Daniel Gristwood at his damages trial in 2011. At left, Court of Claims Judge Nicholas Midey Jr. (TWCNews)
An upstate appellate panel has unanimously affirmed a $5.5 million unjust conviction award to a man who falsely confessed to attempted murder after State Police interrogated him for 15 hours and told him he would never see his wife or five young children again unless he came clean.
The Appellate Division, Fourth Department, rejected all the arguments advanced by the state in seeking to topple or reduce the Court of Claims award to Daniel Gristwood.
Gristwood served nine years of a 12½-to-25 year sentence for attempted second-degree murder, a conviction that relied solely on what turned out to be a false confession.
He was finally released by Acting Supreme Court Justice John Brunetti of Syracuse in 2006 after another individual came forward and confessed to attacking Gristwood’s wife with a hammer, providing extensive details that accurately described the assault and the crime scene.
Last year, Court of Claims Judge Nicholas Midey Jr. (See Profile) awarded Gristwood $5,485,394 in damages, including $2.7 million for loss of liberty and $1.9 million for post-incarceration psychological injuries, plus pecuniary damages.
On appeal, the Attorney General’s Office argued that Midey erred in excluding transcripts from the criminal trial, but the Fourth Department said in Gristwood v. State of New York, CA 13-01679, that the state itself neglected to offer those documents at a CPL 440.10 hearing, and therefore failed to preserve the issue.
The court also rejected the attorney general’s argument that Gristwood failed to establish his innocence and that he was responsible for the wrongful conviction because he confessed.
“Here, we conclude that the record fully supports the court’s determination that claimant’s inculpatory statement was the product of police misconduct,” the court said in a memorandum signed by Presiding Justice Henry Scudder (See Profile) and justices Eugene Fahey (See Profile), Edward Carni (See Profile), Joseph Valentino (See Profile) and Gerald Whalen (See Profile).
The court noted that Gristwood was awake for 34 hours before making his only inculpatory statement. He had been interrogated in a six-by-eight-foot windowless room for 15 hours, during which he ate nothing and consumed only a can of soda. Additionally, the court said, a polygraph operator reported that the exam was problematic because the suspect was struggling to remain awake and experiencing chest pains.
“Nevertheless, after the polygraph exam, the interrogation took on an increasingly aggressive and hostile tone, and claimant was told by the police that he was ‘lying,’” the court said. “Claimant’s inculpatory statement was made after he was threatened that he would never see his family again if he did not cooperate.”
The appellate justices said Midey properly determined that “claimant’s statement was not voluntarily made and that claimant therefore did ‘not by his own conduct cause or bring about his conviction,’” (quoting from Court of Claims Act §8-b).
The court also rejected the state’s contention that the nonpecuniary damages were excessive.
Records show that at time of his arrest, Gristwood was 29 years old, had been married for a decade, had five children under 10 years of age, worked steadily and had no criminal record.
After the conviction, Gristwood’s wife, who suffered brain damage in the attack and is partially paralyzed, divorced him. Their children moved in with relatives because she was incapable of caring for them. Gristwood testified at his damages trial that his relationship with the children was destroyed while he was imprisoned.
“Claimant established that his conviction and incarceration had a catastrophic impact on his personal and family life during the period of incarceration and continuing thereafter,” the Fourth Department said. “Claimant also established that he suffers from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic depressive disorder, and chronic anxiety disorder and prominent avoidant and paranoid traits, all as the result of his unjust conviction and incarceration.”
Patricia Lynn-Ford, of Lynn Law Firm in Syracuse, represented Gristwood on the appeal. Thomas Shannon and William Lynn, also of the Lynn firm, argued the claimant’s case at the Court of Claims.
The state was represented by Assistant Attorney General Robert Goldfarb.
In an interview, Lynn-Ford said two statements were at issue, a lengthy one in which Gristwood denied having anything do with the assault on his wife and a much shorter “bizarre” one, obtained hours later, in which he implicated himself. She said there was no forensic evidence linking Gristwood to the crime.
