Four years ago, Kenneth Thompson ousted longtime Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes on the promise of making convictions in Brooklyn fairer. Thompson’s office then went to work correcting past injustices: Over the last three years, courts overturned 22 convictions, reported the New York Daily News.
One of the most striking was the case of Jabbar Collins, who served 16 years in prison after being sentenced to 34-to-life for the murder of a rabbi in 1994. For years, prosecutors suppressed the fact that they had threatened, jailed and badgered witnesses into testifying against Collins.
It turned out that one witness had been threatened with prison time if he didn’t testify. Another was offered a break on an unrelated robbery charge — and when he balked at testifying against Collins, prosecutors locked him up for a week as a “material witness” to apply more pressure.
The judge and jury were never told about these deals that were offered or the threats of prosecution that lay behind them. Hynes’ prosecutors presented coerced witnesses and their tainted evidence as trustworthy and reliable.
Collins performed miracles of evidence retrieval from behind bars with the help of attorney Joel Rudin, and eventually got the conviction reversed. But his case is part of a much bigger crisis.
“One of the most stunning things when I began to work on my own case was just how common this misconduct was,” Collins told me. “These were institutional policies regarding withholding particular documents, not making a record of all of the incentives given to witnesses . All of the catalog of misconduct that took place in my case wasn’t confined to my prosecution.”
Collins helped a man named Tasker Spruill finally walk free this year after he spent 20 years in prison. Spruill was serving a 25-to-life sentence for the 1993 murder of a drug dealer.
Spruill’s legal team argued the DA’s office improperly withheld evidence that would’ve benefited his case. And the prosecutor involved, Stan Irvin, later admitted to having a witness already in jail shuffled back and forth between facilities 26 times in a six-month period — a punishment to force him into testifying against Spruill.
The harassment grew so bad that the witness attempted suicide. The jury was never told about the coercion.
“That’s how things were done,” Irvin said on the witness stand in August 2016.
Judge Evelyn LaPorte ordered a new trial for Spruill after determining there was prosecutorial misconduct by Hynes’ office. He’s not fully cleared, but at least he’s out of prison.
But there have been no penalties for Irvin, who is now a minister. And there’s an excellent chance that New York taxpayers will eventually have to pay a settlement to Spruill to atone for the misconduct.
The main recourse for bad prosecutors is to vote them out of office, which is what happened in Brooklyn and about a dozen other jurisdictions nationwide in recent years, according to the criminal-justice-reform website the Marshall Project. Prosecutors in Chicago, Cleveland, Tampa and Houston all lost their jobs amid charges of misconduct.
But that’s the exception. Prosecutorial misconduct usually results — at best — in a retrial, exoneration or a monetary settlement. That’s not good enough.
“I think the prosecutors should be held responsible. I think their law license should be on the line. I think that there should be charges that could be brought against them,” says Rita Dave, an attorney who works with wrongfully convicted defendants. “Some people will say I’m being extreme, but there has to be repercussions to your actions. Because if there are not, you get to walk away.”
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