On Thursday, New York state agreed to pay Jabbar Collins $3 million for his 16-year wrongful imprisonment. It was the latest in a string of high-profile, high-priced settlements this year stemming from wrongful convictions in New York city during the crack era. In January, the city agreed to pay David Ranta $6.4 million for 23-year wrongful imprisonment. In June, the city announced a $140 million settlement with the five men wrongfully convicted of raping a woman in Central Park. The Central Park Five each received $1 million for every year behind bars, the highest rate the city had ever paid.
While the state has washed its hands of Collins, the city is not even close to done with him. His federal lawsuit against the city and its officials is still going. First there is the question of whether the city will follow its $1 million-per-year precedent. Because, as the Daily News argued in an editorial on Sunday, why should one man’s imprisonment be worth more than another?
But the city’s problems go beyond money. Collins already has some financial compensation. His legal battle is now about accountability.
When the city agrees to a settlement, it does not admit blame. More importantly, the settlement allows the city to avoid the probing questions of a trial. So in many of these overturned convictions we’ve seen in the news, like Jonathan Fleming’s in Brooklyn or Eric Glisson’s in the Bronx, district attorney’s offices across the city have dismissed charges without explaining how the wrongful conviction happened, or even admitting that somebody messed up. And so no prosecutor or detective or judge or any law enforcement official has faced possible punishment.
This is why Collins’ federal suit has been groundbreaking. Among the defendants named in his suit are former Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes and former Brooklyn prosecutor Michael Vecchione. His case forced Hynes and Vecchione to answer questions under oath for the first time. Vecchione infamously answered variations of “I don’t recall” more than 300 times throughout his deposition. And Hynes admitted for the first time that he believed Collins was innocent.
Collins’ suit will also bring former Brooklyn detective Louis Scarcella’s first under oath testimony since the D.A.’s office began reviewing his cases in May 2013. Though Scarcella was not involved in Collins’ case, Collins’ attorney, Joel Rudin, successfully argued that Scarcella can offer a sort of expert testimony into police misconduct in Brooklyn during the 1990s.
His lawsuit has been the first to try to hold law enforcement officials of that era accountable. Last week’s state settlement strengthened that case.
“Traditionally in settlement negotiations in wrongful-conviction cases, the city tries to exploit what it sees as the desperation of the plaintiff,” Rudin told the New York Times. “This gives Jabbar some financial security and makes him even more determined to see the city case through.”
Collins was arrested and convicted for the 1994 murder of Rabbi Abraham Pollack. Witnesses identified him as the shooter. Collins maintained his innocence. He appealed his conviction. In prison, he worked on his case and studied legal books. He sent many public records requests to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office and he tracked down the witness who had implicated him.
One day in 2003, he called the witness, Adrian Diaz. Collins pretended that he was an investigator at the D.A.’s office. Diaz said that he testified against Collins in a deal to keep his probation from being revoked. Collins recorded that conversation
He reached out to another witness, Edwin Oliva. Olivia admitted that police officers had written the witness statement and he had signed it to avoid facing charges in another crime.
In 2010, one of Collins’ records requests produced a document showing that Olivia had recanted his statement before the trial. Then he met with prosecutors and detectives, and at the trial his testimony matched his original statement implicating Collins.
Prosecutors, however, did not tell the defense attorney about the recantation. Federal judge Dora Irizarry called for a hearing to look into the possible prosecutorial misconduct. At the hearing another witness, Angel Santos, claimed that he only testified against Collins after lead prosecutor Michael Vecchione began “yelling at me and telling me he was going to hit me over the head with some coffee table.”
After Santos’ testimony at the hearing, the D.A. Charles Hynes dropped the legal fight against Collins’ appeal, but maintained that Collins was guilty. Irizarry overturned the convictions.
Only years later, in 2014, testifying under oath for Collins’ civil rights lawsuit and out of office, did Hynes say that he believed that Collins was innocent.