Brooklyn district lawyer’s Conviction Evaluation Unit examines 25 wrongful convictions

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Brooklyn district attorney's Conviction Review Unit examines 25 wrongful convictions

BROOKLYN — More than two dozen exonerees spent huge portions of their lives behind bars because of prosecutorial and police misconduct, among other factors, according to a Thursday report by Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez.

The report, “426 Years: An Examination of 25 Wrongful Convictions in Brooklyn, New York” chronicles 25 cases that were identified by the Conviction Review Unit (CRU) since its 2014 inception.

The crimes in the report dated back to 1963 and happened as recently as 2011.

“The magnitude of years lost to wrongful imprisonment in these cases is almost unbearable — together, they add up to 426 years spent in prison,” Gonzalez stated in a letter about the report.

“The purpose of ‘426 Years’ is to underscore some of the common factors that lead to wrongful convictions, and ultimately to avoid such miscarriages of justice from happening in the future in Brooklyn and throughout the nation,” the district attorney said in a tweet.

Each case examined shows the “complete tragedy” for not only the person who was wrongfully convicted and incarcerated, but also for their community, and the victims and survivors of the incidents.

All but one of the wrongfully convicted people in the cases were people of color, the report noted.

The CRU determined some evidence disclosed in the cases was not reliable and that police, prosecutors and defense played a role in failing to identify or generate reliability issues.

In nearly all the exonerations, at least one factor of the prosecution’s case exhibited credibility problems.

Common factors that supported the CRU’s recommendations to vacate one or more convictions included:

  • False or unreliable confession: Seven defendants claimed they were influenced to confess by the psychological persuasion during police interrogations and physical abuse in some cases. The confessions had included indicators of unreliability, which included inconsistencies with evidence and inadequate details.
  • Eyewitness misidentification: Five exonerations involved eyewitnesses who made unreliable identifications. The CRU identified limitations on the witnesses’ ability to view and retain an ID in each of the cases. For instance, in one case, the witness was the victim of a rape by multiple people. Since she was under “tremendous stress during the attack,” her accounts varied over time and had “made an honest, but tragic mistake in ultimately identifying the defendant as an assailant.”
  • Significant witness credibility issues: The CRU found inconsistencies with several key witnesses, but the issues were not adequately presented to jurors at the trials. In one case, two witnesses’ descriptions of a shooting were “so different,” it seemed as if they were describing two separate murders.
  • Non disclosure of favorable evidence: The CRU found that in 10 of the cases, favorable or highly exculpatory evidence that could have claimed a defendant’s innocence appeared to not have been disclosed to the defense, which prevented juries from having critical information before issuing verdicts.
  • Police conduct: The CRU concluded police engaged in what appeared to be “serious misconduct.” In three cases, the CRU found police engaged in a combination of coaching people to make an identification, failure to provide information to the prosecutor and/or false testimony in pretrial hearings.
  • Prosecutorial conduct: The CRU found many of the cases presented questions about reliability or sufficiency of the evidence that should have been, but were not, addressed before the prosecution was pursued. Several prosecutors failed to meet standards, whether it be through director examination, cross-examination or mischaracterizing testimony on critical questions presented to the jury.“A prosecutor’s role is not simply to win cases, but to ensure that justice is done,” according to the unit.
  • Defense Conduct: The CRU cited deficiencies of the defense counsel as a key factor supporting its recommendation to vacate the convictions in eight cases. This included the defense counsel’s failure to conduct adequate pre-trial investigations to inform their defense strategy. The CRU also found that other defense counsel were “unprepared for trial” and made minimal efforts to defend their clients.
  • New evidence, witness interview, expert consultation: The CRU may have spoken to new witnesses, prior witnesses or conducted new expert analyses, and in seven cases, the CRU conducted new expert or scientific analysis in DNA testing, fire science, medical evidence, and forensic psychology that was not available in the original trials.

Gonzalez acknowledged the report was released amid unrest across the nation following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in the custody of a White officer in Minneapolis.

“We are asked to do better, and I believe we can and will. And I believe that to do better, we must reckon with and be transparent about the mistakes of the past — particularly in the institutions in which we now work,” Gonzalez said.