Report Blames Prosecutor Missteps In Botched NYC Convictions

Steve Burns
July 09, 2020 - 7:48 pm

    NEW YORK (AP/WCBS 880) — Prosecutors withheld evidence, elicited false testimony and made other missteps that contributed to botched convictions for murder and other violent crimes in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s, according to a report released Thursday by the same office that brought the cases in the first place.

    The findings by a conviction review unit for the Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez's office also cited more familiar factors like false confessions, misidentifications, unreliable witnesses and deceptive police work in 25 cases that were finally overturned in recent years.

    Gonzalez says the entire report was about transparency.

    “I don't think we can get to a place of community trust and reconciliation and trusting our law enforcement unless we are transparent,” he said.

    Perhaps the most striking information from the report was how police took aim at prosecutors for their role in convictions that put the wrongly accused, many Black homicide defendants, behind bars for up to 20 years.

    The report, aided by the Innocence Project and an outside law firm, looks at the work of the Conviction Review Unit, which has helped free 25 wrongfully convicted citizens from 2014 to 2019. 

    Gonzalez notes, collectively, they have spent 426 years in prison.

    Most of these mistakes were preventable, the district attorney says.

    “A lot of the bad results that came out of it was due to tunnel vision during the investigations,” said Gonzalez.

    In 85% of the cases, mistakes were made by prosecutors. Police made mistakes in 65% of the cases, according to the report. 

    “They automatically eliminated or did not pay significant attention to things that were inconsistent to their theory,” Gonzalez said.

    The findings show the “devastating human toll caused by these miscarriages of justice - and how many of them could have been prevented before they became wrongful convictions,” said Nina Morrison, Senior Litigation Counsel with the Innocence Project.

    The report stops short of accusing prosecutors of deliberate misconduct, instead suggesting they bought into a rush-to-judgement attitude in an era of soaring crime rates. It says there's evidence they ignored obvious flaws in cases that were clear grounds for dropping them, including one involving a man who gave a false confession that he stabbed his victim in the heart.

    An autopsy revealed the next day that “in fact the victim had been shot, not stabbed,” the report says. At that point, the decision to go forward “should have been rethought,” the report says. There also was evidence that a detective was misleading about how he got the confession, a transgression that was glossed over by prosecutors at trial, it says.

    In 10 cases, “prosecutors failed to disclose relevant evidence to the defense in a manner that prevented the jury from fairly considering the defendant's guilt,” the reports says.

    Errors across the board, it concludes, “could have been avoided by the more faithful exercise of law enforcement functions, greater skepticism in investigations, discretion in prosecution and diligence in defense.”

    (2020 © WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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