Exonerees seek more oversight on prosecutors

Legislative Gazette photo by Maria Enea
Shawn Lawrence tells his story of incarceration and how prosecutorial misconduct led to him be wrongfully accused of murder.

On Dec. 20, 2017, Shawn Lawrence was released from prison after five years and eight months — 70 years sooner than anticipated on the day of his sentencing. Lawrence had been wrongfully convicted by prosecutors who withheld 45 items of evidence from the defense. Due to persistence and a little bit of luck that his case was thrown out.

Originally charged and convicted of killing James Terry outside a party in Amityville, Suffolk County, Lawrence was convicted in May 2015 of second-degree murder, two counts of first-degree attempted murder, and illegal possession of a weapon. He was sentenced to 75 years to life in prison.

However, a close look at the evidence shows how precarious the district attorney’s case against Lawrence was.

Among the items withheld from Lawrence and his lawyers, included that one of the witnesses against Lawrence received $4,000 from the district attorney’s office to relocate for his safety.

Additionally, statements from a housing complex superintendent said the perpetrators of the crime were all shoulder-to-shoulder in height. Lawrence is 6’4” and the co-defendant is 5’5”.

Detective Thomas Walsh testified that his notes of a photo array stating that the witness and one victim, David Hodges, while a patient at Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center, had identified two other people as the shooters were withheld until two years after the crime.

A gun used in the murder was found five months later in the possession of a 15-year-old boy, and the ballistics report wasn’t turned over.

It turns out that Lawrence’s case wasn’t the only one being mishandled by Suffolk County District Attorney’s office. In May 2017 Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Glenn Kurtzrock was asked to resign by then Assistant District Attorney Thomas Spota. Kurtzrock had five cases dismissed all due to prosecutorial misconduct, with Lawrence’s case being the fifth of Kurtzrock’s to be dismissed.

“In dismissing my case, the Judge [Supreme Court Justice William Condon] stated that the prosecutorial misconduct that allowed a jury to convict me was ‘absolutely stunning’,” Lawrence said.

Three exonerees, including Lawrence, gathered in Albany with lawmakers and advocates to show support for a bill that addresses prosecutorial conduct.

The organization It Could Happen To You, which works to solve wrongful convictions, along with Sen. John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, and Assemblyman Nick Perry, D-Brooklyn, joined the exonerees to support those who want more oversight for prosecutors.

If passed, this law (S.2412-d/A.5285-c) would be the first of its kind in the nation. Prosecutors would be held accountable to standards set by a judicial conduct commission tasked to oversee the procedures prosecutors follow. This law stems from wrongful imprisonments of individuals whose prosecutors did not reveal all of the information and evidence available.

“There is no check and balance, that’s what this bill is about and this is what this commission would do,” Perry said.

In both June 2014 and 2016, DeFrancisco tried to have the bills passed but they both died in the Senate Rules Committee.

Bill Bastuk, the executive director of It Could Happen To You, said there is no reason prosecutors should oppose this bill. Last June an amendment to the bill was made so that a prosecutor’s office can ask to set aside an investigation until after a case is over, if necessary to preserve the integrity of the case. Bastuk argues that this amendment more than sufficient.

Though this was a major amendment to the bill, the legislation has been in the Senate Finance Committee since March 6, 2018.

“Every time this bill comes close to getting passed in what’s known as “the big ugly” in this legislative session, prosecutors descend on Albany with all their money and begin to whisper in the ears and twist the arms of senators and assemblymen and lie about this bill,” Bastuk said.

The bill would have a $5.5 million fiscal implication if passed, but DeFrancisco says the cost is necessary. So far, the cities of Hudson, Syracuse and Yonkers have passed a resolution asking for this bill to be passed.

“It’s going to be important for not only the individuals who are facing trial, but also for the criminal justice system because it’s supposed to work one way and it doesn’t and if it doesn’t, unfortunately the people who are making it not work have no consequences,” DeFrancisco said.

According to a 2017 Michigan Law study, across the nation in 2017, 84 of the 139 exonerations involved official misconduct and 87 of the 139 exonerations in 2017 involved perjury or false accusations.

In New York alone, exonerations involving official misconduct accounted for 84 percent of exonerations in homicide cases. New York has the fourth highest number of exonerations nationally for 2017.

One instance of false accusation was in Kareem Bellamy’s case, who supported the bill along with Lawrence. He was falsely accused when a young man named James Abbott was fatally stabbed in April 1994 in Far Rockaway, Queens, where he and Bellamy both lived. A few weeks later, a cashier from a local supermarket phoned the NYPD and reported that she saw, standing on the street where the murder had taken place, a man she claimed had been in the same checkout line as Abbott just before his murder. The man was Bellamy. He was promptly arrested.

