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Exonerees demand interrogations be recorded to prevent more wrongful convictions

CITY HALL — In nearly two dozen cases in the New York metro area in the last two years, people have been released from prison after being locked up for years for crimes they didn't commit. On Friday, many of them were at City Hall, attempting to get city leaders to adopt changes in police procedures that they say can help prevent wrongful convictions like theirs.

However, one important factor was only there in a limited capacity: law enforcement.

"The fact that we can't have videotapes of what happens in an interrogation room appalls me," said Derrick Hamilton at a podium in front of the City Hall steps.

He was imprisoned for more than 20 years for a homicide that occurred when he was 90 miles away.

John Hincapie was released last year after serving 25 years for killing a tourist. A judge concluded that a witness was misled by police in order to convict him and that Hincapie was further denied justice.

"I spent 25 years in prison for this false confession that was beaten out of me," Hincapie said on Friday. "If there were cameras in the room then, I wouldn't have spent 25 years in prison."

The exonerees were invited by two City Council committee chairs to testify at a hearing on wrongful convictions. Joining the exonerees was Barry Scheck, the founder of the Innocence Project, which has, over two decades, helped to get more than 300 people released from prison -- twenty from death row -- for crimes they didn't commit.

Regarding changing the system of interrogations and lineups that often are the main causes of wrongful convictions, Scheck said, "If we can do it here in New York City, that will stimulate everyone in New York State."

In fact, across the river in New Jersey and in more than a dozen other states, police are required to record, from start to finish, their interrogations with major crime suspects, and any lineups of suspects that take place have to be conducted by an investigator with no connection to the case.

"We can prevent [wrongful convictions] by having the witnesses identify people, not cops," Hamilton said.

However, as pointed out by Jeffrey Deskovic, who served 16 years in prison for a rape and murder done by somebody else, the arguments for reform have been heard before.

In both of the past two state legislative sessions, reform has come close to passing, but ultimately did not.

Deskovic, who runs his own foundation to prevent and overturn wrongful convictions, said the time to act is now.

"It's going to take more voters," he told PIX11 News. "I think this [city council] hearing can move this forward."

But at the hearing, there was a key piece missing.

"As things stand right now, the NYPD has refused to participate in this hearing," said Councilmember Rory Lancman (D-Queens).

Actually, the police department issued a statement, submitted for the record, that read, in part, "It is the NYPD’s policy that all arrests effected by NYPD detective squads for index felony offenses and attempts, commonly referred to as the '7 major felonies,' are subject to video recorded interrogations. These offenses include murder, rape, robbery, burglary, assault, grand larceny, and grand larceny auto. Moreover, our Detective Zone Captains are given latitude to record certain misdemeanor arrests based on the totality of circumstances – this occurs most often with misdemeanor sex crimes.

"Currently, the New York City Police Department has 82 rooms equipped with video recording software. Each detective squad that is assigned to a precinct has a room equipped with this software. All Special Victim Squads are equipped as well.

"NYPD policy mandates that the recording system is activated before the subject enters the interrogation room, that the interrogation is recorded in its entirety, and the recording ends only after the interrogation is concluded, and all parties have exited the interrogation room. A detective squad supervisor is required to be present while personnel conduct a recorded interrogation."