only a glimpse at the problem. To give some depth, consider that one study in a prestigious journal estimated that 4.1% of all persons on death row could be exonerated. With roughly 3,000 people on death row now, about 120 persons sentenced to die may be innocent. If this rate of wrongful convictions is extended to the 1.5 million persons in federal and state prisons, 61,500 persons could be declared innocent, set free, and have their criminal records erased.</p> <p>Though Steven Avery was not rich he had a competent defense team, yet still could not prevail (I am not claiming he is innocent, but that his trial was a travesty and he should not have been found guilty based on its proceedings.) But for poor people who cannot afford a private attorney, woefully understaffed and underfunded public defenders are their only option. That is why innocent people take plea bargains; without an effective defense they have no chance of winning. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 10% of exonerees pleaded guilty, despite their innocence, to avoid a trial.</p> <p>There is already a broad consensus that we send too many people to prison, for too long, and for behavior (e.g., drug use, sex work, nuisance offences) that should not be criminalized. Beyond that, we must ensure that police and prosecutors use valid methods to gather evidence and present that against the accused. The public election of prosecutors must be revisited to avoid the sort of uncontested transfer of power that occurred in the Bronx last year.</p> <p>Finally, the New York State Court system recently issued rules enabling video recording of courtroom proceedings and these should be interpreted as liberally as possible to ensure that a Making A Murderer type of injustice can't happen here.</p> <p>***<br />Christopher Beall works at a criminal justice nonprofit in the Bronx and is on Twitter&nbsp;<a href="https://twitter.com/JailedintheUSA" target="_blank">@JailedintheUSA</a>.</p> <p>

***
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Incoming DAs Plan to Join Thompson and Vance Warrant-Clearing Efforts 2015-11-24T03:52:49+00:00 2015-11-24T03:52:49+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6005:incoming-das-plan-to-join-thompson-and-vance-warrant-clearing-efforts Super User <p dir="ltr"><img alt="vance bratton nypdnews" src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2014/03/vance_bratton_nypdnews.jpg" width="600" height="450" /></p> <p dir="ltr">DA Vance with Commissioner Bratton, photo via @NYPDNews</p> <p dir="ltr">&nbsp;</p> <hr /> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr">In an effort to reduce the city’s backlog of <a href="http://manhattanda.org/video-gallery/da-vance-nypd-oca-and-legal-aid-announce-upcoming-clean-slate-summons-warrant-forgiven" target="_blank">1.3 million</a> open arrest warrants for unanswered summonses for non-violent offenses such as being in a park after dark, having an open container of alcohol, and littering, city district attorneys are holding amnesty events, giving New Yorkers with warrants a chance to clear up the original summons without fear of arrest.</p> <p dir="ltr">Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance held such an event in Harlem on Saturday, offering anyone with an open warrant for failing to answer a summons a chance for a hearing before a judge - which often leads to a dismissal and a cleared record.</p> <p dir="ltr">The event, dubbed “Clean Slate,” is the first of it’s kind in Manhattan, according to the district attorney’s office, and comes fives months after Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson held his first summons- and summons warrant-clearing event, “<a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5824-at-begin-again-signs-of-new-approach-to-broken-justice-system" target="_blank">Begin Again</a>.” Thompson has since held a second Begin Again event and has a third scheduled for early December. Meanwhile, two new district attorneys - in the Bronx and Staten Island - were elected November 3, and both have told Gotham Gazette they plan to hold similar events once they take office.</p> <p dir="ltr">While DA-elect Darcel Clark of the Bronx and DA-elect Michael McMahon of Staten Island both intend to offer something similar to Clean Slate and Begin Again, long-time Queens District Attorney Richard Brown does not. A spokesperson for Brown, who just won <a href="http://www.queensda.org/dabiography.html" target="_blank">a seventh four-year term</a>, told Gotham Gazette he has no such plans.</p> <p dir="ltr">“It is a sad fact that for individuals who have open warrants for minor infractions called summonses, there is a fear that's constant that they will be arrested,” Vance said at <a href="http://manhattanda.org/video-gallery/da-vance-nypd-oca-and-legal-aid-announce-upcoming-clean-slate-summons-warrant-forgiven" target="_blank">a November 17 press conference</a> launching Clean Slate. “Emotionally and psychologically, those weigh down those who hold those outstanding warrants, and [those warrants] have real consequences - they can affect the warrant holder's immigration status; they can hurt an individual's chance of getting a job; or prevent him or her from enlisting in the armed services.”</p> <p dir="ltr">“If there is an arrest, that years-old case must still come through an already overburdened court system,” Vance noted, saying that he was motivated to host Manhattan’s first summons warrant amnesty event to give “individuals with minor offenses that are outstanding a fresh start, and for efficiency in our courts.”</p> <p dir="ltr">The success of Thompson’s <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5824-at-begin-again-signs-of-new-approach-to-broken-justice-system" target="_blank">first Begin Again event</a>, held in June, led him to put together another two summons warrant-clearing events this year, with the next one planned for December 5. On Saturday morning at the event, Vance told assembled members of the media that given the good turnout for his first Clean Slate event, he is optimistic about holding more in the future, and would like to host such events on a quarterly basis.</p> <p dir="ltr">Hosting Clean Slate and Begin Again events has required the NYPD, judges, clerks, the Office of Court Administration, public defenders, volunteers from the Legal Aid Society, and the community to work together to set up an off-site courtroom for one day. They’ve involved significant awareness and outreach efforts by the DA offices and community partners to spread the word - often on flyers that attempt to make it clear that people with warrants for these “low-level” offenses should not fear arrest at the event.</p> <p dir="ltr">With so many stakeholders willing to collaborate in order hold an event that “helps the person who has the warrant, helps protect our officers so they’re not put in dangerous positions with people who have warrants, who may try to flee or resist arrest, helps our overburdened court system, and helps to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and the community,” as Brooklyn DA Thompson told Gotham Gazette, the question remains: will the city’s three other district attorneys follow suit?</p> <p dir="ltr">Spokespeople for Clark, of the Bronx, and McMahon, of Staten Island, told Gotham Gazette that each of the newly elected DAs, both Democrats, do indeed plan to hold such events. (All five DAs will be Democrats after Clark and McMahon are sworn in.)</p> <p dir="ltr">"District Attorney-Elect Michael McMahon has said that he believes programs like Begin Again and Clean Slate have merit and value, particularly in giving individuals and veterans an opportunity to start fresh and clear their names from summons violations for low-level offenses, such as walking a dog without a leash or being in a park after closing, that may impact their ability to get a job or access needed services,” Ashleigh Owens, spokesperson for McMahon, said in a statement emailed to Gotham Gazette.</p> <p dir="ltr">“As District Attorney, he'll look to evaluate options and secure resources for bringing a similar program to Staten Island," Owens added.</p> <p dir="ltr">“Once in office, Bronx District Attorney-elect Clark is committed to working to find solutions that will clear backlogged arrest warrants for summonses, which includes potentially holding amnesty events," Ryan Monell, a spokesperson for Clark told Gotham Gazette.</p> <p dir="ltr">Queens DA Brown currently has no intention of offering any sort of amnesty program in Queens. Kevin Ryan, a spokesperson for Brown, told Gotham Gazette, “We have no plans to offer an amnesty program at this time, as Queens maintains the lowest failure to appear in court rate in the City.”