Brooklyn District Attorney Publishes Report That Analyzes And Presents the Findings of His Conviction Review Unit

Thursday, July 9, 2020


Brooklyn District Attorney Publishes Report That Analyzes
And Presents the Findings of His Conviction Review Unit

First-of-its-Kind Study Conducted with the Innocence Project and WilmerHale Law Firm;
Examined Cases of 25 Wrongfully Convicted People Who Spent a Combined 426 Years in Prison

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, together with the Innocence Project and the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP, today announced the publication of a Report titled, 426 Years: An Examination of 25 Wrongful Convictions in Brooklyn, New York that illustrates and explains the findings and processes followed by his Conviction Review Unit (CRU) in connection with its first 20 cases that led to the exonerations of 25 individuals. It is the first such review of a CRU to be authored on the topic in partnership with a prosecutor’s office.

The Unit, which was established in 2014, is the largest dedicated CRU and is considered a national model. Its case reviews have led to the reversal of 28 wrongful convictions to date. The purpose of the Report is to provide a new level of transparency and to underscore some of the common factors that lead to wrongful convictions, and ultimately to avoid such miscarriages of justice from happening in the future in Brooklyn and throughout the nation.

District Attorney Gonzalez said, “I am very proud of Brooklyn’s Conviction Review Unit and the commitment to justice it represents. With this Report, we hope to share the methods, analyses and findings of the CRU with others around the country who are engaged in this critical work, and with the public at large. Wrongful convictions devastate lives – each one of the 25 cases in this Report is its own tragedy – and strike at the heart of our criminal justice system.

“For us to build community trust, especially now, when so many people in this country are expressing anger and despair with the system, we must reckon with and be transparent about the mistakes of the past. We must also learn from these errors so that we can avoid them in the future. It is my hope that this study will contribute to these goals. I am grateful to the Innocence Project and WilmerHale LLP for their extensive work to create this first of its kind Report.”

“Today’s groundbreaking report marks the first time an elected District Attorney has conducted a comprehensive study of his office’s own wrongful convictions,” said Nina Morrison, Senior Litigation Counsel with the Innocence Project. “This report shows the devastating human toll caused by these miscarriages of justice – and how many of them could have been prevented before they became wrongful convictions. We look forward to working with policymakers and advocates to take the lessons learned from this study to reform the system and prevent future injustices like these.”

“Doing justice must be the first duty of District Attorneys. This Report is born of that duty and recognizes that in these cases the system failed. Wrongful convictions are tragedies for the individuals whose lives are damaged, for their families and communities, and they also erode the trust in the legal system that our democracy requires,” said Debo P. Adegbile, a WilmerHale partner and co-chair of the firm’s Anti-discrimination Practice who oversaw the firm’s pro bono team that participated in analysis and drafting of the Report. “District Attorney Gonzalez’s commitment to sharing these tragic stories publicly is commendable. Correcting miscarriages of justice and learning how to avoid them is important for those directly affected, and indeed for all of us.”

The Report is organized by sections, each discussing a contributing factor for wrongful convictions. It uses CRU investigations and findings as case studies because each of the 25   exonerations feature one or more of these eight factors:

  • False or Unreliable Confessions
  • Eyewitness Misidentifications
  • Significant Witness Credibility Issues
  • Nondisclosure of Favorable Evidence
  • Police Conduct
  • Prosecutor Conduct
  • Defense Conduct
  • New Evidence, Witness Interviews and Expert Consultations

Most of the cases examined in the Report pertain to crimes that took place in the 1980s and 1990s, with the oldest crime occurring in 1963 and the most recent in 2011. All but one of the 25 exonerees are people of color. While racial bias is a factor in wrongful convictions, the Report doesn’t directly address the issue because it is focused on factual findings in each particular case and not on structural or underlying reasons for injustice.

Brooklyn’s CRU recommends that a conviction be overturned under circumstances where the defendant was “legally innocent,” either due to actual innocence, grossly insufficient evidence or insurmountable reasonable doubt; or the investigation reveals credible facts, circumstances or events which so grossly corrupted the fact-finding process as to substantially deny the defendant a fair adjudication, thereby violating due process rights.

Under New York law, convictions that have been vacated and dismissed are typically sealed and remain confidential. Given the importance of this research to the justice system and, in particular, because the lessons learned from these wrongful convictions may prevent future miscarriages of justice, the authors obtained judicial permission to unseal certain records from these cases for purposes of writing the Report. The study relied on the internal memoranda that CRU routinely issues for each case, recounting its investigation and analysis and explaining the circumstances in which it recommends that the District Attorney seeks to vacate a given conviction. The authors built the Report from the analyses contained in the CRU’s memoranda and conducted no independent or new investigations into the cases.

The initial review of the memos was performed by at least two reviewers from outside the Brooklyn DA’s Office (one from the Innocence Project’s Department of Science and Research, and at least one attorney from WilmerHale) using structured questionnaires. The first questionnaire was designed to extract information about attributes of the crime, evidence, investigation and prosecution; the second gathered information about witnesses who were key to the prosecution’s case (with separate questionnaires for each witness); and the third covered a broader range of categories, including actions and failures by police, prosecutors, and defense, and the different kinds of forensic and other evidence. Following that process, summary analyses were performed that helped to categorize the cases and identify common themes.

The Innocence Project is a national nonprofit organization based in New York City which was founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld and is affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. The Innocence Project works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted and advocates for broader changes in the criminal justice system to prevent wrongful convictions. In recent years, it has worked closely with many District Attorneys – including the Brooklyn DA – to establish independent conviction review units (sometimes called conviction integrity units) within prosecutors’ offices and to develop best practices for those units.

Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP is an international law firm with nearly 850 lawyers and offices in 13 cities. The firm has a long and proud history of advocating for equal justice, including in the area of criminal justice.

The Report’s authors and advisors from the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office were Tali Farhadian Weinstein, General Counsel, Mark Hale, Chief of the Post-Conviction Justice Bureau and CRU, and Rachel Nash, CRU Deputy Chief.  The authors and researchers from the Innocence Project were Nina Morrison, Senior Litigation Counsel, Glinda Cooper, Director of Science and Research, and Vanessa Meterko, Research Analyst. The authors and researchers from WilmerHale were Debo P. Adegbile, Jeanine Alvarez, Emma Bennett, Alyssa R. Budihas, Danielle Calamari, Janet Carter, Matt Celestin, Ryan Chabot, Cyndy Chueh, Jamie Dycus, Alexandra Hiatt, Brittany Llewellyn, Saurabh Sanghvi, and Jarret Zafran.

Additional colleagues from WilmerHale who supported the completion of the Report included Casandra Ferrante, Frank James, Lauren Kennedy, Amy Szydlo, and Flor Zervoudis. Serrin Ransom, Design Director, of GMMB provided graphic design support for the Report.