Last week, Huwe Burton walked out of a Bronx courtroom an exonerated man, after having served 19 years in prison for the murder of his mother. Arrested at age 16, Mr. Burton was convicted based chiefly on what he and his lawyers insisted was a coerced, and false, confession. Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark touted her decision to vacate Mr. Burton’s conviction and “clear his name.” This case, given its parallels to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s recent experience with disgraced Detective Louis Scarcella, should serve as a call to action for Ms. Clark.
In March 2013, David Ranta’s exoneration led former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes to begin a comprehensive re-investigation of cases handled by the now-infamous Detective Scarcella. Faced with the public’s growing awareness of the problem of wrongful convictions; numerous reports of troubling behavior by the former detective; and an electoral challenge from Kenneth P. Thompson, who would ultimately unseat him; District Attorney Hynes charged his Conviction Integrity Unit with reviewing a large number of Scarcella-related convictions. District Attorney Thompson and his successor, current District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, have continued that effort, which thus far has resulted in a staggering 14 exonerations attributable to Detective Scarcella, with more likely to come. The systematic review of Mr. Scarcella’s work has uncovered troubling patterns by the detective and his colleagues, including the extraction of false confessions, subornation of perjury, and suppression of exculpatory evidence. That process was greatly facilitated by conviction review prosecutors’ working collaboratively with defense attorneys to investigate suspected wrongful convictions and, where appropriate, to correct them.
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