Derrick Hamilton leaves Brooklyn Criminal Court after his conviction was vacated Friday, holding daughter Maia, 2. At left are two of his attorneys, Scott Brettschneider and Jonathan Edelstein. Wife Nicole is third from left.
Derrick Hamilton leaves Brooklyn Criminal Court after his conviction was vacated Friday, holding daughter Maia, 2. At left are two of his attorneys, Scott Brettschneider and Jonathan Edelstein. Wife Nicole is third from left. (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

A Brooklyn man who said he was framed by a detective, which led to a wrongful murder conviction and more than 20 years of incarceration, has been cleared of the crime after prosecutors deemed the case’s sole witness unreliable.

Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Mark Hale told Supreme Court Justice Raymond Guzman (See Profile) the prosecution could no longer stand by Derrick Hamilton’s conviction for the 1991 shooting.

The lone eyewitness, Jewel Smith, was “as a whole unreliable, incredible, and for the most part untruthful,” said Hale, adding that using her as a witness violated Hamilton’s due process rights.

Hamilton, 49, was paroled from state prison in 2011. Lonnie Soury, a spokesman for Hamilton, said Hamilton would be filing a civil suit against the city.

The vacatur is the latest in a growing list of convictions that District Attorney Kenneth Thompson has deemed unjust. Since Thompson became the borough’s top prosecutor last year, his office has undone 10 convictions and dropped the appeal of a habeas grant to an 11th man.

Embattled detective Louis Scarcella, now retired, worked on four of those cases, including Hamilton’s.

Hamilton said Scarcella coerced the testimony against him but Scarcella denies wrongdoing.

Thompson’s office has never faulted Scarcella during court proceedings to vacate unsound cases and Hale did not mention him Friday.

The office has reviewed about 30 cases. Spokeswoman Lupe Todd said some cases the office chose to stand behind were linked to Scarcella but she did not have the exact figure.

The Conviction Review Unit still has about 100 more cases to review, 70 of which are linked to Scarcella. It is one of the nation’s most ambitious efforts to determine whether old cases were handled properly.

In a statement, Thompson said, “The people of Brooklyn elected me to ensure that justice is done and that is what my decision to vacate Derrick Hamilton’s conviction reflects.” He said his office reviewed the crime scene, as well as medical and scientific evidence before concluding the witness account was unreliable.

Hamilton pressed a number of post-conviction challenges. When the Appellate Division, Second Department, ruled on his latest bid last year, the court recognized a freestanding claim of actual innocence by which defendants could challenge their convictions (NYLJ, Jan. 16, 2014).

Though various trial-level courts had recognized the claim, the Second Department was the first appellate court in the state to do so.

In Hamilton’s case, Justice Sylvia Hinds-Radix (See Profile) overruled a summary denial of Hamilton’s latest Criminal Procedure Law §440 motion and ordered a hearing.

No hearing occurred because the office’s Conviction Review Unit took the case instead.

On Friday, Guzman granted Hamilton’s motion, joined by the prosecution, to set aside the conviction pursuant to Criminal Procedure Law §440.10(1)(h). The provision permits a vacatur if the “judgment was obtained in violation of a right of the defendant under the constitution of this state or of the United States.”

“That a wrong has been corrected is a tribute to the justice system,” Guzman said from the bench, crediting the defense and prosecution for their work on the matter.

The underlying case arose from the fatal shooting of Nathaniel Cash in Bedford Stuyvesant. At the scene of the shooting, Jewel Smith, who was Cash’s girlfriend, had told a detective that she had not seen the shooter. Hamilton said Scarcella pressured her into changing her story.

Though Hamilton attempted at the time to advance an alibi defense, he said he could not do so because one witness was too ill and another too scared to testify.

Smith, the key prosecution witness, testified Hamilton was the shooter.

After Hamilton’s 1993 conviction, but before sentencing, he moved to throw out the verdict; at the motion hearing, Smith said she had testified falsely based on threats from Scarcella.

Scarcella rejected the claim and the bid was denied.

Hamilton was then given a 25-year to life sentence. In post-conviction litigation, Hamilton, among other things, presented new alibi witnesses.

‘There’s Karma in This Case’

During the Conviction Review Unit’s work, prosecutors heard from alibi witnesses and reviewed medical and ballistics reports to poke holes in Smith’s testimony.

While Smith testified Hamilton shot Cash in the chest, records show he was shot in the back. Likewise, ballistics reports showed two guns were used.

During the proceedings Friday, one of Hamilton’s attorneys, Scott Brettschneider of Kew Gardens said Hamilton “never for one second doubted his own abilities to convince a court of law he was innocent.”

He said Hamilton’s interviews with The New York Times spurred the paper’s review of Scarcella’s cases and brought new attention to them.

“In some way, there’s karma in this case,” said Brettschneider, who was Hamilton’s original appellate attorney.

One of Brettschneider’s co-counsel, Jonathan Edelstein of Edelstein & Grossman, also discussed the case and faulted Scarcella.

But at one point Guzman cut him short.

“Detective Scarcella is not on trial here,” the said, later adding he did not “want to go into aspersions at this time.”

“One day in prison is too much for an innocent man,” Hamilton told reporters outside court. “It’s exhilarating. It’s a grateful day. It’s the world to me.”

Hamilton, wearing a hat displaying the words “Wrongfully Convicted” and holding his two-year-old daughter, said he thought Scarcella should be in jail.

After the proceedings, Scarcella’s attorneys, Joel S. Cohen and Alan Abramson of Abramson & Morak released a statement commending Thompson’s conviction review effort and defending their client. They said it was “noteworthy” that when prosecutors consented to the vacatur, they did “solely” on due process grounds and “explicitly declined to consent on the grounds that Mr. Hamilton was actually innocent.”

Cohen and Abramson said Thompson was clear he found “no evidence” Scarcella “did anything inappropriate while assisting the assigned detective in this case.” They said no judge has issued any finding and no prosecutor has made any statement “to sustain the sensational claims that have appeared in the press that Detective Scarcella contributed to any person’s wrongful conviction.”

During Friday’s proceedings, Robert Grossman of Edelstein & Grossman and Ilya Novofastovsky of Novo Law Firm also appeared for Hamilton.

Assistant District Attorney Tamara Edelstein also appeared for the prosecution.

@|Andrew Keshner can be reached via email or on Twitter @AndrewKeshner. The Associated Press contributed to this story.