</p> <p dir="ltr">“Additionally,” Ryan continued, “any blanket amnesty program would be unfair to those individuals who assume full responsibility for their actions by appearing in court when their cases are scheduled and paying their summonses. Beyond that, individuals can avail themselves of such amnesty programs whenever they become available in other boroughs."</p> <p dir="ltr">Indeed, the events being held by other DAs are open to anyone with a summons warrant, regardless of where an individual lives or was cited for a violation.</p> <p dir="ltr">Yet even if four of the city’s district attorneys were to hold amnesty events for summons warrants on a regular basis, it would take decades to significantly reduce the city’s 1.3 million outstanding arrest warrants for summonses. According to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s <a href="http://brooklynda.org/begin-again/" target="_blank">office</a>, Thompson’s Begin Again initiative has “helped nearly 2,000 New Yorkers and has cleared more than 1,300 outstanding summons warrants,” while hundreds of New Yorkers lined up to clear their records at Vance’s Clean Slate event this Saturday.</p> <p dir="ltr">Hypothetically, if four DAs each held four amnesty events per year and cleared an average of 650 warrants at each event, a total of 10,400 summons warrants could be cleared each year - not even one percent of 1.3 million.</p> <p dir="ltr">It’s also important to take into account the fact that in 2014, an average of 985 summons were issued <a href="http://www.jjay.cuny.edu/sites/default/files/news/Summons_Report_DRAFT_4_24_2015_v8.pdf" target="_blank">each day</a> in New York City. According to the Mayor’s Office, in 2014, a total of <a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/235-15/mayor-de-blasio-chief-judge-lippman-justice-reboot-initiative-modernize-the" target="_blank">359,432</a> summonses were issued citywide - 38 percent of which resulted in an arrest warrant for failure to appear in court.</p> <p dir="ltr">If roughly 136,584 summons warrants are being added to the million-plus backlog each year, amnesty events alone will never be able to eliminate the tally of summons warrants.</p> <p dir="ltr">That is not to say that such events aren’t worthwhile, as the participating DAs, public defenders, and others would argue. Many New Yorkers clapped, cheered, and profusely thanked nearby volunteers upon exiting the Soul Saving Station Church on Saturday at Vance’s Clean Slate event. Some walked away with the white slip of paper informing them of their Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal clutched between their hands, staring at it and smiling, while others threw their hands up into the air and shouted “I’m free!” and “Clean Slate, baby!” <br /><br />What’s more, clearing the backlog of arrest warrants for such minor offenses frees up the NYPD and the courts to devote resources to areas with greater need. “We should free our officers to deal with gun violence, domestic violence, and sexual assault - serious crimes,” Thompson said. “Everyone benefits with a Begin Again program. This is being smart on crime, helping reform the criminal justice system, and working together with the community to show that law enforcement and the community can stand as one.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Yet it is clear to many that a more comprehensive approach must be taken to deal with the city’s staggering backlog of summons warrants - one which grows daily.</p> <p dir="ltr">“The root of the problem is overcriminalization for low-level, quality of life offenses,” Council Member Rory Lancman, Chair of the Courts and Legal Services Committee, told Gotham Gazette. Lancman wants to see some violations made civil, as opposed to criminal. “If I get a ticket for putting my trash out too early, and I forgot to pay it on time, I don’t get arrested. I get a penalty, and I’ll pay my fine,” he said.</p> <p dir="ltr">When asked whether any reforms to tackle “the root of the problem” were currently underway, Lancman replied, “Not directly. We are pushing to have some of the low-level quality of life offenses processed through the civil justice system, though that would be prospective, not retroactive.”</p> <p dir="ltr">About 40 percent of New Yorkers who receive a summons fail to appear in court for the date specified on their summons, automatically triggering a warrant for their arrest. There are a number of reasons people may miss their court appearance: immigrants may fear deportation, some may not be able to pay the fines issued to them, some aren’t able to miss work - but more simply than that, many do not understand what is required of them, and don’t know that a warrant will be issued for their arrest if they fail to appear.</p> <p dir="ltr">A number of reforms have been put in place this year to address this issue. In April, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Chief Judge of the State of New York, Jonathan Lippman, <a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/235-15/mayor-de-blasio-chief-judge-lippman-justice-reboot-initiative-modernize-the" target="_blank">announced</a> a new initiative, called “Justice Reboot,” to modernize the criminal justice system. Part of the pilot program aims to make the summons process easier to understand and navigate by simplifying the design of the summons form and providing a wider window of time for individuals who have received a summons to appear in court.</p> <p dir="ltr">“We have taken steps to make summons court more user friendly,” Lancman explained. “Hopefully, by instituting night hours, by allowing people to pay their fines online once they have pled guilty, and by providing people with electronic alerts to let them know about an upcoming court appearance, we will reduce the number of bench warrants issued in the future.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Even NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has expressed support of amnesty as a means to clear the case backlog. “Warrants never go away. There’s no expiration date,” Bratton said in an interview with the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/17/12-million-open-warrants-new-york_n_7301146.html" target="_blank">Associated Press</a>. “It would be great to get rid of a lot of that backlog. It’s not to our benefit from a policing standpoint to have all those warrants floating around out there.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Bratton, however, has not looked kindly upon the City Council’s attempts to address the “root of the problem” by decriminalizing quality-of-life offenses. Yet, Bratton has expressed commitment to <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5977-peace-dividend-approach-continues-bratton-and-de-blasio-say" target="_blank">what he has called “the peace dividend” approach</a> he is taking, whereby because the city is much safer than it once was, the NYPD can use more discretion. Still, this may mean more summonses rather than arrests, which does not help the summons-warrant problem.</p> <p dir="ltr">“I think these individual programs that DAs are running are good progress and I’m very supportive of them,” Council Member Lancman said, “but we really need a larger, more macro strategy for dealing with this extraordinary number of arrest warrants.”&nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr">***<br />by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette<br /><a href="https://twitter.com/GothamGazette" target="_blank">@GothamGazette</a></p> <p dir="ltr"><img alt="vance bratton nypdnews" src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2014/03/vance_bratton_nypdnews.jpg" width="600" height="450" /></p> <p dir="ltr">DA Vance with Commissioner Bratton, photo via @NYPDNews</p> <p dir="ltr">&nbsp;</p> <hr /> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr">In an effort to reduce the city’s backlog of <a href="http://manhattanda.org/video-gallery/da-vance-nypd-oca-and-legal-aid-announce-upcoming-clean-slate-summons-warrant-forgiven" target="_blank">1.3 million</a> open arrest warrants for unanswered summonses for non-violent offenses such as being in a park after dark, having an open container of alcohol, and littering, city district attorneys are holding amnesty events, giving New Yorkers with warrants a chance to clear up the original summons without fear of arrest.</p> <p dir="ltr">Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance held such an event in Harlem on Saturday, offering anyone with an open warrant for failing to answer a summons a chance for a hearing before a judge - which often leads to a dismissal and a cleared record.