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’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. But perhaps most striking was how they 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.
“In many of the cases, prosecutors erred by bringing the case at all,” the report says. “And, in a number of cases, prosecutors failed to adhere to expectations of candor and diligence, thereby denying the defendants a fair trial.”
The report, aided by the Innocence Project and an outside law firm, stems from the work of a unit formed in 2014 after a judge threw out the conviction of an inmate who claimed a Brooklyn detective had framed him. The effort grew to be considered one of the nation’s most ambitious efforts to revisit decades-old cases, uncover injustices and seek accountability.
So far, its case reviews have helped lead to judges throwing out 28 convictions. Those behind the report examining the first 25 exonerations said it was notable for being based in part on normally confidential case files that were unsealed by court in a search for the truth.
“For us to build community trust, especially now, when so many people in this country are expressing anger and despair with the system, we must reckon with and be transparent about the mistakes of the past,” District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said in a statement. “We must also learn from these errors so that we can avoid them in the future.”
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.”