Wrongful Conviction Round Up: Q2 2015

Around the country, innocent people continue to serve prison sentences for crimes that they did not commit. In fact, last year set the record for the number of people exonerated in the United States. In an earlier blog, we summarized noteworthy wrongful conviction news for the first quarter of 2015. As the second quarter wraps up, there has been an abundance of news on the exoneration front. Highlights include:

Corrupt Cops Lead to 58 Drug Convictions Reversed in June 2015:

One member of a Philadelphia Police Department elite narcotics unit was caught in an FBI sting stealing marijuana and $15,000 from a suspected drug dealer’s house. That officer pled guilty and cooperated with the feds, testifying against six former colleagues, who were likewise accused (with substantial supporting evidence) of robbing suspected drug dealers of cash, drugs, or personal items. Although those officers were acquitted, there have been 400 drug-related convictions overturned by Pennsylvania state courts because at least one of the allegedly corrupt cops was involved in the defendants’ arrests. Most recently, 58 convictions were reversed on June 21, 2015, as tainted by at least one of the accused cops. There remain about 1,370 more pending petitions seeking reversal on behalf of people who were convicted based on one or more of the ex-cops’ statements and there will likely be another 600 petitions relating to another allegedly corrupt Philadelphia cop. That is a stunningly large number of people serving time based on the testimony that the prosecutors have deemed wholly unreliable because the cops were dirty.

New York City Pays Wrongful Conviction Victim $6.25 Million – Before a Lawsuit Was Even Filed – Based on Exonerating Evidence Buried in a Police File

Jonathan Fleming served 24 years of a 25 to life murder sentence before he was exonerated, after a decades-old phone receipt supporting his alibi emerged. The phone receipts showed that Fleming did in fact make phone calls from Florida shortly before and after the Brooklyn murder, supporting his substantiated alibi that at the time of the offense, he was at Disney World with his family, not in New York, so he could not have been the shooter. The detective testified at trial that he did not have the phone receipt, but decades later it was unearthed in the file. The $6.25 million dollar settlement agreed to in June 2015 is illustrative of the City’s recent strategy of attempting to resolve civil rights cases before they are formally filed as lawsuits in court.

Shabak Shakur Released after Serving 27 Years for a Double Homicide Based on a Dubious “Confession” Obtained by the Now Notorious Former Detective Louis Scarcella

Shabaka Shakur spent 27 years in prison for a murder that he consistently maintained he did not commit, before being freed in June 2015. Mr. Shakur’s conviction was based largely on a typed, unsigned confession that a judge recently found bore a “reasonable probability” of having been falsified by Detective Louis Scarcella. The District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit is presently evaluating scores of convictions relying on Detective Scarcella’s involvement after distinct patterns emerged suggesting that the detective was fabricating confessions and repeatedly relying on the same crack-addicted individual as the central witness in numerous murder cases. The courts have exonerated numerous other defendants based on findings that it appeared Scarcella was framing the accused.

An Exoneration for a 13 Year Old Whose Confession Proved to be False

The police (falsely) told Zachary Handley that if he confessed to arson, he could spend Christmas at home with his family, and the matter could be handled through the mail, rather than going to juvenile detention, so 13 year old Zachary falsely confessed. Later, Zachary repeatedly insisted that his confession was untrue, but to no avail. Then, years later, it came to light that his accuser was a serial arsonist, torching her own homes several times and caught on video surveillance starting a fire at a church. Zachary was lucky enough that the judge who had heard his prosecution also heard a later case against his accuser and put two and two together to realize that Zachary’s confession was false. This exoneration underscores just how easily influenced young people are and how wary we need to be of their supposed confessions, especially when given without parents or advocates present.

These cases are only just the tip of the iceberg for the past quarter – there are far too many to detail here (see the National Registry of Exonerations for a more comprehensive list). Each exoneration is simultaneously both heartening, in that an innocent person is vindicated, and heartbreaking, in that, by definition, each exoneration is the story of an individual, oftentimes the victim of egregious police misconduct, who has been convicted and sentenced for a crime he or she did not commit.


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