</p> <p dir="ltr">The event, dubbed “Clean Slate,” is the first of it’s kind in Manhattan, according to the district attorney’s office, and comes fives months after Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson held his first summons- and summons warrant-clearing event, “<a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5824-at-begin-again-signs-of-new-approach-to-broken-justice-system" target="_blank">Begin Again</a>.” Thompson has since held a second Begin Again event and has a third scheduled for early December. Meanwhile, two new district attorneys - in the Bronx and Staten Island - were elected November 3, and both have told Gotham Gazette they plan to hold similar events once they take office.</p> <p dir="ltr">While DA-elect Darcel Clark of the Bronx and DA-elect Michael McMahon of Staten Island both intend to offer something similar to Clean Slate and Begin Again, long-time Queens District Attorney Richard Brown does not. A spokesperson for Brown, who just won <a href="http://www.queensda.org/dabiography.html" target="_blank">a seventh four-year term</a>, told Gotham Gazette he has no such plans.</p> <p dir="ltr">“It is a sad fact that for individuals who have open warrants for minor infractions called summonses, there is a fear that's constant that they will be arrested,” Vance said at <a href="http://manhattanda.org/video-gallery/da-vance-nypd-oca-and-legal-aid-announce-upcoming-clean-slate-summons-warrant-forgiven" target="_blank">a November 17 press conference</a> launching Clean Slate. “Emotionally and psychologically, those weigh down those who hold those outstanding warrants, and [those warrants] have real consequences - they can affect the warrant holder's immigration status; they can hurt an individual's chance of getting a job; or prevent him or her from enlisting in the armed services.”</p> <p dir="ltr">“If there is an arrest, that years-old case must still come through an already overburdened court system,” Vance noted, saying that he was motivated to host Manhattan’s first summons warrant amnesty event to give “individuals with minor offenses that are outstanding a fresh start, and for efficiency in our courts.”</p> <p dir="ltr">The success of Thompson’s <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5824-at-begin-again-signs-of-new-approach-to-broken-justice-system" target="_blank">first Begin Again event</a>, held in June, led him to put together another two summons warrant-clearing events this year, with the next one planned for December 5. On Saturday morning at the event, Vance told assembled members of the media that given the good turnout for his first Clean Slate event, he is optimistic about holding more in the future, and would like to host such events on a quarterly basis.</p> <p dir="ltr">Hosting Clean Slate and Begin Again events has required the NYPD, judges, clerks, the Office of Court Administration, public defenders, volunteers from the Legal Aid Society, and the community to work together to set up an off-site courtroom for one day. They’ve involved significant awareness and outreach efforts by the DA offices and community partners to spread the word - often on flyers that attempt to make it clear that people with warrants for these “low-level” offenses should not fear arrest at the event.</p> <p dir="ltr">With so many stakeholders willing to collaborate in order hold an event that “helps the person who has the warrant, helps protect our officers so they’re not put in dangerous positions with people who have warrants, who may try to flee or resist arrest, helps our overburdened court system, and helps to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and the community,” as Brooklyn DA Thompson told Gotham Gazette, the question remains: will the city’s three other district attorneys follow suit?</p> <p dir="ltr">Spokespeople for Clark, of the Bronx, and McMahon, of Staten Island, told Gotham Gazette that each of the newly elected DAs, both Democrats, do indeed plan to hold such events. (All five DAs will be Democrats after Clark and McMahon are sworn in.)</p> <p dir="ltr">"District Attorney-Elect Michael McMahon has said that he believes programs like Begin Again and Clean Slate have merit and value, particularly in giving individuals and veterans an opportunity to start fresh and clear their names from summons violations for low-level offenses, such as walking a dog without a leash or being in a park after closing, that may impact their ability to get a job or access needed services,” Ashleigh Owens, spokesperson for McMahon, said in a statement emailed to Gotham Gazette.</p> <p dir="ltr">“As District Attorney, he'll look to evaluate options and secure resources for bringing a similar program to Staten Island," Owens added.</p> <p dir="ltr">“Once in office, Bronx District Attorney-elect Clark is committed to working to find solutions that will clear backlogged arrest warrants for summonses, which includes potentially holding amnesty events," Ryan Monell, a spokesperson for Clark told Gotham Gazette.</p> <p dir="ltr">Queens DA Brown currently has no intention of offering any sort of amnesty program in Queens. Kevin Ryan, a spokesperson for Brown, told Gotham Gazette, “We have no plans to offer an amnesty program at this time, as Queens maintains the lowest failure to appear in court rate in the City.”</p> <p dir="ltr">“Additionally,” Ryan continued, “any blanket amnesty program would be unfair to those individuals who assume full responsibility for their actions by appearing in court when their cases are scheduled and paying their summonses. Beyond that, individuals can avail themselves of such amnesty programs whenever they become available in other boroughs."</p> <p dir="ltr">Indeed, the events being held by other DAs are open to anyone with a summons warrant, regardless of where an individual lives or was cited for a violation.</p> <p dir="ltr">Yet even if four of the city’s district attorneys were to hold amnesty events for summons warrants on a regular basis, it would take decades to significantly reduce the city’s 1.3 million outstanding arrest warrants for summonses. According to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s <a href="http://brooklynda.org/begin-again/" target="_blank">office</a>, Thompson’s Begin Again initiative has “helped nearly 2,000 New Yorkers and has cleared more than 1,300 outstanding summons warrants,” while hundreds of New Yorkers lined up to clear their records at Vance’s Clean Slate event this Saturday.</p> <p dir="ltr">Hypothetically, if four DAs each held four amnesty events per year and cleared an average of 650 warrants at each event, a total of 10,400 summons warrants could be cleared each year - not even one percent of 1.3 million.</p> <p dir="ltr">It’s also important to take into account the fact that in 2014, an average of 985 summons were issued <a href="http://www.jjay.cuny.edu/sites/default/files/news/Summons_Report_DRAFT_4_24_2015_v8.pdf" target="_blank">each day</a> in New York City. According to the Mayor’s Office, in 2014, a total of <a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/235-15/mayor-de-blasio-chief-judge-lippman-justice-reboot-initiative-modernize-the" target="_blank">359,432</a> summonses were issued citywide - 38 percent of which resulted in an arrest warrant for failure to appear in court.</p> <p dir="ltr">If roughly 136,584 summons warrants are being added to the million-plus backlog each year, amnesty events alone will never be able to eliminate the tally of summons warrants.</p> <p dir="ltr">That is not to say that such events aren’t worthwhile, as the participating DAs, public defenders, and others would argue. Many New Yorkers clapped, cheered, and profusely thanked nearby volunteers upon exiting the Soul Saving Station Church on Saturday at Vance’s Clean Slate event. Some walked away with the white slip of paper informing them of their Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal clutched between their hands, staring at it and smiling, while others threw their hands up into the air and shouted “I’m free!” and “Clean Slate, baby!” <br /><br />What’s more, clearing the backlog of arrest warrants for such minor offenses frees up the NYPD and the courts to devote resources to areas with greater need. “We should free our officers to deal with gun violence, domestic violence, and sexual assault - serious crimes,” Thompson said. “Everyone benefits with a Begin Again program. This is being smart on crime, helping reform the criminal justice system, and working together with the community to show that law enforcement and the community can stand as one.