January 9, 2014

Suing For Wrongful Convictions in New York State

Martin Tankleff was arrested for the murder of his parents in the fall of 1988, just when he was to begin his senior year in high school, and was subsequently convicted in 1990. His conviction was overturned in 2007, but by then he had served 17 years in jail for a double murder he swore he did not commit. Tankleff has now settled one of his lawsuits for a little over $3 million. He has another lawsuit pending. The details of his fascinating (and infamous) criminal prosecution are for another post; our concern here is how he came to have multiple civil cases in different forums stemming from one wrongful conviction.

As an initial matter, it is important to recognize the distinction between being wrongfully convicted and wrongly prosecuted. Imagine an innocent person arrested and prosecuted, and jailed for months or years while the prosecution is pending. Now assume that the jury is persuaded by lies told by witnesses at trial, or misled because they did not learn of evidence of the defendant's innocence, and they convicted the defendant. Following his conviction, the defendant successfully convinces the court that he is innocent. Under a New York law designed to provide compensation to innocent persons who were wrongly convicted, he may be entitled to money to offset his injuries. But, if he successfully defends himself at trial, despite the false testimony or the withholding of important evidence, he may actually have a much harder time recovering money damages. That is because the state law offers a remedy to the wrongly convicted, not the wrongly charged or the wrongly prosecuted.

The state law in question offers the wrongly convicted the right to sue the State of New York (but not any individual people involved in the arrest or prosecution) and requires that the action be brought in the New York Court of Claims. This court hears only cases brought against the State of New York and operates without a jury. The court's primary focus in these cases is on the actual innocence of the convicted, rather than on the conduct of the police or prosecution.

However, for the wrongly prosecuted, one's actual innocence is almost irrelevant. People prosecuted improperly (meaning, based on lies, fabricated statements or evidence, or through the withholding of evidence favorable to the accused) can sue for false arrest, malicious prosecution, and the denial of a fair trial. In New York, one can pursue claims under either or both state or federal law, and do so in either state or federal court. However, these lawsuits must ordinarily target police officers or private individuals, and can only be brought directly against municipalities themselves when one is asserting state law claims, or a claim that the misconduct was part of a policy or practice endorsed in some way by the city.

Put more simply, if you are prosecuted unfairly (but not convicted) and you want to recover money for your injuries, proving your actual innocence will not do the trick. You will have to show deliberate misconduct by the police officers involved in your arrest and prosecution, such as lying to prosecutors, or withholding important information from prosecutors. If your prosecution flowed from a misidentification by a private citizen which the police reasonably relied on, recovering damages may well be impossible.

Tankleff has reached a settlement with the State of New York. He still has a lawsuit pending against the lead detective, K. James McCready, for deliberately violating his constitutional rights. It will be interesting to see how this lawsuit, which is highly similar, yet meaningfully different from the action against New York State, plays out.

If you or someone you know has been wrongly arrested, and has been or is now being wrongly prosecuted, it is critically important that you consult with a civil rights attorney who understands this complex area of law, as well as the relevant areas of criminal law. There are a wide variety of competing deadlines by which you must act, and steps you must take before filing an action, if you want to successfully preserve your rights and be able to sue for compensation. We are available to discuss any questions you may have about your case or the rights of a friend or loved one. Click here to contact us.

A recent New York Times article on Tankleff's current lawsuit can be found here.

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