Brooklyn’s exonerated individuals still fighting for financial freedom

Just as they thought the fight for their freedom was over, exonerated persons are still fighting for financial independence. Defendants who were wrongfully convicted of crimes dating back to the 1980s are still awaiting settlements from New York City for financial compensation redressing the years of wrongful imprisonment. 

Upon exit from prison, many exonerated individuals are released into a new world with little or no financial support for basic amenities. “There is the psychological effect of lack of social stimuli [while in prison] and then you are put into an environment that is based on social stimuli,” said released prisoner Derrick Hamilton in a recent interview with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  “It’s overwhelming to have to fend for yourself,” Hamilton continued.

Hamilton, who was convicted of second-degree murder for the shooting death of Nathaniel Cash, who was found dead in Brooklyn in January 1991, was release by the parole board after 21 years behind bars.   

A more recently released Brooklyn defendant, Jonathan Fleming, is finding himself in a similar predicament. “The reality is [Fleming] has no place to live and no money,” Fleming’s attorney, Taylor Koss, told the Eagle.

Fleming’s April release made national news as it was revealed that he was over 1,000 miles away enjoying a family vacation in Orlando, Florida when police say Fleming supposedly murdered Darryl "Black" Rush in 1989.  After spending 25 years behind bars for a crime that he clearly could not have committed, Fleming was released into the arms of his supporting family but with no true financial support.

In order to remedy the wrongs perpetrated against them, Brooklyn exonerees are seeking financial redress through the very court system that wrongfully imprisoned them.  “We are pursuing a state claim and a federal claim against New York City,” Koss noted.  Using the evidence that was influential, if not determinative, in securing their release from prison, these defendants are seeking financial compensation from the city and state.

Succeeding in such claims is not guaranteed and the process is often daunting. Many of these civil claims take years to be resolved and a settlement agreement reached.

The infamous Central Park Five case, involving five young defendants who were publically and wrongly convicted of the 1989 rape of a jogger in Central Park, is still unresolved. In 2003, each of the five defendants, all of whom served between 7 to 13 years in prison, filed a civil suit against the city after their convictions were vacated in 2002. The $50 million lawsuit is still churning its way through the justice system more than 10 years after its commencement.   

Earlier this month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration noted in court documents that it expects to resume settlement talks with the five defendants, stating that the new corporation counsel, former Brooklyn federal judge Zachary Carter, needed time to “to get up to speed” and “advise the new administration as to how he believes we should proceed.” 

Brooklyn defendant Jabbar Collins has been fighting for five years for financial redress and is no closer to a resolution.  After repeated “discovery delays that have plagued [the Collins] case,” Collins’ attorney, Joel Rudin, has sought to prevent the city from receiving yet another extension of case deadlines. The city has taken two years to depose “1 ½ witnesses”, Rudin wrote in his April 12 letter to Brooklyn federal judge Robert Levy, presiding judge in Collins’ federal claim against the city.  “The [city] defendants seek to deflect responsibility by lobbying diversionary bombs…[and] by shamelessly twisting [facts] out of context,” Rudin’s letter continues.

“The Jabbar Collins case is an example of what I want to avoid,” said Koss. “We want to avoid five years of vicious rhetoric.”

Not all such cases are subject to such protracted litigation and settlement negotiations.  Brooklyn defendant David Ranta received a $6.4 million settlement from the city in February, almost a year following his release from prison. Ranta’s case of wrongful conviction spawned the 2011 creation of the Conviction Integrity Unit in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office—the first time ever a sitting DA took a hard look at wrongful convictions likely advanced during his tenure. “After a review process and negotiations, my office was able to reach a settlement with Mr. Ranta that is in the best interests of all parties and closes the door on a truly regrettable episode in our City’s history,” New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer said of Ranta’s settlement agreement.

“I think that Mr. Fleming’s case is more egregious than Ranta’s,” stated Koss.

While Koss and Fleming prepare for the arduous task of filing suit against the city, the question of how Fleming will afford basic amenities is still an overwhelming burden. “Mr. Fleming has zero dollars and zero cents,” Koss noted. Fleming is set to receive a tiny bit of financial reprieve, as the Associated Press reported that about 70 people have given a total of more than $3,500 to an online crowd funding campaign for Fleming as of Thursday.

Finance executive Alex Sutaru was struck by news accounts of Fleming's exoneration. "I decided, ‘OK, I'm going to do something about this,’" said Sutaru, 32. So he set up the campaign through the crowd funding site Indiegogo, after contacting Fleming's lawyers, Anthony Mayol and Koss, to make sure it would be all right.  

“The crowd funding was done via a third party that we did not know,” commented Koss. “We were able to authenticate it, but did not want to be involved, as Fleming’s attorneys, as that would muddy the waters,” Koss continued. 

While the money raised will be of great assistance to Fleming, it will do little to, for example, secure housing in Brooklyn where the median rental price for a studio apartment is $2,000 per month, according to a 2013 report by real estate firm Douglas Elliman. 

“The reality is that Mr. Fleming has nowhere to live and no money; he has no choice but to consider a lawsuit loan,” Koss admitted to the Eagle. Lawsuit loans, or legal funding, are new tools for cash-strapped defendants that allow for a private company to loan funds in return for a percentage of whatever settlement is reached in the defendant’s case. “These lawsuit loans come with very high interest rates,” Koss explained. “It’s terrible, but on the same note, how does Mr. Fleming live? How does he get an apartment?”

As Fleming, 51, and his attorneys weigh the options for his immediate financial future, he will be pleased with an early birthday surprise. “We are not sure if Mr. Felming is aware of the crowd funding but, we plan to release the monies on his 52nd birthday,” Koss said excitingly.