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Yet it is clear to many that a more comprehensive approach must be taken to deal with the city’s staggering backlog of summons warrants - one which grows daily.</p> <p dir="ltr">“The root of the problem is overcriminalization for low-level, quality of life offenses,” Council Member Rory Lancman, Chair of the Courts and Legal Services Committee, told Gotham Gazette. Lancman wants to see some violations made civil, as opposed to criminal. “If I get a ticket for putting my trash out too early, and I forgot to pay it on time, I don’t get arrested. I get a penalty, and I’ll pay my fine,” he said.</p> <p dir="ltr">When asked whether any reforms to tackle “the root of the problem” were currently underway, Lancman replied, “Not directly. We are pushing to have some of the low-level quality of life offenses processed through the civil justice system, though that would be prospective, not retroactive.”</p> <p dir="ltr">About 40 percent of New Yorkers who receive a summons fail to appear in court for the date specified on their summons, automatically triggering a warrant for their arrest. There are a number of reasons people may miss their court appearance: immigrants may fear deportation, some may not be able to pay the fines issued to them, some aren’t able to miss work - but more simply than that, many do not understand what is required of them, and don’t know that a warrant will be issued for their arrest if they fail to appear.</p> <p dir="ltr">A number of reforms have been put in place this year to address this issue. In April, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Chief Judge of the State of New York, Jonathan Lippman, <a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/235-15/mayor-de-blasio-chief-judge-lippman-justice-reboot-initiative-modernize-the" target="_blank">announced</a> a new initiative, called “Justice Reboot,” to modernize the criminal justice system. Part of the pilot program aims to make the summons process easier to understand and navigate by simplifying the design of the summons form and providing a wider window of time for individuals who have received a summons to appear in court.</p> <p dir="ltr">“We have taken steps to make summons court more user friendly,” Lancman explained. “Hopefully, by instituting night hours, by allowing people to pay their fines online once they have pled guilty, and by providing people with electronic alerts to let them know about an upcoming court appearance, we will reduce the number of bench warrants issued in the future.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Even NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has expressed support of amnesty as a means to clear the case backlog. “Warrants never go away. There’s no expiration date,” Bratton said in an interview with the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/17/12-million-open-warrants-new-york_n_7301146.html" target="_blank">Associated Press</a>. “It would be great to get rid of a lot of that backlog. It’s not to our benefit from a policing standpoint to have all those warrants floating around out there.”</p> <p dir="ltr">Bratton, however, has not looked kindly upon the City Council’s attempts to address the “root of the problem” by decriminalizing quality-of-life offenses. Yet, Bratton has expressed commitment to <a href="http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/government/5977-peace-dividend-approach-continues-bratton-and-de-blasio-say" target="_blank">what he has called “the peace dividend” approach</a> he is taking, whereby because the city is much safer than it once was, the NYPD can use more discretion. Still, this may mean more summonses rather than arrests, which does not help the summons-warrant problem.</p> <p dir="ltr">“I think these individual programs that DAs are running are good progress and I’m very supportive of them,” Council Member Lancman said, “but we really need a larger, more macro strategy for dealing with this extraordinary number of arrest warrants.”&nbsp;</p> <p dir="ltr">***<br />by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette<br /><a href="https://twitter.com/GothamGazette" target="_blank">@GothamGazette</a></p> At 'Begin Again,' Signs of New Approach to Broken Justice System 2015-07-26T05:00:00+00:00 2015-07-26T05:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5824:at-begin-again-signs-of-new-approach-to-broken-justice-system Super User <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2014/03/ken_thompson_jumaane_williams_laurie_cumbo.jpg" alt="ken thompson jumaane williams laurie cumbo" height="450" width="600" /></p> <p><span style="font-size: 10pt;">DA Thompson, center, with Council Members Williams &amp; Cumbo (<a href="https://twitter.com/JumaaneWilliams/status/612343786241413120" target="_blank">@JumaaneWilliams</a>)</span></p> <hr /> <p>During Father's Day weekend, hundreds of individuals received the gift of a new beginning. The Brooklyn District Attorney's office held a 'Begin Again' event to lift open arrest warrants related to summonses for low-level offenses ranging from public intoxication, the most common violation, to being in a park after closing. In total, 1,039 individuals from across all five boroughs attended the two-day event and 670 warrants were cleared.</p> <p>The 'Begin Again' initiative is part of a larger summons reform movement that aims to make it easier for individuals to respond to summonses and ultimately, avoid arrest warrants. While the total number of summons filings in New York City has decreased significantly in recent years, the system remains strained, with a citywide backlog of over a million summonses.</p> <p>In Brooklyn, District Attorney Ken Thompson's office indicated that the success of the event would lead to another in September, and that while similar events were held under former District Attorney Charles Hynes, the Father's Day weekend initiative saw the greatest number of warrants cleared in Brooklyn during comparable time periods. Other district attorneys do not appear quick to follow suit.</p> <p>City leaders from Thompson to Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police commissioner Bill Bratton, the City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and others, are discussing summons reform.</p> <p>"New York City's criminal justice system is overburdened with severely backlogged courts and millions of New Yorkers with outstanding warrants for low-level, minor offenses," said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in a statement sent to Gotham Gazette.</p> <p>"District Attorney Ken Thompson's Begin Again initiative is a forward-thinking approach that tackles this issue head on," Mark-Viverito said, "enabling individuals to resolve their warrants and move on with a clean slate without the threat of impending arrest."</p> <p>Thompson's office is quick to stress that warrants and the summonses that led to them were not simply dismissed wholesale, but that each individual who wanted to 'Begin Again' was given a fair hearing, with most warrants adjudicated and summonses cleared - as is the case when people show up to their summons-dictated court appearance.</p> <p>While the initiative has received widespread support, some expressed reservations. "It does create a moral hazard that sends the message that people can expect such amnesties in the future," said Heather Mac Donald of The Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning think tank. "It's a real issue and it has to be weighed against the public good in clearing these backlogs of warrants."</p> <p>By using the term "amnesty," Mac Donald gets at a key issue for critics, who say that people should follow the law in the first place and pay the consequences for breaking it and for missing any mandated court appearance. People, including NYPD Commissioner Bratton, are hesitant to give the appearance of amnesty, believing that if New Yorkers believe there are no consequences to their actions, law-breaking will likely increase.</p> <p>But Dawn Ryan, attorney-in-charge of The Legal Aid Society's Brooklyn criminal office, notes a distinction between the clearance of warrants and actual amnesty. "To me, amnesty is telling those who received the summonses that they may throw them away and forget they ever received them," said Ryan. By contrast, at 'Begin Again,' "they're still being held accountable in terms of showing up in response to the summons and having this matter resolved before a judge."