“It is a fine line between effective police work and crossing the line to the point where people are so vulnerable they will say anything,” Lynn-Ford said.
She added that when the criminal case was tried in 1996 by James Hopkins of Syracuse, the incidence of false confessions was not yet apparent.
“The jurisprudence has changed,” Lynn-Ford said. “Now you can call witnesses in the appropriate case to testify regarding the phenomenon of false confessions, to help the jury understand why someone would confess to doing something they didn’t do. Back when the case was originally tried, that was not part of our jurisprudence.”
“Now,” she continued, “with the appropriate foundation, a defense attorney can seek to introduce expert testimony to explain what factors are associated with the phenomenon of false confessions.”
At the liability trial, Allison Redlich, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Albany School of Criminal Justice who is an expert in police-induced false confessions, testified that the interrogation of Gristwood was “highly coercive” and involuntary, according to Midey’s liability decision, Gristwood v. State, 114040 (2011).
Additionally, the trial judge, Brunetti, and prosecutor, Assistant Onondaga County District Attorney Nicholas DeMartino, testified.
Brunetti suggested that given what he knows now, he may not have admitted the second statement. The judge testified that he is “much more educated” and his insight into confessions is “much more expansive than it was in 1996.”
DeMartino testified that the conviction rested solely on the contested confession, and that without the statement there wasn’t enough evidence even to arrest Gristwood, let alone secure a conviction. The district attorney’s office consented to the dismissal of the indictment in 2006.
In the liability decision, Midey observed in a footnote that Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick “fully supports a policy that requires all custodial interrogations and statements to be videotaped.” Gristwood’s interrogation had not been recorded.
Lynn-Ford said New York State has made strides in recognizing that wrongful convictions occur, and attempting to make amends through monetary relief offered under the Court of Claims Act.
“It is very important that New York State has this initiative, and I think it says a lot—that as good as our legal system is, it is flawed and we have to find a way, when mistakes are made, to do what little we can to make it right,” Lynn-Ford said. “But all the system has is money. It can’t give people back their life, their children, their reputation.”
Individuals such as Gristwood who confess have a far more difficult time obtaining damages.
Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman proposed an amendment to §8-b of the Court of Claims Act to make it easier for people who were wrongly convicted to sue the state, even if they confessed or otherwise helped bring about their conviction (NYLJ, Feb. 20). At a press conference at John Jay College in Manhattan, Schneiderman said the current law “victimizes people who acted out of fear, had a serious mental or psychological problem, or were simply too young to know better, that they admitted doing something they did not do.”
The attorney general’s Unjust Imprisonment Act, A9965, would have allowed exonerated people to sue the state for damages even if they pleaded guilty or confessed and could not prove that they were the victim of coercion or duress. Although the bill was sponsored by Codes Committee Chairman Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, D-Brooklyn, in the lower chamber, it died in committee and was never introduced in the Senate.
At the Fourth Department, Goldfarb, relying on the law as it exists and not as proposed by the attorney general, sought to reverse the liability decision, relying on the provision that generally excludes recovery when an individual’s own conduct results in his or her wrongful conviction.
“The record does not contain clear and convincing evidence undermining the finding of the judge and jury in claimant’s criminal case that claimant’s inculpatory statement was voluntary and not coerced,” Goldfarb said in his brief. “Thus, claimant caused or brought about his conviction by making that statement and recovery is barred by § 8-b(5)(d).”
Casey Aguglia, a spokeswoman for Schneiderman, said the attorney general “remains deeply committed to the reforms he proposed as part of the Unjust Imprisonment Act. Until they are enacted, however, our office is obligated to represent the state under existing laws, even those with which the attorney general disagrees as a matter of policy.”
Interest on the award has been accruing at 9 percent annually since the liability decision was issued on April 1, 2011. That amounts to about $41,000 a month.