By Charisma L. Miller, Esq.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Appellate Division, 2nd Department, has broken new legal ground in an unprecedented ruling allowing criminal defendants the opportunity to plead “actual innocence” when challenging a conviction. Justice Sylvia Hinds-Radix, writing the opinion of the court, eliminated a procedural barrier to criminal appellate claims and allowed a freestanding assertion of “actual innocence” to prevail.
In 1993, Derrick Hamilton was convicted of the second-degree murder for the shooting death of Nathaniel Cash, who was found dead in Brooklyn in January 1991. Hamilton asserted that he was in New Haven, Conn. at the time of the shooting and thus could not have committed the murder.
At trial, Hamilton was unable to produce alibi witness testimony because his primary witness was too ill to attend the trial and the second alibi witness was too frightened to testify. The testimony of Cash’s girlfriend, Jewel Smith, sealed the conviction for Hamilton, but Smith recanted after evidence revealed that she did not actually witness Cash being shot.
Evidence showed that the NYPD detective on Cash’s murder case was none other than retired Brooklyn detective Louis Scarcella. A number of cases handled by Scarcella are being reviewed after it was discovered that he used illegal tactics to obtain evidence against innocent men in order to secure convictions. At least two Brooklyn men, who have served a combined prison sentence of 40 years, have been released from prison on the grounds of wrongful conviction after it was revealed that Scarcella used faulty evidence against them.
Smith said that she was threatened by Scarcella to serve as a witness against Hamilton and ordered to falsely state that she witnessed the shooting.
Prior the sentencing, Hamilton requested that the guilty verdict be set aside due to Smith’s recantation. The trial court denied that request. After sentencing, two new alibi witnesses surfaced, including Kelly Turner, a New Haven police officer. Turner stated that on the evening of Cash’s murder, she met Hamilton at a party in New Haven and gave Hamilton a ride to his hotel.
Turner’s statement made clear that Hamilton was in New Haven, and not Brooklyn, that January evening and could not have been Cash’s murderer. Hamilton again requested that his conviction be vacated on account of Turner’s statement. The lower court again denied Hamilton’s request on the grounds that Turner’s statement should have been included during trial and therefore was not newly discovered evidence.
Criminal defendants are granted a new trial under six specific criteria, one of which is the discovery of new evidence—evidence that could not have been discovered during trial. If the judge believes that the evidence could have been discovered but, for whatever reason, was not discovered by the defendant, the motion for a new trial is denied.
Brooklyn’s appellate court viewed these procedural barriers complicating claims of actual innocence to “violate … elementary fairness.” In allowing freestanding claims of innocence to prevail, the appellate court, the first court in New York State to do so, gave way for claims of innocence to prevail without the need to show, for example, incompetence of trial counsel or other “collateral issues,” Hamilton’s attorney, Jonathan Edelstein, told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
“Punishing an actually innocent person is inherently disproportionate to the acts committed by that person,” the court stated. “Since a person who has not committed any crime has a liberty interest in remaining free from punishment, the conviction or incarceration of a guiltless person, which deprives that person of freedom of movement and freedom from punishment and violates elementary fairness, runs afoul of the Due Process Clause of the New York Constitution."
The court’s ruling allows you to “cut to the chase,” Edelstein said. “Does this evidence prove your innocence, and can your innocence be established clear[ly] and convincing[ly]? If you can prove that then you do not need to prove anything else. There’s no procedural obstacle. There’s no room for holding you back,” said Edelstein.
Edelstein, who receives a number of letters a month, became involved in Hamilton’s case after receiving a jailhouse letter from Hamilton. “I usually approach with a considerable amount of skepticism, but after I looked at [Hamilton’s] paperwork my skepticism was overcome,” Hamilton said about the beginnings of his involvement in Hamilton’s case.
“What stood out the most was that there was a reputable witness, a New Haven police officer [Turner], who put [Hamilton] miles away from the crime. The judge refused this witness because they were never listed on the alibi witness before trial.” This evidence made Edelstein “sick that a person was being kept in prison on account of a technicality when people are let out of jail because of technicalities.”
In its ruling, the appellate court went beyond granting a new trial when actual innocence is proven. If, at a hearing, a “defendant establishes his actual innocence by clear and convincing evidence, the indictment should be dismissed…There is no need to empanel another jury to consider the defendant's guilt where the trial court has determined, after a hearing, that no juror, acting reasonably, would find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” the court held.
This stands out in a significant way, Edelstein advised. “What stands out the most, in relation to my client and on a larger scale, is that an appellate court in New York recognized that there is no room for procedural niceties. People in the future who are wrongly convicted and have evidence of innocence will now not be barred from establishing such innocence.”