A man who spent 15 years in prison for a Brooklyn murder he did not commit agreed to a $3 million settlement approved on Thursday with New York State, one of the largest such settlements in recent history.
The settlement for the man, Jabbar Collins, is among a wave the state is expected to face. In Brooklyn alone, the convictions of seven men have been vacated this year, after the district attorney there began examining 90 troubled convictions. Filing claims against the state and the city is standard practice after a vacated conviction.
I’m not so sure about that last sentence. If I remember correctly, the standards of proof in two such lawsuits are quite different. The standard for filing a case in New York State’s Court of Claims is direct: I didn’t do it, I was convicted anyway, and I spent years in prison. Filing against the City (in federal court, I presume) is called for in a number of cases like Collins’s that involved the Brooklyn D.A. and reportedly really bad cops. Bad prosecution − not mistaken prosecution −isn’t standard in every wrongful conviction case.
Judge Faviola A. Soto of the New York State Court of Claims approved the amount for Mr. Collins at a hearing.
Janet Polstein, an assistant attorney general for the state, said at the hearing, “This is reasonable compensation for the loss of liberty Mr. Collins suffered in state incarceration.”
Mr. Collins was convicted of killing a rabbi in 1994 in the Williamsburg section of the borough. He always claimed he was innocent, and, while in prison, began researching the law and his case, filing records requests and appeals from behind bars and interviewing witnesses.
I worked on wrongful conviction cases; in fact, I was acquainted (mostly over the telephone) with Janet Polstein, the AAG quoted above. Hi, Janet.
The Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment Act, which most of us called simply “8-b” (the number of the statute’s section), was at the time − the late ’90’s − pretty unusual, if I remember correctly. It had been signed into law by Mario Cuomo in the early 1980s and was one of the few such laws in the United States.
I once described 8-b to someone as a “shit happens” law. Or, rather, “shit happens but a civilized state, ruled by law, can’t just shrug it away and say, ‘Oops, sorry, never mind.'” And that’s what 8-b rectified: the tendency of people to shrug off a 15 year imprisonment for someone innocent of a crime, and say, “So you’re out now, you’ve got to be satisfied with that, congratulations.”
8-b says no to that. 8-b says, if you were put in prison for something you didn’t do, the state, even if it didn’t deliberately conspire to do such a bad thing to you, must compensate you for that great wrong, that awful accident of fate.
The law is written quite clearly (take a look at the link, above) and makes some specific demands of the wrongfully convicted person who intends to sue the state. For one thing, as the Times article about Jabbar Collins states, the claimant must have always maintained he was innocent. 8-b deals only with innocence, not with “not guilty.”
This can be a real sticking point, since a falsely arrested person can be conned into admitting guilt in return for a reduced sentence, or is told once imprisoned that if he was sent away for rape, he’d have a much easier time with prison administrators and the parole board if he joined a rape counseling group, sort of a 12-step program for rapists.
We had several clients who refused to join these groups, given that they knew they weren’t rapists. They showed remarkable, if agonizing, integrity, even before they knew about 8-b.
Eric Schneiderman, New York State Attorney General, has proposed some initiatives to address earlier on the possibility of a wrongful conviction, and recently proposed re-writing 8-b to remove obstacles to claimants, one of which is the insistence that they must always have claimed innocence, not joined prison rape counseling groups, not taken pleas.
I’d also like to see the state set up a fund that could provide such claimants some money as soon as they get out of prison, to help them get started with life again. I’m not going to write about this here, but the problems innocent people face when finally released from prison are painful and unique. They need more aid quickly than simply a promise of a lawsuit that could go on for years.