Bellamy refused to accept a plea that would have implied guilt, even in exchange for his freedom. His team won Bellamy a new trial in June 2008. His conviction was vacated on June 27 by Justice Joel Blumenfeld of State Supreme Court in Queens. He was released from prison that August, and all charges were formally dismissed in September 2011.

This past spring, Bellamy won a $2.75 million settlement from the state of New York for the 14 years he was wrongfully imprisoned. False accusations are just one of the many reasons there are wrongful convictions, but prosecutorial misconduct has been the most evident reason DeFrancisco’s bill is being pushed to pass.

Selwyn Days, one of the other exonerees at the conference was also wrongly accused and incarcerated due to prosecutors not sharing all evidence available which would have dropped the charges.

Days was charged in 1996 with the double homicide of an Eastchester millionaire, along with the man’s home health aide, who had been charged with sexually abusing Days’ mother. The district attorney on the case, Perry Perrone acknowledged to the jury that no DNA or fingerprints link Days to the crime, but he pointed to the confession and what he said was a clear motive. He was in North Carolina at the time. Even with this evidence, Days spent 13 years in prison and went through five trials before being released.

Days’ lawyers insisted that his admissions were made up as a result of half a day in custody and more than seven hours of interrogation by detectives, during which they fed him details of the murders.

In their reversal of his sentence, the Appellate Court stated that the defense was “substantially prejudiced.”

Legislative Gazette photo by Maria Enea
Bill Bastuk, Executive Director of It Could Happen To You, advocating for a prosecutorial misconduct bill to be passed. He shares his own story of being wrongfully accused and how it lead him to attend this event.

Also advocating for this bill to be passed was the It Could Happen To You Organization, intended to help those who were also wrongfully convicted. It was founded by former Irondequoit Councilman and Monroe County Legislator Bill Bastuk who was wrongly accused by a 16-year-old girl of raping her in a sail storage locker at the Rochester Yacht Club Sept. 5, 2007.

Bastuk had been charged with first-degree rape, third-degree rape, unlawful imprisonment and endangering the welfare of a child.

He maintained his innocence from the time he turned himself in to Monroe County Sheriff’s deputies investigating the matter in June 2008.

The defense questioned the reliability of the allegations, and the mental stability of the victim, who is now a high school senior.

His defense countered that while Bastuk was at the yacht club, he was attending an environmental sustainability task force meeting at Irondequoit Town Hall during the time, roughly 8 to 9 p.m., the victim says the rape took place.

The defense brought in records and expert witnesses that showed Bastuk was on his cellular phone or sending an e-mail between 8:30 and 9 p.m., and wouldn’t have had the opportunity to commit the crime of which he was accused.

Bastuk, along with the support from the exonoress, DeFrancisco and Perry made a convincing argument for the bill passing, however the district attorney’s stance opposes the bill and what it stands for.

President of District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, Scott McNamara disagrees with this bill, saying that it would be, “detrimental to prosecutors.” According to McNamara, who is the Oneida County District Attorney, prosecutors should never have to look over their shoulder while prosecuting someone.

McNamara said it is misleading to say that prosecutors “lie” as Bastuk said, because a system for dealing with prosecutors is already in place. It is a justice task-force created by the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state. The grievance committee sends private letters to prosecutors who have a complaint against them.

McNamara does not want this bill to pass because DeFrancisco’s plan would cost the taxpayer money while the current mechanism in place does not cost any. Though McNamara does admit there could be changes to the system already in place, he insists there is no need for money to go towards a political committee. According to him, the committee DeFrancisco wants would be comprised of political individuals and not of anyone who has knowledge of the job, such as retired judges or prosecutors.

McNamara wants the public and other legislators to know that there are consequences to district attorneys that have grievances. A judge can suppress evidence if a prosecutor makes a mistake, they can be civilly sued and have their license revoked. The public even has a say, because the district attorneys are publicly elected to office.

Although DAASNY already has a system in place, McNamara says there can be ways to improve. The first solution McNamara offers is to be more transparent. The grievance committee could release how many private letters were given to prosecutors and in what counties they were issued in.

The second way is to have a yearly report of all grievances given to the government and media, among other sources to ensure the public understands that something is being done about the complaints.

The third way is to have the committee be full of retired judges and prosecutors, or any individuals with knowledge of the law and prosecutors’ jobs who would be able to say, “that’s not right.”

“To imply we need a whole new agency to duplicate work already being done is misleading,” McNamara said.

Though the DAASNY reject this bill and DeFrancisco and others are supportive, the same issue still remains: prosecutorial misconduct is occurring, and will any system ever truly fix it?

Supporters of the bill say the system is stuck in a loophole where there is misconduct, it is reported, but nothing happens and there is no help for victims like Lawrence for years after the wrongful conviction.

“Until all of us are willing to address these facts,” said Lawrence, “until all of us are willing to look at the reality of our society that permits prosecutors to withhold evidence and prosecute the innocent while the guilty go free, we will never see change.”