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Wrongful Convictions in Brooklyn Due to 'Systemic Failures,' DA Says

By Murray Weiss | April 18, 2016 7:19am
 Kenneth Thompson speaking to reporters July 27, 2011.
Kenneth Thompson speaking to reporters July 27, 2011.
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DNAinfo/Shayna Jacobs

BROOKLYN — District Attorney Kenneth Thompson shot down the idea that reputed rogue Det. Louis Scarcella was to blame for all of the wrongful convictions that have come to light in Brooklyn — saying that "systemic failures" by prosecutors, judges and even defense attorneys share more of the responsibility.

“It is unfortunate that when (people) talk about wrongful convictions that they tag Detective Scarcella with it all,” Thompson said during a recent appearance where he was asked about the retired NYPD detective and the relationship between the NYPD and DA offices.

“Let me be clear, they were not all Detective Scarcella’s cases," he said, explaining that Scarcella was linked to only six of the 19 exonerations by Thompson's Conviction Review Unit since it launched in 2014.

"That is important," Thompson continued, "because there are a lot of people who never met him, (and) this reflects a whole systemic failure, not just by prosecutors, but by judges, by defense attorneys,” Thompson said during an appearance at a monthly meeting of the Society of Silurians, telling current and former veteran journalists that in some cases lawyers waived their right to make opening statements on behalf of their clients.

“A detective could not pull this off on his own.”

Standing in front of the photos of 19 prisoners who were freed — many after decades behind bars — the DA highlighted several cases where it "was not just one cop" responsible for wrongful convictions.

One of those exonerated, Jonathan Fleming, spent 24 years behind bars after a conviction for murder despite powerful alibi evidence — a Disneyland receipt that showed he was in Florida at the time of the attack. However, the reciept found in his wallet on the day he was arrested was never turned over to defense lawyers and “the jurors never heard that evidence," Thompson said.

In another case, 49-year-old Andre Hatchett was released last month after spending 25 years in prison, convicted of brutally beating a woman to death and then dragging her body across a park. The judge, prosecutors and even his own defense lawyers ignored the fact that Hatchett lacked the physical ability to commit the crime because, a week earlier, he was shot in the neck and leg and required an apparatus to help him breathe, wore a cast on his wounded leg and used crutches to get around, the DA said.

“His lawyer never argued that he did not have the physical ability to do that crime, and neither did the judge presiding over that trial, and the prosecutor,” Thompson said.

The DA also partly blamed the high volume of crime in the 1980s and 1990s that  overburdened even well-intentioned lawmen and jurists into making tragic mistakes that “ruined peoples lives.”

He said the mindset at the time was to push "shaky” cases through the system and “let the (grand jury) sort it out” and, if there was an indictment, to “let a jury figure it out and see what happens.”

“I hope those days are over,” he said, concluding that district attorneys throughout the country should embrace the desire to free innocent people and to worry less about how it might impact their re-election.

“I think we have to develop a new generation of prosecutors that understand that, we have to protect public safety and that we have convict people, but that our sole goal can't just be convictions,” he said, explaining how he rejected an applicant with a Yale Law degree graduate because she said, 'I want to convict, I want to convict.'

"That is not what we want."