October 16, 2014

A Legacy of Disgrace

Yesterday, David McCallum walked out of a Brooklyn courthouse a free man. Wrongly convicted for murder in 1986, McCallum was incarcerated for about 29 years before finally being released. The vacatur of his conviction was primarily the result of Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson's Conviction Review Unit, which asked Supreme Court Justice Matthew D'Emic to vacate the convictions of McCallum and his co-defendant Willie Stuckey, and to dismiss their indictments, and the work of McCallum's pro bono attorney, Oscar Michelen. Stuckey did not live to see this day, having died in prison in 2001.

Details of the underlying case can be found in the NYLJ here. While readers understandably might assume that these convictions were just two more notches in former DA Hynes's belt, the dubious credit actually lies with Hynes's predecessor, Elizabeth Holtzman. This says less about Hynes than it does about Holtzman, although to be fair, the occasional misstep is to be expected in a county as large and heavily populated as Brooklyn.

The reversal also says something about Ken Thompson, who has said, according to the NYLJ, that he "inherited a legacy of disgrace with respect to wrongful convictions." But Thompson has done something about it. As I have mentioned previously (here), Thompson has formed a Conviction Review Unit, which is examining dozens of suspect convictions to determine if they were properly obtained. Since January of this year, when he took office, Thompson's office has sought the reversal of nine convictions and withdrawn the appeal of a decision granting habeas relief to another man, while validating 17 other convictions. The Conviction Review Unity is still in the process of examining some 100 other cases.

Of course, these cases are remarkable in that they are primarily homicide cases with lengthy sentences. There's no way of telling how many wrongful convictions came down the pike over the past 20 years, based on police or prosecutorial misconduct. But in the vast majority of cases, the sentences were relatively light, and served without noticeable fuss. There's nobody to speak for those people, the men and women who were railroaded for lesser crimes and who did their time in the shadows of the system, where they had no voice, no champion, and no chance.

The large number of wrongful convictions in small pool of cases reviewed by Thompson's unit (which does not account for all the reversed convictions in Brooklyn) indicates just how rotten things were over the past 20 years. A legacy of disgrace indeed.

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