“Twenty-four years,” one woman said to the other, as they stood in the security line to enter the city hall premises.
“Wow,” replied the second woman.
“How about yours?”
“That’s a long time.”
The women were here for a rally about wrongful convictions. Seconds later they walked to city hall’s steps to join dozens of exonerated men and the family members of current inmates who claim to be innocent.
The participants — more than 50 of them — filled the steps to the top. There were children and old women, middle-age men and young ladies. Some were Hispanic, some were black, some were white. Some wore black hats that read “Wrongfully Convicted” on the front. Others wore t-shirts that listed names of inmates fighting in the courts to be released.
They held signs like “Free the Innocent” and “Parole is Not for the Innocent” and “Justice Delayed is Justice Denied” and “Corrupt Scarcella.” Many more signs listed names. And in-between speeches — by lawyers, by politicians, by the exonerated, by the relatives of the incarcerated — people shouted those names.
“Free Ricky Caldwell!”
“Free Michael Jones!”
“Free Lorenzo Johnson!”
“Free Nelson Cruz!”
About a dozen television cameras captured those shouts, and a dense row of reporters heard a long string of tragically similar stories. Men who spent two decades in prison before winning their freedom. Wives, brothers, and cousins detailing the cases that keep their loved ones behind bars.
Officially, this was a rally and news conference to pressure Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson to move faster on his review of 50 cases involving former-detective Louis Scarcella. News reports and exonerated men themselves have linked Scarcella to coerced confessions, coached witnesses, and other forms of police misconduct that led to who-knows-how-many wrongful convictions in the ’80s and ’90s.
The rally also promoted possible reforms: video recordings of all interrogations; funding for a citywide independent conviction review; double-blind procedures for police photo line-ups.
But those specifics took a backseat to the real issue: the simple truth that the flood of exonerations in recent years has cast varying degrees of doubt on all other convictions. This doubt first leaked into the mainstream public when appeals lawyers began using DNA technology to prove their clients’ innocence. The first DNA exoneration was in 1989. There have been more than 300 across the country since.
Suddenly science showed that the court system got it wrong sometimes. And this opened the door to all those cases that didn’t involve DNA evidence. Stories of police and prosecutorial misconduct — like the ones swirling around Scarcella and former Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes — clarified how exactly these wrongful convictions happen.
The high crime rates of the ’80s and ’90s made public safety a top political priority. With the streets safer, we’re now seeing the backlash of the Tough on Crime culture that locked up innocent people. There were 83 exonerations in America in 2013. In the fall, Thompson campaigned on reversing the mistakes of his predecessor. Mayor Bill de Blasio has declared his intent to painlessly settle lawsuits with folks the city wrongfully convicted.
An hour into the rally cameramen began to pack up, but the stories from the steps continued to roll on.
“There are many Scarcella’s out there,” said Carlos Perez, who was locked up for 18 years before his exoneration. “There’s not just one Scarcella.”
See also: The Tragedy of Louis Scarcella