Samuel Hamilton, left, has been released on parole with the support of former Brooklyn prosecutor Jonathan Fairbanks, who put him away in 1983. ()
ALBANY – Just weeks after enduring scathing criticism in an Appellate Division dissent, the state Board of Parole has voted unanimously to release a man it had denied on seven prior occasions.
A transcript of Samuel Hamilton’s parole interview on Aug. 19 suggests that a powerful letter written by the former Brooklyn prosecutor who put him away in 1983 was key to releasing Hamilton, who served 32 years of an 18-year-to-life sentence for taking part in a robbery that resulted in the death of an off-duty police officer. Hamilton was not the shooter and his two co-defendants were never prosecuted for the crime.
Jonathan Fairbanks, who was an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn in the early 1980s and is now a partner at Zwiebel and Fairbanks in Kingston, has supported Hamilton’s bid for parole for several years and has written several letters to the board, urging the panel to release a man he had convicted.
But his most recent letter, sent on Aug. 1, seemed to turn the tide.
In the letter, Fairbanks responded to a parole commissioner’s comments in 2012, the last time Hamilton was denied release, suggesting that because the inmate had not cooperated with authorities the shooter and an accomplice were never brought to justice (NYLJ, Aug. 5).
Fairbanks made clear in the Aug. 1 letter that Hamilton’s reticence in no way impeded the prosecution.
Fairbanks said he always knew who the other culprits were but had no physical evidence tying them to the crime.
Consequently, Fairbanks said, a declaration from Hamilton would have provided the prosecution with nothing more than an uncorroborated, and inadmissible, co-defendant statement. He said the shooter was “killed on the street” decades ago and the other accomplice died in prison after he was convicted of an unrelated murder.
Additionally, Fairbanks stressed that the trial judge, then-Supreme Court Justice Alain Bourgeois, sentenced Hamilton to well under the maximum term, indicating that in his judgment parole release after 18 years could be appropriate.
Fairbanks urged the parole board to show respect and deference to the judge’s sentencing decision, adding that Hamilton has compiled an extraordinary record of accomplishment during his decades behind bars.
At the Aug. 19 hearing, Fairbanks’ letter figured prominently, and lengthy sections of the letter were read into the record by one of the parole commissioners, Christina Hernandez, according to a transcript of the proceeding. Hernandez dissented in 2012 when the board voted 2-1 against releasing Hamilton.
“I do want to indicate that the assistant district attorney who prosecuted you, Mr. Jonathan Fairbanks, has issued letters on your behalf to the parole board, and he also gave it to the Law Journal as well to be published, it looks like, indicating and trying to clear up the record,” Hernandez said. “He made it very clear that you were not the shooter.”
Last month, the Appellate Division, Third Department, upheld Hamilton’s 2012 parole denial in a 3-2 decision. While the majority, represented by Justice Christine Clark (See Profile), embraced a hands-off posture with regard to parole reviews, Presiding Justice Karen Peters (See Profile) and Justice Elizabeth Garry (See Profile) wrote strong dissents.
Peters was troubled that at the 2012 parole hearing Commissioner James Ferguson apparently held Hamilton responsible for the fact that his accomplices were not prosecuted. Garry went so far as to accuse the majority of “wholly abdicat[ing] our critical judicial function” (NYLJ, July 25).
Records show that Hamilton was 20 years old and had a clean record in 1982 when he and two other men decided to pull off a robbery.
They eventually happened upon James Carragher, who seemed to be an easy target. But Carragher was an armed, off-duty housing authority officer who exchanged gunfire with the robbers.
Carragher was killed and Hamilton, who was not armed, was wounded. Only Hamilton was convicted in connection with the crime.
In prison, Hamilton, now 53, compiled an exceptional record and garnered the support of an unlikely group of advocates, ranging from Fairbanks to top corrections officials to prison guards.
Regardless, he was targeted by the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association as a “cop killer,” despite the undisputed fact that he did not shoot Carragher, and was consistently denied parole.
Attorneys with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, especially associate Moira Kim Penza, embraced Hamilton’s cause pro bono and spent five years preparing him for what would become one disappointing parole interview after another, followed by another loss in court.
Penza has been working the case virtually since she was admitted to the bar in 2009. One of her colleagues, Paul Weiss associate Christopher Filburn, argued the case at the Third Department and came within a vote of victory.
“One of the reasons I went to Paul Weiss was because of its dedication to pro bono work, which was something that was important to me when I started law school,” Penza said in an interview.
Penza said that despite the repeated denials, Hamilton never got bitter and never stopped working toward his own rehabilitation and that of other inmates.
“He has shown remarkable respect for the process and continues to make efforts to rehabilitate himself and to serve as a mentor to other inmates and to really make a difference,” Penza said. “Although the previous denials were disappointing, he never gave up.”
Fairbanks, in an interview, said he became a prosecutor because it seemed “the best job for someone interested in social justice,” and worked in the Brooklyn D.A.’s office from 1977 to 1989. He said a lot of thought and discussion went into the 18-year-to-life sentence imposed by Bourgeois. Hamilton’s crime of conviction, second-degree murder, carries a minimum sentence to 15-to-life and maximum of 25-to-life.
“I knew a lot about the crime,” Fairbanks said. “I knew that Sam was duped into this. I knew Sam was a foolish 20-year-old who was approached by two very bad guys, and like a lot of foolish 20-year-olds, fell for it and got involved in a very stupid crime. Initially, his role was just to drive and wait in the car while a drug dealer was held up.”
Fairbanks said he kept in touch with Hamilton during his later years in prison and became increasingly impressed with the prisoner’s educational accomplishments, commitment to rehabilitation, genuine remorse and acceptance of responsibility for his role in the death of the police officer.
“He in no way runs from his crime and as far as I am concerned he has done everything he could to lead an exemplary life, not only for himself and his community but to honor the horrible death of Officer Carragher,” Fairbanks said.
In addition to Hernandez, commissioners Ellen Alexander and Gail Hallerdin were on the panel that interviewed Hamilton at Fishkill Correctional Facility.
At the hearing, Hamilton said that until the robbery that landed him in prison for murder, he had never committed a crime, and insisted he will never commit another.
“I also would like to say that if you see to grant me parole, that I won’t let you down,” Hamilton told the panel. “I will never, ever, never, ever commit a crime again.”
Hamilton, who was rated by the parole board’s own risk assessment as highly unlikely to commit another offense, said he has four job offers and connections with re-entry organizations that will help him transition to freedom.
There was no immediate reaction from the PBA.