Describing injustice of an “almost unbearable” magnitude, Brooklyn’s District Attorney Eric Gonzalez this week released a report concluding that police and prosecutorial misconduct contributed to the wrongful convictions of 25 New Yorkers by his own office.
The deeply unsettling result was 426 wasted years in prison for serious crimes that each of the 25 people did not commit, including homicide, sexual assault and burglary.
Five of the 25 wrongfully convicted were 18 or younger at the time of their convictions, and they served from seven to 29 years before being exonerated. Only one of the 25 defendants is white.
“Each case described in these pages is itself a complete tragedy, for the person who was wrongfully convicted and incarcerated, for his or her community, for the victims and survivors of these cases, and indeed for all of us,” Gonzalez wrote in an introductory note to the 100-page report released Thursday. “I am mindful that we are publishing this Report at a time when the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the racial violence it has called up have filled so many Americans – including me – with anger and despair. Much of that anger and despair is directed at the criminal justice system, and those who work in it.”
Gonzalez’s report is a uniquely specific reveal from a top law enforcement official – and a bold public detailing of his predecessors’ mistakes.
The report states that police misconduct played a role in 18 of the 25 wrongful convictions. In 21 cases, the wrongful convictions involved prosecutorial misconduct.
One man identified in the report as Tony Stevens – names were all changed to protect the exonerees’ privacy – did not live to be exonerated. He died in prison after 15 years for carjacking-related murder, kidnapping, robbery and weapons charges filed against him when he was 16 years old. The case analysis led by Gonzalez’s Conviction Review Unit suggested that police had coerced the young teen into confessing, along with seven other exonerees, five of whom were 18 and younger.
The Conviction Review Unit within the prosecutors’ office was launched in 2014 to determine whether prosecutors used their broad discretionary powers “to secure a reliable, fair, and just conviction,” the report states. While many of the 25 vacated convictions in the report have been widely covered in the media in recent years, the new report details why the unit’s staff of eight full-time prosecutors recommended that the convictions be overturned.
“This is the first time that any elected prosecutor has invited outside lawyers/researchers to review the office’s own files from conviction review investigations and make those reasons public,” said Nina Morrison, senior litigation counsel for the Innocence Project, which assisted Gonzalez’s office and the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP.
Stevens’ case began in 1985, when a victim was carjacked and found dead the next day, shot to death with a .22 caliber revolver. Police pursued a vague tip from two men who should have been suspects, according to Gonzalez’s team, before settling on Stevens and another 16-year-old identified in the report as Scott Moore. Evidence indicated neither boy had a license, had ever driven a car before, nor had access to a car. Neither of the pair’s DNA or fingerprints were found on the stolen vehicle, and their appearance “in no way” matched descriptions from witnesses.
“To believe their confessions, one would have to accept that the two boys drove continuously for hours in traffic during the day from Queens to Brooklyn — while holding their victim in the backseat of the car at gunpoint — and then later gassed up the vehicle at a self-serve filling station and parallel parked on a street,” the Brooklyn prosecutors wrote.
Moore’s and Stevens’ videotaped confessions were “shockingly brief and perfunctory” for such an elaborate crime, the report says. The pair have claimed they were coerced by police. Moore said detectives slapped him in the face, and threatened to hit him with a chair, according to the review by the very office that prosecuted the pair.
Stevens and Moore were alleging that their confessions were false by the time their trials started, like all five other defendants in the report who falsely confessed. In all but one of those cases, the confessions were the only direct evidence presented in the trial to connect the defendant to the crime. Yet, in each instance, they were convicted by juries “in significant part on the basis of the confession.”
False confessions have been the subject of intense advocacy in recent decades, ever since DNA evidence first played a role overturning two convictions in 1989. The Innocence Project has counted 367 exonerations since, 17% involving defendants younger than age 21. Roughly 100 of the exonerations involved a false confession, nearly half of which came from innocents under the age of 21.
Gonzalez’s report quotes John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor of psychology Saul Kassin, who has found “strong evidence that juveniles are at risk of involuntary and false confessions in the interrogation room.”
The issue became the subject of national attention after the 2002 exoneration of five boys who were convicted for the brutal rape and assault of a jogger in New York’s Central Park. As a result, many states began requiring videotaped interrogations, with Virginia becoming the 27th state to do so last year. All federal law enforcement agencies record in-custody interrogations of crime suspects. New York enacted such a law in 2018.
“When They See Us,” the Ava DuVernay series on Netflix about the Central Park case, revived interest in the issue nationally last year and is helping advocates push for further reforms to interrogation, said Rebecca Brown, policy director of the New York-based Innocence Project.
Brown said taped interrogations were a “foundational” reform for proper fact-finding during criminal investigations because they allow investigators to properly evaluate the reliability of confessions and potentially deter or catch deceptive police conduct.
For example, New York state lawmakers are considering two bills that could have altered some of the cases in Gonzalez’s report. A bill from Brooklyn state Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D) would bar police from using false facts to deceive suspects during interrogations and require courts to review the reliability of confessions. Another bill, sponsored by Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D) of Brooklyn and Assemblywoman Latoya Joyner of the Bronx (D), would require that youth defendants consult with an attorney before waiving their right to remain silent, among other provisions.
The Innocence Project and the Legal Aid Society are supporting both bills, given that old false confessions continue to emerge, and the same frightening interrogation methods remain in use, Brown said. A Bronx man who falsely confessed to killing his mother at age 16 in 1991 had his conviction vacated as recently as last year.
“This isn’t a problem of the past,” she said.
Michael Fitzgerald can be reached at [email protected].
Megan Conn contributed reporting to this story.