</p> <p>At 'Begin Again' events, those with outstanding warrants are assigned a Legal Aid attorney and brought before a judge, who hears the reason for the original summons and for not appearing in court, thus earning the warrant.</p> <p>The Brooklyn District Attorney's office hailed 'Begin Again' a success and Ryan stated the event attracted so many people on its second day that the line remained open for an additional 45 minutes beyond the scheduled time. But the 670 warrants cleared barely make a dent in the 1.2 million open warrants related to unanswered summonses throughout New York City.</p> <p>"It's just a drop in the bucket," acknowledged City Council Member Rory Lancman, who chairs the Council's courts and legal services committee. An estimated one in seven New Yorkers have an outstanding summons warrant and with less than one tenth of one percent of open summons warrants resolved thus far through the 'Begin Again' initiative, the need for further reform measures becomes evident. "I thought it seemed to be a great success for what it was," said Lancman. "But in the scheme of things, it's not really a sustainable strategy for getting at the over one million warrants that are outstanding."</p> <p>The staggering number of open summons warrants is one of the reasons why Lancman, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, and New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman are among those advocating for certain low-level criminal offenses to be reclassified as civil penalties. A reclassification of some offenses would lessen the burden on the summons court system while also granting a reprieve to individuals who have committed non-violent, so-called 'quality-of-life' infractions. Proponents of such measures have argued that summonses are disproportionately issued to poor people of color and that arrest warrants resulting from failure to respond to a summons can have grave repercussions that far outweigh the original offense.</p> <p>But even certain summons reform measures, it would seem, are backlogged. Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio <a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/235-15/mayor-de-blasio-chief-judge-lippman-justice-reboot-initiative-modernize-the" target="_blank">announced</a> "Justice Reboot," an initiative including a planned overhaul of the summons process. Among the proposed changes were a new summons form making the court appearance date more prominent, robocall and text message reminders for those with summonses, and a more flexible system allowing individuals to appear in court up to a week in advance of their scheduled court date. While these measures were originally scheduled to begin this summer, they are now slated to start in early fall.</p> <p>Sarah Solon, chief external strategy officer at the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, stated that the timing for the proposed reforms remains unchanged and that the measures will go into effect sequentially. "The new summons form has to roll out first, because it will collect the cell phone numbers that will allow for text message reminders and contain information about the flexible appearance dates," said Solon via e-mail. That new form will be released citywide within the next few months, Solon said, and going forward the form will collect data on an individual's race/ethnicity in order to ensure transparency in the summons process and provide important data.</p> <p>The next Begin Again event is also scheduled for the fall-it will be held on September 12 in East New York. The flyer for the event - which will be posted around the borough and shared on social media as the one advertising the last one was - says, "we can help you take care of that old warrant." <a href="https://twitter.com/BrooklynDA/status/624578128631861248" target="_blank">The literature</a> seeks to reassure people: "over 1,000 people attended the last event," it says, followed by "no one was arrested" and "everyone got help."</p> <p>Ryan said she and her colleagues at The Legal Aid Society hope other DA offices will follow Brooklyn District Attorney Thompson's lead in hosting such events.</p> <p>So, apparently, does Thompson. In a July 15 letter addressed and hand-delivered to Mayor de Blasio with Chief Judge Lippman copied, Thompson urged the mayor to take the Brooklyn 'Begin Again' initiative citywide. Of the current way of doing things, Thompson wrote, "We simply cannot continue down this path any longer."</p> <p>***<br />Brooke L. Williams is a freelance&nbsp;multimedia journalist based in New York City. She reports on the criminal justice system with an emphasis on those wrongfully convicted. You can follow her on Twitter&nbsp;<a href="https://twitter.com/WilliamsLBrooke" target="_blank">@williamslbrooke<br /></a><a href="https://twitter.com/GothamGazette" target="_blank">@GothamGazette</a></p> <p><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2014/03/ken_thompson_jumaane_williams_laurie_cumbo.jpg" alt="ken thompson jumaane williams laurie cumbo" height="450" width="600" /></p> <p><span style="font-size: 10pt;">DA Thompson, center, with Council Members Williams &amp; Cumbo (<a href="https://twitter.com/JumaaneWilliams/status/612343786241413120" target="_blank">@JumaaneWilliams</a>)</span></p> <hr /> <p>During Father's Day weekend, hundreds of individuals received the gift of a new beginning. The Brooklyn District Attorney's office held a 'Begin Again' event to lift open arrest warrants related to summonses for low-level offenses ranging from public intoxication, the most common violation, to being in a park after closing. In total, 1,039 individuals from across all five boroughs attended the two-day event and 670 warrants were cleared.</p> <p>The 'Begin Again' initiative is part of a larger summons reform movement that aims to make it easier for individuals to respond to summonses and ultimately, avoid arrest warrants. While the total number of summons filings in New York City has decreased significantly in recent years, the system remains strained, with a citywide backlog of over a million summonses.</p> <p>In Brooklyn, District Attorney Ken Thompson's office indicated that the success of the event would lead to another in September, and that while similar events were held under former District Attorney Charles Hynes, the Father's Day weekend initiative saw the greatest number of warrants cleared in Brooklyn during comparable time periods. Other district attorneys do not appear quick to follow suit.</p> <p>City leaders from Thompson to Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police commissioner Bill Bratton, the City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and others, are discussing summons reform.</p> <p>"New York City's criminal justice system is overburdened with severely backlogged courts and millions of New Yorkers with outstanding warrants for low-level, minor offenses," said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in a statement sent to Gotham Gazette.</p> <p>"District Attorney Ken Thompson's Begin Again initiative is a forward-thinking approach that tackles this issue head on," Mark-Viverito said, "enabling individuals to resolve their warrants and move on with a clean slate without the threat of impending arrest."</p> <p>Thompson's office is quick to stress that warrants and the summonses that led to them were not simply dismissed wholesale, but that each individual who wanted to 'Begin Again' was given a fair hearing, with most warrants adjudicated and summonses cleared - as is the case when people show up to their summons-dictated court appearance.</p> <p>While the initiative has received widespread support, some expressed reservations. "It does create a moral hazard that sends the message that people can expect such amnesties in the future," said Heather Mac Donald of The Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning think tank. "It's a real issue and it has to be weighed against the public good in clearing these backlogs of warrants."</p> <p>By using the term "amnesty," Mac Donald gets at a key issue for critics, who say that people should follow the law in the first place and pay the consequences for breaking it and for missing any mandated court appearance. People, including NYPD Commissioner Bratton, are hesitant to give the appearance of amnesty, believing that if New Yorkers believe there are no consequences to their actions, law-breaking will likely increase.</p> <p>But Dawn Ryan, attorney-in-charge of The Legal Aid Society's Brooklyn criminal office, notes a distinction between the clearance of warrants and actual amnesty. "To me, amnesty is telling those who received the summonses that they may throw them away and forget they ever received them," said Ryan. By contrast, at 'Begin Again,' "they're still being held accountable in terms of showing up in response to the summons and having this matter resolved before a judge."