The district attorney’s office here has caught the nation’s attention with a striking number of exonerations — seven people in six months — and a mountain of the country’s toughest wrongful conviction claims to review.
Since 2007, prosecutors have started conviction integrity units dedicated to making sure the right people were found guilty of crimes. In many cases, exonerations have involved misidentifications and new DNA testing. However, in Brooklyn the problems are more complicated because the majority of wrongful conviction claims being reviewed deal with potential police misconduct.
Since January, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson has expanded his office’s Conviction Review Unit and budgeted $1.1 million a year to investigate cases of potential wrongful convictions. Now, more and more units are starting and Brooklyn’s investigations are being closely watched.
“Brooklyn is ground central,” said Samuel Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. “They are systematically examining a large set of cases in which there may have been serious misconduct by police officers and possibly by prosecutors themselves over a period of years involving dozens and possibly hundreds of homicide cases…That is an operation on a scale that nobody else has done.”
The borough is also facing more complicated problems than other units, he said.
Brooklyn prosecutors are looking into 90 cases–57 of them involve former NYPD Detective Louis Scarcella, whose policing tactics have been questioned after evidence showed Scarcella coached a witness to pick a suspect out of a lineup. That suspect, David Ranta, was later exonerated after spending 23 years in prison. Scarcella is also accused of using one crack addicted witness to testify at a number of trials as well fabricating confessions and intimidating suspects.
Investigating possible wrongdoing by Scarcella, other officers and prosecutors will be much more challenging than forensic testing, Gross said.