As reported in the New York Times, two men were recently exonerated through proceedings in the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission based on DNA evidence that demonstrated the real criminal was another original suspect who had committed a similar crime. The two men each had served thirty years in prison, one on death row.
North Carolina of course is the only state in the United States with an independent commission established to examine the innocence claims of wrongly convicted individuals. England and Wales and Scotland have long had these commissions – the Criminal Cases Review Commissions. Although they obviously have critics, these commissions have functioned effectively – miraculously from a US perspective – in independently investigating (with subpoena power) and then referring cases to the court of appeal for review.
We should re-think our opposition to establishing independent commissions that can impartially and thoroughly investigate claims of wrongful conviction. Finality is an important value, yes, and we commit a tremendous amount of resources to the pre-conviction resolution of criminal charges. But it’s important to realize that the North Carolina courts and presumably the federal courts, did nothing to correct the manifestly erroneous convictions in this case. Were it not for the Commission, the convictions would stand. Can the correction of these so manifestly erroneous North Carolina convictions rationally be seen as threatening to our finality values?
Aside from the overriding importance of freeing the wrongly convicted, the public’s perception of the justice and reliability of our criminal process is deteriorating. One of the best and probably most cost-effective way to restore it is to establish direct review innocence commissions in our states.
- Kenneth Rose, I Just Freed an Innocent Man from Death Row. And I’m Still Furious., The Washington Post (Sept. 4, 2014).
- Jonathan M. Katz, From Death Row to Unfamiliar World, New York Times, Sept. 4, 2014, at A17.
- Editorial Board, The Innocent on Death Row, New York Times (Sept. 3, 2014).
- Jonathan M. Katz, North Carolina Men Are Released After Convictions Are Overturned, New York Times (Sept. 3, 2014).
- Jonathan M. Katz & Erik Eckholm, DNA Evidence Clears Two Men in 1983 Murder, New York Times (Sept. 2, 2014).
- North Carolina Launches ‘Innocence Board’, NPR Law (Aug. 5, 2006).
Related Journal Articles:
On February 27, 2014, the NY Appellate Division, First Department, unanimously affirmed a prior judgment entered in Bronx County of New York (Clark, D.), vacating Tyrone Hicks’ conviction for Attempted Rape in the First Degree (PL § 110/130.35) and Attempted Sodomy in the First Degree (PL § 110/130.50), based upon his presentation of DNA evidence that had been unearthed by his lawyer, Professor Adele Bernhard of New York Law School. At trial, the only evidence linking Hicks to the crime was the uncorroborated eyewitness identification by the victim. The jury rejected Hicks’ alibi defense, which consisted of testimony from his son-in-law, who claimed that Hicks was home when the attack occurred.
In 2009, Professor Bernhard, who directs the NYLS Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic, successfully obtained testing of genetic material found under the victim’s fingernails that had been collected shortly after the crime. The results of such testing concluded that there was male genetic material recovered from the victim’s fingernail scrapings that did not match the defendant’s DNA. Professor Bernhard petitioned the court to vacate Hick’s conviction based upon both the DNA results, and the likelihood that Hicks had been misidentified as the assailant.
In vacating Hicks’ conviction, the Bronx County Court concluded that a new trial was warranted under CPL § 440.10 (1) (g), since the results of the DNA testing “could not have been discovered prior to [Hicks’] trial,” and were “unquestionably material to the issues of identity” – undermining the “sole evidence connecting [Hicks] to the crime.” The court observed that “the DNA test results ruling out the defendant’s genetic profile [had] pronounced forensic value where there [was] multiple differing descriptions of the perpetrator by the sole identifying witness and no physical evidence linking the defendant to the crime.” Id. at 4. The court explained that the jury may have seen it to be “a particularly powerful piece of evidence, especially where the identity of [the] attacker was the primary issue at trial.”
The Appellate Court upheld the lower court’s decision to vacate the conviction based upon the defendant’s showing that the DNA results created a “reasonable probability that he would have obtained a more favorable verdict.” The Court also concluded that “the DNA evidence [was] material and exculpatory because it support[ed] identifying someone other than defendant as the attacker.” Notably, the Court rejected the government’s claim that the DNA results were cumulative, and not newly discovered under CPL 440.10 (g). Specifically, the Court noted that given the recent amendments to CPL 440.10, namely CPL 440.10 (1) (g-1), the defendant “no longer ha[d] to show that the results of [DNA] testing is newly discovered evidence in order to seek vacatur of a judgment of conviction.”
