Samuel Hamilton will remain behind bars .after a deeply divided upstate appellate panel embraced a hands-off approach to parole reviews.
Samuel Hamilton will remain behind bars .after a deeply divided upstate appellate panel embraced a hands-off approach to parole reviews. ()

ALBANY – A State prison inmate with an extraordinary record of institutional achievement and a network of supporters ranging from top corrections officials to the prosecutor who put him away in the early 1980s will remain behind bars after a deeply divided upstate appellate panel embraced a hands-off approach to parole reviews.

Although the justices of the Appellate Division, Third Department, noted that Samuel Hamilton has an exemplary record and unprecedented support, the 3-2 majority held that the court must yield to the discretion of the Board of Parole.

Writing for the majority, Justice Christine Clark (See Profile) said case law makes clear that as long as the parole board cites the statutory criteria for release, and as long as its determination does not evince “irrationality bordering on impropriety,” the courts should not interfere with the inner workings of the panel.

“The record establishes that the board acknowledged petitioner’s extensive rehabilitative success along with the additional statutory factors, but placed greater emphasis on the seriousness of petitioner’s crime in its determination that release would be incompatible with the welfare of society and so deprecate the seriousness of the crime as to undermine respect for the law, as it is entitled to do,” Clark wrote in Hamilton v. New York State Division of Parole, 518301. “We are thus constrained to affirm—to do otherwise is to implicitly overrule … decades of our well-settled jurisprudence.”

Clark’s opinion sparked strongly worded dissents by Presiding Justice Karen Peters (See Profile) and Justice Elizabeth Garry (See Profile), who said the majority established an “overbroad rule” in which it “wholly abdicat[ed] our critical judicial function” and closed the courthouse doors on a viable appeal.

Hamilton was 20 years old in 1982 and had a clean record when he and two friends decided to pull off a robbery. They did not know that their victim, James Carragher of Brooklyn, was an armed, off-duty police officer.

Records show that Carragher, when confronted, tossed his wallet toward the robbers, and then pulled his service weapon when one of them attempted to pick it up. Gunfire was exchanged between Carragher and one of the muggers. Carragher was killed and Hamilton, the “lookout” man, was wounded.

Hamilton refused to cooperate with authorities and was the only one of the three robbers charged with the crime. He was convicted of felony murder and sentenced by now-retired Justice Alain Bourgeois to an 18-years-to-life term.

Since then, Hamilton has earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, worked as an adjunct instructor and academic assistant through Nyack College and completed virtually every rehabilitative program offered to him.

He created a peace initiative at Sing Sing to address violence in prison, helped raise $10,000 for the prison’s family center and works to promote the rehabilitation of other inmates. Hamilton’s sole infraction in three decades behind bars occurred in 1990, when he altered an article of clothing and was required to pay $4 in restitution.

More than 20 corrections officers, a former chairman of the parole board, the former superintendent of the state prison system and the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case have all advocated for Hamilton’s release. But Hamilton, now 53, has been denied parole seven times.

Hamilton’s most recent denial came in August 2012, when the parole board voted 2-1 against his release. Commissioner James Ferguson, a former police officer, Bronx prosecutor and the son of a retired New York City detective; and Edward Sharkey, the former Cattaraugus County district attorney; were the majority. Commissioner Christina Hernandez dissented.

At the 2012 hearing, Ferguson said that he had never seen an inmate with so much support and did not dispute that the inmate had rehabilitated. He also suggested there was no reason to deny release, except for the fact that the victim was a police officer.

Hamilton challenged the parole denial with an Article 78 petition, which was rejected by Supreme Court Justice Eugene Devine (See Profile), who was subsequently promoted to the Third Department bench. His appeal resulted in an unusual 18-page decision, with a majority opinion, a concurrence and two written dissents.

Clark cited several precedents in arguing that as long as the parole board considers the various factors it must take into account, it can place as much or as little importance on any of those elements. Here, she said the board acted within its discretion in basing its determination on the seriousness of the offense. Justice Robert Rose joined her opinion.

Justice John Egan (See Profile), in a concurrence, said Hamilton’s “institutional record in no way alters the fact that he stands convicted of society’s most heinous crime—the taking of a fellow being’s life.”

Peters, in a lengthy dissent, said the parole decision was predicated on “significant errors of fact.”

Peters said Ferguson indicated he was not convinced that Hamilton was not the shooter, despite conclusive evidence to the contrary. She noted that the Brooklyn prosecutor who tried the case, Jonathan Fairbanks, now a partner in Zwiebel and Fairbanks in Kingston, submitted a statement asserting that “there was not a scintilla of evidence that [Hamilton] was the shooter” and that “no one involved in the investigation” ever believed that Hamilton pulled the trigger or was even armed.

Additionally, Peters found “troubling” comments Ferguson made at the parole interview suggesting that the accomplices were never prosecuted because Hamilton did not cooperate.

“This commissioner implied that someone must continue to be punished for the unfortunate death of this police officer and, absent the ability to punish the most culpable party, petitioner must continue to pay that price in his stead,” Peters wrote. “Manifestly, such punitive considerations find no support in statute and have absolutely no relevance to the decision to grant or deny parole.”

Peters also disagreed with the majority’s legal conclusion that the courts have little authority to review parole board determinations.

She argued that the courts, “more than simply ratifying a decision made by the board so long as it adheres to the statutory mandates,” have the authority and responsibility to “make some measure of substantive evaluation to assure that justice is served.”

Garry weighed in with a brief but biting one-paragraph dissent.

“No sound basis supports this individual’s continuing incarceration,” Garry wrote. “While our review powers are limited, they should not be applied in a manner that is so inordinately deferential as to render the appellate review process a mere sham.”

The appeal was argued June 3 by Christopher Filburn, an associate at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, for Hamilton, and Assistant Attorney General Kathleen Arnold for the parole board.

Filburn said he will consider seeking leave to the Court of Appeals.

“We are obviously disappointed with the result,” said Filburn, who is handling the case pro bono. “I think it is fairly clear that all five justices recognized Mr. Hamilton’s extraordinary accomplishments during his period of incarceration. We obviously agree with the views expressed by [Presiding Justice] Peters and we believe Mr. Hamilton deserves to be paroled.”

Hamilton is due for his next regularly scheduled parole interview in August.
The parole board, through a spokesman, declined comment.