</p> <p>At 'Begin Again' events, those with outstanding warrants are assigned a Legal Aid attorney and brought before a judge, who hears the reason for the original summons and for not appearing in court, thus earning the warrant.</p> <p>The Brooklyn District Attorney's office hailed 'Begin Again' a success and Ryan stated the event attracted so many people on its second day that the line remained open for an additional 45 minutes beyond the scheduled time. But the 670 warrants cleared barely make a dent in the 1.2 million open warrants related to unanswered summonses throughout New York City.</p> <p>"It's just a drop in the bucket," acknowledged City Council Member Rory Lancman, who chairs the Council's courts and legal services committee. An estimated one in seven New Yorkers have an outstanding summons warrant and with less than one tenth of one percent of open summons warrants resolved thus far through the 'Begin Again' initiative, the need for further reform measures becomes evident. "I thought it seemed to be a great success for what it was," said Lancman. "But in the scheme of things, it's not really a sustainable strategy for getting at the over one million warrants that are outstanding."</p> <p>The staggering number of open summons warrants is one of the reasons why Lancman, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, and New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman are among those advocating for certain low-level criminal offenses to be reclassified as civil penalties. A reclassification of some offenses would lessen the burden on the summons court system while also granting a reprieve to individuals who have committed non-violent, so-called 'quality-of-life' infractions. Proponents of such measures have argued that summonses are disproportionately issued to poor people of color and that arrest warrants resulting from failure to respond to a summons can have grave repercussions that far outweigh the original offense.</p> <p>But even certain summons reform measures, it would seem, are backlogged. Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio <a href="http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/235-15/mayor-de-blasio-chief-judge-lippman-justice-reboot-initiative-modernize-the" target="_blank">announced</a> "Justice Reboot," an initiative including a planned overhaul of the summons process. Among the proposed changes were a new summons form making the court appearance date more prominent, robocall and text message reminders for those with summonses, and a more flexible system allowing individuals to appear in court up to a week in advance of their scheduled court date. While these measures were originally scheduled to begin this summer, they are now slated to start in early fall.</p> <p>Sarah Solon, chief external strategy officer at the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, stated that the timing for the proposed reforms remains unchanged and that the measures will go into effect sequentially. "The new summons form has to roll out first, because it will collect the cell phone numbers that will allow for text message reminders and contain information about the flexible appearance dates," said Solon via e-mail. That new form will be released citywide within the next few months, Solon said, and going forward the form will collect data on an individual's race/ethnicity in order to ensure transparency in the summons process and provide important data.</p> <p>The next Begin Again event is also scheduled for the fall-it will be held on September 12 in East New York. The flyer for the event - which will be posted around the borough and shared on social media as the one advertising the last one was - says, "we can help you take care of that old warrant." <a href="https://twitter.com/BrooklynDA/status/624578128631861248" target="_blank">The literature</a> seeks to reassure people: "over 1,000 people attended the last event," it says, followed by "no one was arrested" and "everyone got help."</p> <p>Ryan said she and her colleagues at The Legal Aid Society hope other DA offices will follow Brooklyn District Attorney Thompson's lead in hosting such events.</p> <p>So, apparently, does Thompson. In a July 15 letter addressed and hand-delivered to Mayor de Blasio with Chief Judge Lippman copied, Thompson urged the mayor to take the Brooklyn 'Begin Again' initiative citywide. Of the current way of doing things, Thompson wrote, "We simply cannot continue down this path any longer."</p> <p>***<br />Brooke L. Williams is a freelance&nbsp;multimedia journalist based in New York City. She reports on the criminal justice system with an emphasis on those wrongfully convicted. You can follow her on Twitter&nbsp;<a href="https://twitter.com/WilliamsLBrooke" target="_blank">@williamslbrooke<br /></a><a href="https://twitter.com/GothamGazette" target="_blank">@GothamGazette</a></p> Are DAs Doing Enough to Overturn Wrongful Convictions? 2015-07-12T05:00:00+00:00 2015-07-12T05:00:00+00:00 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5802:are-das-doing-enough-to-overturn-wrongful-convictions Super User <p><span style="font-size: 10pt;"><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2014/03/DA_Thompson_Reynoso.jpg" alt="DA Thompson Reynoso" height="540" width="600" /></span></p> <p><span style="font-size: 10pt;">Brooklyn DA Thompson, left, &amp; Council Member Reynoso (photo: @BrooklynDA)</span></p> <hr /> <p>What is the price of winning? For prosecutors in wrongful conviction cases, it can be a life.</p> <p>Last year, there were a record 131 exonerations nationwide according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Of those exonerated, six were serving time on death row.</p> <p>During that same time period, six new Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) were established at district attorney offices across the country, increasing the total number of units by about one-third. CIUs conduct reviews of wrongful conviction claims and were responsible for 49 exonerations in 2014, more than for all previous years combined. But the structure and number of exonerations of each individual CIU varies markedly, leading to different systems by which the district attorneys who prosecute crimes are reviewed.</p> <p>In New York City, where each borough has a corresponding DA, the Manhattan and Brooklyn District Attorney Offices have a CIU and Conviction Review Unit (CRU), respectively. The other boroughs do not currently have formal review units. Like other CIUs, the New York City-based units vary in both organization and outcomes.</p> <p>Former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes formed a CIU in 2011 that resulted in two exonerations. But many, including current Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson, who defeated Hynes in 2013, felt that Hynes was incapable of adequately looking into convictions that were secured during his nearly quarter-century tenure.</p> <p>"My predecessor called it the Conviction Integrity Unit, but I thought the process in place did not have integrity. And so, I changed the name and called it the Conviction Review Unit," Thompson <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWIYZPFqqyM&amp;feature=youtu.be" target="_blank">said</a> while speaking at a New York City Bar Association event last year.</p> <p>Since Thompson established the CRU in 2014, he has allocated an annual budget of $1.1 million to the unit. "If you're serious about the idea that the job of a district attorney and a prosecutor is to do justice, not merely to secure convictions," says Mark Hale, Chief of the Brooklyn CRU, "then the books don't close on these cases. You should always be pursuing justice, even long after the jury has reached their verdict."</p> <p>The Brooklyn CRU secured ten exonerations last year and has been touted by some as a model. Two of the ten exonerated individuals died while incarcerated and had their convictions vacated posthumously. These examples show how costly wrongful convictions - and delayed reviews when questions arise - can be. The other eight men whose convictions were overturned were facing maximum sentences of life in prison. The CRU <a href="http://www.brooklynda.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/conviction-review-Timeline-VI-2000x1110.jpg" target="_blank">has produced</a> an additional three exonerations in 2015, including one involving a defendant who was facing possible deportation.