NEW YORK - Approximately 20,000 people behind bars in the United States have been wrongfully convicted. One in 25 defendants sentenced to death is later shown to be innocent. These shocking statistics are from the National Registry of Exonerations and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The latest statistics from Prison Policy Initiative reveal that more than 2.4 million men and women are behind bars at more than 4,500 different facilities, the highest incarceration rate in the world. Blacks are disproportionately represented in U.S. prisons.
According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) African Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the incarcerated population.
Technology has revealed an unquantifiable number of wrongfully convicted persons who not only have or are serving long prison sentences, but have been put to death for crimes committed by others.
The American justice system is not afraid to take a long, hard look at itself and do something about it. Case in point: the office of Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson.
WATCH: Video interview with exonerated ex-convict Derrick Hamilton
The Brooklyn model
In New York City’s borough of Brooklyn a program that has been underway since 2011 recently has been bolstered to review the convictions of many who are serving life sentences after being found guilty of murder. In 2014, Brooklyn D.A. Thompson set up a Conviction Review Unit (CRU), now considered a model for other jurisdictions to replicate.
Thompson provided talent and money to begin the process. Nine assistant DAs and three investigators were assigned full time to review cases. No other jurisdiction in the United States has set aside as much money and manpower as the Brooklyn unit.
Mark Hale, an assistant DA and 33-year veteran of the Brooklyn DA’s office, is chief of the CRU. He told VOA, “we have vacated the sentences or the convictions and sentences of 19 individuals, 18 men and one woman. Some of those people were still incarcerated, some of those people had served their sentence, completed their sentence, in fact, some of those people had pre-deceased our action on the cases that we had vacated posthumously.”
Finding the errors
Hale says the wrongful convictions fall into categories that seem to meld one with another.
“They generally seem to be systemic failures in that you have various parts of the system that fails the defendant at any particular point in time," he said. "You will have some witnesses who just shouldn’t be credited that you find out later on that they’re lying or less than accurate.”
“You have exculpatory evidence that somehow does not get from the police to the prosecutor to the defense counsel. You have performance by defense attorneys that are sometimes very substandard in terms of defending the client,” he added.
Hale described the difficulty of trying to sort out innocence from guilt, calling it rather complicated.
“The complexity of the case is that it takes us about a year to really find out what we’re talking about. And a lot of this has to do with we’re not making knee-jerk decisions on these cases," he said. “And we leave a lot of options open for the petitioner or their advocate.”
Hale underscored, “we will chase down all of the leads they’re talking about because we want to get as comprehensive a picture as we can to make an informed decision.”
His team travels throughout the U.S. and abroad to get the information.
“You start to think that truth doesn’t matter to a certain degree,” said exonerated ex-convict Derrick Hamilton.
In an exclusive interview with VOA News, Hamilton told us, “I lost about 10 post-conviction motions, and each time the judge admitted he had enough evidence to drop the conviction, but he left me in jail. Twenty-one years of my life I was in prison. You are ridiculed in court and in parole boards, when you say ‘I’m innocent” and people say, ‘well everybody says I’m innocent.’”
Hamilton had been charged with the murder of a Brooklyn man in 1991. He remained in prison even after the sole witness, the murdered man’s girlfriend, recanted her testimony.
“I’m very, very bitter about what happened to me,” Hamilton told us. “I couldn’t go to my mother’s burial, I couldn’t go to my brother’s burial. I couldn’t mourn with my family. I couldn’t raise my children. I was deprived of watching my children go through every step of the graduation as they grew up. I’m damaged, my family is damaged.”
Hamilton thanked DA Thompson and ADA Hale for their efforts. Hamilton maintains he was framed, however, by the detective who arrested him, calling him a criminal because “he didn’t just do it to me, he did it to other people. He’s a man who put his own interest above society’s. He had no respect for the rules. He had partners who sat there and watched him make false confessions and fabricate evidence and do nothing about it.”
The NYPD detective in question is now retired.
Joining us in our interview with Derrick Hamilton was one of his lawyer’s, Scott Brettschneider. While Brettschneider had praise for DA Thompson, he said the total effort to exonerate Hamilton has been inadequate.
“What we really need,”Brettschneider said, “is the state to come up with an independent commission to examine wrongful convictions with investigators that are totally impartial, not affiliated with any DA’s office, or any law enforcement agency.
"It should have people with both defense experience and law enforcement backgrounds, and judges, as part of these independent review boards,” he added. “I think that’s when we’ll finally see some progress, because we need to have transparency, we need to have people who are impartial and no skin in the game.”
Ronald Sullivan, Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard, said that Ken Thompson really has started a national movement.
Sullivan said if you look at the Brooklyn data in terms of both exonerations, and in terms of the number of conviction integrity units around the country, it really has awakened the nation.