Providing compensation for wrongfully convicted individuals has been an ongoing dilemma within the United States and for governments abroad. A recent blog, Compensating Exonerees: US v. UK, by Professor Lissa Griffin of Pace Law School discusses the UK’s current struggle to articulate a standard of proof for exonerees who are seeking compensation.
- Griffin, Lissa, International Perspectives on Correcting Wrongful Convictions: The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, William & Mary Bill of Rights, Vol. 21, No. 4 (2013).
- Griffin, Lissa, Correcting Injustice: Studying How the United Kingdom and the United States Review Claims of Innocence, 41 University of Toledo Law Review 107 (Fall 2009).
- Griffin, Lissa, The Correction of Wrongful Convictions: A Comparative Perspective, 16 American University International Law Review 5 (2001).
- Wrongful conviction compensation statutes, CNN U.S. (last visited March 5, 2014).
Two developments in New York State took place last week that may reveal a less strict approach to compensating exonerees. First, David Ranta, a man who was framed by Brooklyn detective Louis Scarcella and served 23 years in prison for a murder he did not commit reached an agreement with the office of the City Comptroller, Scott Stringer, to receive $6.4 million in compensation. Ranta’s $150 million claim was settled by the city comptroller, Scott Stringer, without a law suit ever being filed and thus without involving the City’s legal department. This was the first case to be disposed of by the new Conviction Integrity Unit in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, and that office joined in the application to vacate the conviction. While Stringer took some heat for this decision, he made clear that spending millions of dollars and many years in litigation would not do anyone justice in a case where the district attorney joined in the motion to vacate the conviction.
Second, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced legislation that would allow people who have confessed or pleaded guilty to a crime they did not commit to sue the state for damages. This change seemingly would go hand in hand with the amendment to N.Y. CPL § 440 that allowed convicted defendants who had plead guilty to bring a post-conviction motion for DNA testing. As Schneiderman noted in his announcement, 10 of the 27 people in New York who have had their convictions vacated based on DNA had falsely confessed or pleaded guilty. Such people will be able to sue for compensation even if they cannot prove that their confession or guilty plea was coerced. The proposed bill would also extend the statute of limitations for wrongful conviction compensation claims from two to three years.
These developments make sense. NYC Comptroller Stringer’s decision to settle a claim without years of expensive litigation is a welcome breath of fresh air in our overly contentious adversary system and will allow the millions that would have been spent on defending the indefensible to be used to pay other wrongfully convicted individuals or for other important criminal justice purposes. Similarly, given what we now know about the causes of wrongful conviction, we should welcome the end of our pretending that false confessions do not exist.
- Frances Robles, Man Framed by Detective Will Get $6.4 Million From New York City After Serving 23 Years for Murder, The New York Times (Feb. 20, 2014).
- Joel Stashenko, Wrongfully Convicted Get Support from AG’s Proposed Bill, NYLJ (Feb. 20, 2014).
- Attorney General Eric Schneiderman: Wrongfully Convicted May See State Aid, Brooklyn News 12 (Feb. 19, 2014).
- Glenn Blain, AG Push for Help to Wrongly Convicted, Daily News (Feb. 18, 2014).
- Schneiderman Backs Claims for Wrongful Convictions, The Wall Street Journal Online (Feb. 18, 2014).
The murder convictions of two men, Sharrif Wilson and Antonio Yarbough, were vacated by N.Y.S. Supreme Court Justice Raymond Guzman last week. The two men were 15 and 18 at the time of the murders and each had served 21 years in prison. District Attorney Ken Thompson consented to the vacatur and promptly dismissed the cases against them.
The two teenagers had been out together when Antonio Yarbrough returned home to find the grisly murder scene: his mother, young sister, and another young girl had been brutally murdered. The men consistently maintained their innocence and no physical evidence connected them to the crime. Last year, testing of material under Yarbrough’s mother’s fingernails revealed DNA that matched a subsequent rape and murder that occurred while the two were in prison. The killer remains unidentified.
- Antonio Yarbrough, Sharrif Wilson Exonerated For Triple Murder After Decades in Prison, Huffington Post (Feb. 9, 2014).
- Wrongfully Imprisoned Men Antonio Yarbough and Sharrif Wilson join “Piers Morgan Live”, Piers Morgan Live (Feb. 7, 2014).
- Haley Draznin, DNA Evidence Frees 2 Brooklyn Men Convicted in 1992 Triple Murder, CNN Justice (Feb. 6, 2014).
- Gabrielle Fonrouge, DNA Clears Men After 21 Years in Prison for Family’s Murder, New York Post (Feb. 6, 2014).
- Denis Hamill, Hamill: Tony Yarbough’s Brooklyn Murder Conviction Should be Reversed, Daily News (Jan. 19, 2014).