Articles Posted in Wrongful Conviction

I blogged about this case before when the judge granted the monkeys a hearing.  But I find it fascinating and wanted to post an update.

In a case watched closely by animal rights activists, a State Supreme Court judge in Manhattan recently denied a petition by a not-for-profit animal rights group seeking to free a pair of chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, being held at a state university on Long Island.

The petition sought a writ of habeas corpus (a time-honored process of challenging imprisonment as unlawful) for the chimps. The group argued that the animals are so genetically superior to other animals and so similar to humans (they share 99% of DNA with humans) that they should be deemed “human” at least to the extent that they should not be locked up without good cause. Expert affidavits were submitted attesting to the monkeys’ language prowess, intelligence, and personalities.  Among other human-like traits, chimps have a keen sense of self-awareness (they recognize themselves in a mirror).

Meet my future client.

This week a New York judge granted two chimpanzees a hearing to challenge their confinement at Stony Brook University. Well, actually the judge granted the hearing to the chimps’ lawyers, who are said to be a bit more articulate than their clients.

The action was brought by “show cause order” on behalf of the chimps. This order, signed by the judge, requires the University to demonstrate why the chimpanzees should continue to be confined. The judge has not yet decided whether the chimps will get released.

If you’ve been wrongfully convicted of a crime, and you want to be compensated for it, you need to explore several legal avenues of redress. If there was some government wrongdoing – on behalf of the police, prosecutor, or judge — you may be able to bring a case based on “malicious prosecution” or based on deprivation of civil rights (42 U.S.C. 1983). But what if there really was no “wrongdoing” on the part of the prosecutor, judge or police? What if you were simply convicted – for example – based on mistaken identity?

That’s where Court of Claims Act §8-b can be a lifesaver. Under this very special Statute, you don’t have to prove anyone did anything wrong. All you have to prove is that you were convicted for a crime you did not commit, that the conviction was duly vacated, and that (by clear and convincing evidence) you were not guilty of that crime nor of any of the offenses for which you was charged.

One last thing: You must show that you “did not by [your] own conduct cause or bring about [your] conviction” (Court of Claims Act §8-b[5]). Why would you have done anything to bring about your own conviction? The most common way is if you were trying to protect someone else. Did you help cover up evidence that your spouse or friend did the crime? That might have done you in! Did you help bring about your own conviction by giving a non-coerced confession? Did you attempt to induce a witness to give false testimony, or attempt to suppress testimony, or testify untruthfully in court? If you did, a Court might find your own conduct caused your own wrongful conviction.

Wrongful convictions in New York are probably a lot more common than we think. But proving a wrongfully conviction is indeed rare. It’s not easy peeling away at a skillful prosecutor’s evidence, especially from behind bars.

But some convicts have done it. And when they do, we should all rejoice because, “but for the grace of God, there go I”.

Does society owe such a person compensation? You bet. And compensation is what happened today in New York when Jabbar Collins (shown in the photo), a man who spent 16 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, and then spent three years in litigation against the City of New York, reached a $10,000,000 settlement. That’s about $600,000 per year in prison.

These days, thanks to the “Innocent Project” and advances in DNA testing, more and more victims of wrongful conviction are able to prove their innocence, even after many years behind bars.

This gets them out of jail, and under certain conditions, arms them with a claim against the State of New York to get money compensation for their nightmare behind bars. In New York, Court of Claims Act section 8-b says the wrongfully convicted can seek compensation from the State if they prove they are innocent and “did not by their own conduct bring about the conviction.” Courts have interpreted this language to mean that someone who falsely confesses to the crime cannot sue for compensation. After all, if you tell the D.A. “yeah, I did it”, you arguably “brought about your own conviction”, right?

Maybe. But that begs the question of why someone would confess to a crime they did not commit. Sounds silly to people who have never been under the grueling pressure of a tough interrogation for hour upon hour. But it makes sense to some of the accused at the time. Lengthy, tough interrogations do something to the human psyche. Sometimes people crack. Some folks have weaker constitutions than others. Especially those with serious mental or psychological problems, or who are too young to know what they were doing.

A small, inconspicuous article caught my eye in the Geneva Finger Lakes times today. It was titled, “Teen Inmate Found Hanging in Jail Cell” and described how a 17-year old at the Yates County Jail in Penn Yan had apparently hung himself Friday evening by tying his bed sheet to his jail bars.

Eighteen years is a long time, especially if you spend them in jail for a crime you did not commit. Just ask Frank Sterling of Rochester, New York. Local news sources report that DNA evidence recently cleared Mr. Sterling of murder. He had spent 18 long, hard, bitter years in jail for killing an elderly neighbor as she out for a walk on an old train track trail in Rochester. Only problem is he didn’t. Someone else did. But Mr. Sterling finally walked away a free man this past Wednesday.

How did he get convicted? Under heavy interrogation, Sterling made a mistake that too many innocent men make — he confessed. Why? To end the interrogation. He told his interrogators what they wanted to hear so they would stop. Sounds silly to people who have never been under that kind of grueling pressure for hour upon hour. But it makes sense to the accused at the time. Lengthy, tough interrogations do something to the human psyche. Sometimes people crack. Mr. Sterling cracked. Even though Mr. Sterling almost immediately disavowed his “confession”, it turned out to be the nail in his coffin at trial.

And the REAL murderer? Turns out he got away with it, but then killed a four-year-old girl six years later, and that time he got caught. He eventually confessed to both killings.

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