This past Monday we received a 1.3 million dollar verdict for our client, “C.B.”, who spent nearly three years in an upstate prison for wrongful conviction for a crime did not commit. The verdict was substantially more than we had dared to hope to get for our client, since the trial was a “bench trial” where only a politically appointed judge, and not a jury, makes the decisions. The suit was brought under Section 8-b of the Court of Claims Act, the “Unjust Conviction and Imprisonment Act”, which allows for damages for a claimant who can prove they have served time for a crime they did not commit. The law exists to compensate people regardless of whether you can assign blame to a particular individual for the unfortunate conviction.
CB was arrested and identified as the perpetrator of a “drive by purse snatching”, a rare and dangerous crime. He was stopped near the location and time of the robbery, his car and he superficially matched the description given (though differed in significant respects as well), and he was held for a show-up identification procedure. The young, traumatized victim identified him unequivocally (to this day she still sincerely believes he was the culprit), and he was arrested and processed.
As CB’s case wound through the system, he came across a wanted poster for another individual, “MV”. The individual was sought on a pattern of robberies with the same unique MO as CB’s, in the same precinct, in the same month. The judge at CB’s first criminal trial precluded any use of the poster or mention of MV, and CB was convicted, despite significant problems with the ID. The Appellate Division reversed the conviction, and when CB was allowed to present evidence of the actual culprit, he was acquitted in a heartbeat.
Of course, by then, CB had served almost 3 years in prison, and so we sued to get him some compensation for that lost time. It was one of the most dramatic trials I’ve ever been a part of. I found MV (who had subsequently been arrested and served a sentence for other “drive by purse snatchings”), and he came in and admitted on the witness stand that he had committed the crime that CB had been convicted of, as CB sat beside me, weeping for the lost years, and the release he was finally feeling.
I’m very grateful to a whole host of people who helped out in one way or another with the trial, and met a lot of wonderful folks who were caught up in the case in one way or another. Judge Faviola Soto treated us great, and gave my client and even MV a level of respect that demonstrated a real connection and appreciation of real people. Even the victim who (mistakenly) identified my client as the perpetrator was lovely, speaking openly with me about the matter on several occasions. Eyewitness identification is notoriously unreliable evidence, and this young lady was simply mistaken, and really suffered a trauma.
There were real bad guys in the case, however. Unfortunately, they were supposed to be the good guys. Judge Soto wrote in her decision that Detective Lucy Rosa was “evasive and contradictory”, “incredible”, and “her testimony was tailored to bolster the arrest”. Police Officer John Ciarcia was “evasive, not reliable, and not persuasive”. The officers; testimony “often contradicted police documents in evidence”.
Mistaken identifications happen. The poor victim of this crime can be forgiven for her sincere belief that CB robbed her. The lies of the cops in this case, however, were unforgivable, and contributed to robbing a man of three years of his life. They should be ashamed.
Of course, they will feel no pain from this. There is not even a reporting mechanism for the cops’ superiors to find out about these judicial findings of, essentially, perjury. (One example, the cops testified that our the victim told them that the robbery’s car had Pennsylvania Plates, which our client also had on his car when he was stopped. In the recording of the police communications from the incident, however, the very same officers explicitly said the victim had no description of the license plates. What the victim could describe was “a clean car- a very clean car”. MV, meanwhile, without knowing this, described to me that he stole the car from a car wash!)
Anyway, an innocent man was convicted, and innocent man spent three years in prison, an innocent man was exonerated, and an innocent man is going to be compensated. Nothing could fully compensate CB for what he has gone through. But we’re proud to have done our part, and gotten him something, and pleased to give Judge Soto a shout out for her part in restoring some justice.