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Accountability Needed in Wrongful Conviction Cases, Brooklyn Boro Prez Says

By Gwynne Hogan | July 18, 2017 10:49am
 Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is calling for the state to fully investigate wrongful convictions to find parties responsible for them accountable he announced Tuesday.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is calling for the state to fully investigate wrongful convictions to find parties responsible for them accountable he announced Tuesday.
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DNAinfo/Nikhita Venugopal

BROOKLYN — Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is calling for a independent state commission to review wrongful convictions and determine who's responsible for them in a jab at the Brooklyn District Attorney's office — which has exonerated 23 men but so far not held anyone accountable for the botched cases, his office announced Monday.

The state's former chief judge Jonathan Lippman, who authored a plan to close Rikers Island, would head the commission, The Daily News reported.

"The work of the Conviction Review Unit at the Brooklyn DA’s Office, initiated by former DA Ken Thompson, has been critically important, but it is not the period at the end of the sentence that spells justice," Adams said. "The question is what went wrong, who was involved, and what can we do to prevent it from ever happening again."

The announcement comes less than a week after a wrongfully convicted Brownsville man, Jabbar Washington, 43, was released from prison after spending 20 years behind bars for a robbery and shooting he didn't commit.

Washington was the 23rd person to be exonerated under the Brooklyn District Attorney's Conviction Review Unit, which late DA Ken Thompson launched after taking office in 2014. His efforts to exonerate prisoners who'd been wrongfully convicted were heralded by criminal justice reformers across the nation. 

The unit, now headed by acting DA Eric Gonzalez, helped 23 men regain their freedom, but so far no one in law enforcement has been held accountable for the wrongful convictions. Eight of them were tied to disgraced former NYPD Det. Louis Scarcella, according to the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office, though more than 70 of his cases have been identified as needing further investigation. 

In many of the convictions, key evidence had been withheld from defense attorneys, according to the District Attorney's office. That includes Washington, who was at first identified by a witness who spoke with Scarcella as the person behind a fatal shooting inside a Brownsville drug den in 1995.

The witness later clarified that she recognized Washington as someone who used to live in her building, but that information never made its way to defense attorneys, Assistant District Attorney Mark Hale said.

Former DA Thompson had maintained that the wrongful convictions were a result of "systemic failures." Acting DA Gonzalez, who took over for Thompson when he died of cancer in October, has not found any prosecutors or police at fault since then.

Ama Dwimoh, who works in the Borough President's office as special counsel, is running to replace Gonzalez as DA. She's been an outspoken critic of the acting-DA for failing to hold prosecutors accountable in wrongful conviction cases.

Following the press conference Monday, Gonzalez, side-stepped the accountability issue, but touted the office's widely acclaimed Conviction Review Unit. He promised to work with Adam's proposed state commission to expand the initiative to other areas.

"I will be happy to share our programs and expertise with any commission dedicated to this important issue and my hope is that our practices will be adopted throughout the State, as they have been in a number of jurisdictions across the country," he said.

"We have a lot of work ahead of us, but I'm proud of our efforts to identify and vacate wrongful convictions and will continue this important work irrespective of any politically-motivated attacks."

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Detective Scarcella had been tied to at least 19 exoneration cases. Scarcella was linked to eight cases.