Dominion of New York

Social Justice

September 21, 2011

Wrongful Convictions All Too Common in New York

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Written by: Kelly Virella

Alcatraz prison

Photo Courtesy of Flickr/Miss_Millions


s progressives across the nation wring their hands about the bleak prospects of averting the execution of Troy Davis, the Georgia man whose controversial prosecution mobilized a national social movement, it’s worth unpacking and airing New York’s own dirty wrongful convictions laundry.

Since 1970, 104 people have been wrongfully convicted by New York’s state or federal courts — i.e. had their convictions overturned — according to the Wrongful Convictions Database Index. Between 1950 and 1970, another 10 were wrongfully convicted, according to the database.

A 2009 New York State Bar Association study of 53 New York State wrongful convictions determined that:

  •  36 involved improper procedures for identifying the suspect.
  • 31 involved erroneous prosecutorial, law enforcement, judicial or other government practice.
  • 26 involved the mishandling of forensic evidence.
  • 19 involved defense attorney errors, usually failure to investigate or offer  alternative theories or suspects.
  • 12 involved the use of false confessions.
  • 4 involved the use of jailhouse informants.

In 1988 black Brooklyn man Anthony Faison and his friend Charles Shephard were wrongfully convicted of second degree murder in connection with the 1987 homicide of cab driver Jean Ulysses. Over the next 12 years, Faison would write 62,000 letters in an attempt to get someone to reconsider his case. Eventually, the wino who identified him as the shooter retracted her statement. Her account of the shooting didn’t jibe with the crime scene. And the police informant who told her to fabricate the story admitted his treachery. But only until the real killer stepped forward to confess in 2001 were Faison and Shephard exonerated. Fortunately, they were sentenced to life in prison, rather than death.

Based on their research, the Bar Association recommended a series of policy changes. Dominion of New York contacted the Bar Association to ask how much of what they recommended has actually been implemented. Check back tomorrow for an answer to that question. But as of January 2009, the New York State legislature was being very unresponsive to advocacy group seeking reform. “For the last two years, the State Legislature has failed to act on bills that would improve eyewitness identification procedures, require electronic recording of interrogations, expand the use of forensic databases to identify the guilty and exonerate the innocent and implement other reforms that are proven to enhance the criminal justice system,” according to a 2009 press release by the Innocence Project.


I just heard back from the New York State Bar Association. As a result of their report, 6 bills were introduced into the New York State legislature. None became law and are being reintroduced again or have already been reintroduced during this legislative session. The Bar Association is sending us a full list of those bills. When they arrive, we’ll create a new post announcing them.

The Bar Association also made good on its promise to train prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges in an effort to help reduce wrongful convictions. Last year they held a training for 60 to 65 criminal justice professionals. On October 29, they’re holding another one. It will feature training on crime scene investigations, false confessions, forensic work, the Brady rule, which requires prosecutors to present to the defense information that is favorable to their cases.



About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.


New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, left to right. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Azipaybarah