On Wednesday, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson asked a judge to overturn the 1986 murder convictions of David McCallum and Willie Stuckey. The judge overturned the convictions. That makes 10 murder convictions reversed in Brooklyn this year.
This has been the story of Thompson’s first year in office. He campaigned last fall on a vow to right the wrongs of Brooklyn’s past. His predecessor, Charles Hynes, had created the office’s Conviction Integrity Unit to review questionable cases, but Hynes was unable to disentangle himself from the injustices of the early ’90s. Many of the recent allegations of coached witnesses, coerced confessions, and withheld evidence — Hynes was in charge then.
Thompson, a fresh start, seemed to represent the nationwide transition from the Tough on Crime era to an era of criminal justice reform. Over his first months in office, national news outlets presented him as the district attorney who took wrongful convictions most seriously. He increased the funding and staff of the Conviction Integrity Unit. He expanded the number of cases under review. And he began dismissing convictions — three in his first five months and five more in the four months after that.
There had been false confessions in some of those eight convictions, but there had also always been glaring evidence pointing to innocence. The case of McCallum and Stuckey was different. As the New York Times noted in April: “There is no smoking gun, no cut-and-dried DNA evidence, no receipt proving the defendant was several states away hours before the murder took place.”
“These are hard cases to prove because there’s no single thing that establishes his innocence,” McCallum’s lawyer Oscar Michelen told the paper.
On Wednesday, for the first time, Thompson declared that a false confession was the primary reason for his decision.
“We’ve concluded that the confessions were false, and they were false in large part because these 16-year-olds were fed false facts,” Thompson told the AP. At a press conference, Thompson noted that “not a single piece of evidence” implicated them.
Two witnesses had seen two young black men toss 20-year-old Nathan Blenner into a Buick Regal and drive off in Queens in October 1985. Blenner was found dead the next day in a park in Bushwick, Brooklyn. He had been shot in the head.
Officers questioned McCallum and Stuckey, who were both 16, and they confessed to the murder. Each said that the other pulled the trigger. Some details they gave did not match up with the crime. Stuckey stated that he harassed a woman shortly before the kidnapping, but the woman described the harasser as having braids, and Stuckey didn’t have braids.
McCallum and Stuckey recanted before trial. In November 1986 they were convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
They appealed and lost. They maintained their innocence and claimed to have been coerced into confessing. Stuckey died in prison in 2001.
In February, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer who was wrongfully imprisoned for 19 years, wrote an op-ed in the Daily News asking Thompson to review McCallum’s case.
“My single regret in life is that David McCallum,” Carter wrote, “is still in prison.”
Carter died in April. On Wednesday afternoon McCallum walked free after 28 years in prison.