</p> <p>The Manhattan CIU, created by District Attorney Cyrus Vance in 2010, was the first of its kind within the five boroughs. Since its inception, the unit has reviewed more than 160 cases, reinvestigated 14 cases, and vacated five convictions, according to an office spokesperson who declined a request for an interview. As of January 2015, The National Registry of Exonerations lists four vacated convictions by the Manhattan CIU that meet the registry's criteria for exonerations. The vacated convictions include two robberies, one assault, and one sexual assault.</p> <p>"To me, that office has zero credibility," says Jeffrey Deskovic, who was wrongfully convicted in Westchester County and exonerated after spending nearly 16 years in prison. Deskovic, who founded The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, cites the Jon-Adrian Velazquez case in which the Manhattan CIU <a href="http://investigations.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/04/06/17630807-manhattan-da-keeps-high-profile-murder-conviction-intact-after-review" target="_blank">upheld a murder conviction</a> despite recanted eyewitness testimony and a lack of physical evidence linking Velazquez to the crime.</p> <p>But Barry Scheck, co-founder of The Innocence Project, a national organization that works to reverse wrongful convictions on the basis of DNA evidence, stresses CIUs are evolving entities. While Scheck views comparisons between the two New York district attorney offices as unproductive, he also acknowledges there are certain factors that increase the effectiveness of a particular CIU over another.</p> <p>"The successful CIUs have been ones where the person who has supervisory responsibility is a former defense lawyer," says Scheck, pointing to renowned defense attorney Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr.'s role as advisor to the Brooklyn CRU. "You really need from a cognitive point of view a completely different perspective because it's very hard to de-bias people who are working within offices, prosecutors particularly, for quite a number of years," says Scheck.</p> <p>The latter point has been a criticism of CIUs. Essentially, a wrongful conviction is admission that the district attorney's office responsible for the case got the prosecution wrong in the first place. When those cases involve prosecutors and a district attorney who are still in office, the objectivity of the review process is called into question. As of January 2015, individual CIUs ranged in number of exonerations from zero to as many as 33.</p> <p>In addition to Sullivan's role as advisor, the Brooklyn CRU employs the use of an independent review panel. The panel reviews and makes non-binding recommendations to the district attorney's office regarding wrongful conviction claims. The panel is comprised of three attorneys who are not employed by the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office.</p> <p>The Manhattan CIU has a Conviction Integrity Policy Advisory Panel comprised of criminal justice experts, including Scheck, who advise "the Office on national best practices and evolving issues in the area of wrongful convictions" according to a Manhattan District Attorney press release. The panel does not review cases, which are handled internally by the Manhattan CIU.</p> <p>The Brooklyn CRU's comparably high rate of exonerations can be traced to other factors as well. Four of the Brooklyn CRU's exonerations last year involved cases handled by former police detective Louis Scarcella, who has been accused of coercing witnesses and intimidating suspects into making false confessions.</p> <p>"In doing the number of cases for the years that we did," says Hale, "those cases of violent crimes in the volume that we did, it would be foolhardy to believe mistakes weren't made in some of those." But Hale points to other factors in the unit's success, including a dedicated staff whose sole responsibility is to review wrongful conviction claims.</p> <p>While the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office processed a high volume of cases during New York City's crime-ridden 1980s and '90s, a 2015 report issued by the National Registry of Exonerations asserts that the borough is not unique. The report refers to the number of exonerations in Brooklyn as "an impressive accomplishment" but maintains "there is no reason to believe that the problem it addresses is restricted to Brooklyn. The concentration of false murder convictions in Brooklyn in the 1980s and '90s," the report continues, "is often explained by a crisis in law enforcement: a murder rate about 5 times what it is now, and limited resources to investigate and prosecute those murders."</p> <p>But the report argues that similar conditions existed throughout the five boroughs as well as in other urban areas nationwide. "If the same resources were devoted to similar cases from other cities," <a href="http://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/Exonerations_in_2014_report.pdf" target="_blank">the report</a> maintains, "many additional false murder convictions would no doubt be found."</p> <p>The number of homicide and homicide-related arrests, such as criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter, disposed in Brooklyn during the '80s and '90s was one-and-a-half times the rate of homicide-related arrests disposed in Manhattan. However, the total number of felony arrest dispositions during the same time period was higher in Manhattan than in Brooklyn.</p> <p>Currently, the Manhattan CIU reviews serious felony offenses including homicide, rape, burglary, and robbery. Earlier this year, the Brooklyn CRU expanded its review to include non-homicide felony offenses as well. Since that expansion, the Brooklyn CRU has secured two exonerations in non-homicide felony cases.</p> <p>Acknowledging the lack of CIUs in many other localities, Hale concurs with the report's finding and notes, "There are other people who probably would find the same proportion or the same numbers of exonerations if, in fact, they were looking."</p> <p>Brooklyn DA Thompson's fresh eyes have undoubtedly helped the office take a deeper look into the relatively old convictions that were obtained primarily during the Hynes administration. Will those eyes remain as sharp once convictions secured under Thompson's leadership are called into question?</p> <p>"It comes down to the will of the D.A.," Thompson acknowledged during his speech last year. "I can't say that there will never be anyone wrongfully convicted under my tenure, but I can tell you that I'm going to take swift action."</p> <p>***<br />Brooke L. Williams is a freelance&nbsp;multimedia journalist based in New York City. She reports on the criminal justice system with an emphasis on those wrongfully convicted. You can follow her on Twitter <a href="https://twitter.com/WilliamsLBrooke" target="_blank">@williamslbrooke<br /></a><a href="https://twitter.com/GothamGazette" target="_blank">@GothamGazette</a></p> <p><span style="font-size: 10pt;"><img src="http://www.gothamgazette.com/images/graphics/2014/03/DA_Thompson_Reynoso.jpg" alt="DA Thompson Reynoso" height="540" width="600" /></span></p> <p><span style="font-size: 10pt;">Brooklyn DA Thompson, left, &amp; Council Member Reynoso (photo: @BrooklynDA)</span></p> <hr /> <p>What is the price of winning? For prosecutors in wrongful conviction cases, it can be a life.</p> <p>Last year, there were a record 131 exonerations nationwide according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Of those exonerated, six were serving time on death row.</p> <p>During that same time period, six new Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) were established at district attorney offices across the country, increasing the total number of units by about one-third. CIUs conduct reviews of wrongful conviction claims and were responsible for 49 exonerations in 2014, more than for all previous years combined. But the structure and number of exonerations of each individual CIU varies markedly, leading to different systems by which the district attorneys who prosecute crimes are reviewed.</p> <p>In New York City, where each borough has a corresponding DA, the Manhattan and Brooklyn District Attorney Offices have a CIU and Conviction Review Unit (CRU), respectively. The other boroughs do not currently have formal review units. Like other CIUs, the New York City-based units vary in both organization and outcomes.</p> <p>Former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes formed a CIU in 2011 that resulted in two exonerations. But many, including current Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson, who defeated Hynes in 2013, felt that Hynes was incapable of adequately looking into convictions that were secured during his nearly quarter-century tenure.</p> <p>"My predecessor called it the Conviction Integrity Unit, but I thought the process in place did not have integrity. And so, I changed the name and called it the Conviction Review Unit," Thompson <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWIYZPFqqyM&amp;feature=youtu.be" target="_blank">said</a> while speaking at a New York City Bar Association event last year.</p> <p>Since Thompson established the CRU in 2014, he has allocated an annual budget of $1.1 million to the unit. "If you're serious about the idea that the job of a district attorney and a prosecutor is to do justice, not merely to secure convictions," says Mark Hale, Chief of the Brooklyn CRU, "then the books don't close on these cases. You should always be pursuing justice, even long after the jury has reached their verdict."</p> <p>The Brooklyn CRU secured ten exonerations last year and has been touted by some as a model. Two of the ten exonerated individuals died while incarcerated and had their convictions vacated posthumously. These examples show how costly wrongful convictions - and delayed reviews when questions arise - can be. The other eight men whose convictions were overturned were facing maximum sentences of life in prison. The CRU <a href="http://www.brooklynda.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/conviction-review-Timeline-VI-2000x1110.jpg" target="_blank">has produced</a> an additional three exonerations in 2015, including one involving a defendant who was facing possible deportation.</p> <p>The Manhattan CIU, created by District Attorney Cyrus Vance in 2010, was the first of its kind within the five boroughs. Since its inception, the unit has reviewed more than 160 cases, reinvestigated 14 cases, and vacated five convictions, according to an office spokesperson who declined a request for an interview. As of January 2015, The National Registry of Exonerations lists four vacated convictions by the Manhattan CIU that meet the registry's criteria for exonerations. The vacated convictions include two robberies, one assault, and one sexual assault.</p> <p>"To me, that office has zero credibility," says Jeffrey Deskovic, who was wrongfully convicted in Westchester County and exonerated after spending nearly 16 years in prison. Deskovic, who founded The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, cites the Jon-Adrian Velazquez case in which the Manhattan CIU <a href="http://investigations.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/04/06/17630807-manhattan-da-keeps-high-profile-murder-conviction-intact-after-review" target="_blank">upheld a murder conviction</a> despite recanted eyewitness testimony and a lack of physical evidence linking Velazquez to the crime.</p> <p>But Barry Scheck, co-founder of The Innocence Project, a national organization that works to reverse wrongful convictions on the basis of DNA evidence, stresses CIUs are evolving entities. While Scheck views comparisons between the two New York district attorney offices as unproductive, he also acknowledges there are certain factors that increase the effectiveness of a particular CIU over another.</p> <p>"The successful CIUs have been ones where the person who has supervisory responsibility is a former defense lawyer," says Scheck, pointing to renowned defense attorney Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr.'s role as advisor to the Brooklyn CRU. "You really need from a cognitive point of view a completely different perspective because it's very hard to de-bias people who are working within offices, prosecutors particularly, for quite a number of years," says Scheck.</p> <p>The latter point has been a criticism of CIUs. Essentially, a wrongful conviction is admission that the district attorney's office responsible for the case got the prosecution wrong in the first place. When those cases involve prosecutors and a district attorney who are still in office, the objectivity of the review process is called into question. As of January 2015, individual CIUs ranged in number of exonerations from zero to as many as 33.</p> <p>In addition to Sullivan's role as advisor, the Brooklyn CRU employs the use of an independent review panel. The panel reviews and makes non-binding recommendations to the district attorney's office regarding wrongful conviction claims. The panel is comprised of three attorneys who are not employed by the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office.</p> <p>The Manhattan CIU has a Conviction Integrity Policy Advisory Panel comprised of criminal justice experts, including Scheck, who advise "the Office on national best practices and evolving issues in the area of wrongful convictions" according to a Manhattan District Attorney press release. The panel does not review cases, which are handled internally by the Manhattan CIU.</p> <p>The Brooklyn CRU's comparably high rate of exonerations can be traced to other factors as well. Four of the Brooklyn CRU's exonerations last year involved cases handled by former police detective Louis Scarcella, who has been accused of coercing witnesses and intimidating suspects into making false confessions.</p> <p>"In doing the number of cases for the years that we did," says Hale, "those cases of violent crimes in the volume that we did, it would be foolhardy to believe mistakes weren't made in some of those." But Hale points to other factors in the unit's success, including a dedicated staff whose sole responsibility is to review wrongful conviction claims.</p> <p>While the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office processed a high volume of cases during New York City's crime-ridden 1980s and '90s, a 2015 report issued by the National Registry of Exonerations asserts that the borough is not unique. The report refers to the number of exonerations in Brooklyn as "an impressive accomplishment" but maintains "there is no reason to believe that the problem it addresses is restricted to Brooklyn. The concentration of false murder convictions in Brooklyn in the 1980s and '90s," the report continues, "is often explained by a crisis in law enforcement: a murder rate about 5 times what it is now, and limited resources to investigate and prosecute those murders."</p> <p>But the report argues that similar conditions existed throughout the five boroughs as well as in other urban areas nationwide. "If the same resources were devoted to similar cases from other cities," <a href="http://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/Exonerations_in_2014_report.pdf" target="_blank">the report</a> maintains, "many additional false murder convictions would no doubt be found."</p> <p>The number of homicide and homicide-related arrests, such as criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter, disposed in Brooklyn during the '80s and '90s was one-and-a-half times the rate of homicide-related arrests disposed in Manhattan. However, the total number of felony arrest dispositions during the same time period was higher in Manhattan than in Brooklyn.</p> <p>Currently, the Manhattan CIU reviews serious felony offenses including homicide, rape, burglary, and robbery. Earlier this year, the Brooklyn CRU expanded its review to include non-homicide felony offenses as well. Since that expansion, the Brooklyn CRU has secured two exonerations in non-homicide felony cases.</p> <p>Acknowledging the lack of CIUs in many other localities, Hale concurs with the report's finding and notes, "There are other people who probably would find the same proportion or the same numbers of exonerations if, in fact, they were looking."</p> <p>Brooklyn DA Thompson's fresh eyes have undoubtedly helped the office take a deeper look into the relatively old convictions that were obtained primarily during the Hynes administration. Will those eyes remain as sharp once convictions secured under Thompson's leadership are called into question?</p> <p>"It comes down to the will of the D.A.," Thompson acknowledged during his speech last year. "I can't say that there will never be anyone wrongfully convicted under my tenure, but I can tell you that I'm going to take swift action."</p> <p>***<br />Brooke L. Williams is a freelance&nbsp;multimedia journalist based in New York City. She reports on the criminal justice system with an emphasis on those wrongfully convicted. You can follow her on Twitter <a href="https://twitter.com/WilliamsLBrooke" target="_blank">@williamslbrooke<br /></a><a href="https://twitter.com/GothamGazette" target="_blank">@GothamGazette</a></p>