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Hundreds of innocent NYers go to prison for decades because of state law

Posted: 11:36 PM, Nov 26, 2014
Updated: 2014-11-27 07:34:24-05

NEW YORK (PIX11)-- Every American has the right to a fair trial, but in New York, that does not mean that a person accused of a crime gets to see all of the evidence against them. The situation is raising calls for change, as more and more cases of wrongful imprisonment continue to stack up.

201 New Yorkers, to be precise, have been imprisoned in the last 25 years for crimes they didn't commit, according to the National Registry of Exonerations .  Almost all of those prison sentences were for over a year. The majority were for longer than a decade, and many were for more than two decades.

Jonathan Fleming was one of the longest term cases. He was released this past April for a murder in Brooklyn he did not commit.

"I waited for this day to come," Fleming told PIX11 News at the time. "Twenty-four and a half years for this nightmare to be over."

That quarter century was lost, despite the fact that Fleming had been a thousand miles away, in Orlando, when the murder took place. There was a receipt from his Central Florida hotel showing he had made a transaction there near the time of the homicide for which he was accused, and an investigation by Orlando police indicated that Fleming had been in their city during the crime, but that evidence was never given to him by prosecutors.

In another case, the trial of William Lopez, prosecutors trying him for murder did not provide him and his lawyer with transcripts that showed that a crack-addicted prostitute who testified against him had made it all up in order to get favorable treatment in her own criminal cases.

Lopez was exonerated last year, also after having spent nearly a quarter century in prison. He died from an asthma attack two months ago.

"Wrongful convictions are not rare," said Jeffrey Deskovic, in an interview with PIX11 News. He became Lopez's best friend after Lopez was released. Both men, however, know firsthand what it's like to be wrongly convicted.

"I missed births, deaths, holidays, graduating high school, high school prom," Deskovic said, "finishing education at a normal age."

Deskovic was convicted in 1990 of the beating, rape and murder of his then-high school classmate Angela Correa, even though DNA evidence indicated he didn't do it. But investigators forced a bogus confession from him, and documents proving that were not required to be shown to Deskovic and his lawyer.

"That would have been important information to use in cross-examination," he said. It could have helped stop him from going to prison for 16 years. However, the lack of a requirement in New York state that defendants get to see all of the evidence against them kept that key acquittal information from being admitted to his trial.

"New York State is one of the most backward states in the country in that respect," said Joel Rudin. He was the attorney for Jabbar Collins, a Brooklyn resident who was also imprisoned for 16 years after three witnesses testified they'd seen him rob and kill a rabbi. There was plenty of evidence showing that the witnesses were lying.

"It turned out that documents that for 15 years investigators had said under oath didn't exist, were in the file," Rudin told PIX11 News.

But Collins was denied access to that file that may have acquitted him, because New York only requires limited evidence be released, as Rudin pointed out. "Nothing concerning what witnesses may have said, nothing about the details of the crime, or the basis for the prosecution to believe the defendant may have committed it."

That's why more and more people are protesting the New York law, called CPL 240, that limits what information is given to a person accused of a crime. The organization Discovery for Justice has led the charge, through protests and lobbying state lawmakers.

Advocates point out that New York is one of only about a dozen states with the restrictions. Why are lawmakers in Albany holding out?

Groups like the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York argue that granting an accused person full access to evidence against them could allow criminals to find out and intimidate witnesses, or give criminals other tools to avoid conviction.

However, there's a place where all files are open to people accused of crimes, close by to New York, right across the Hudson, in New Jersey.

"There's no spike in crime [there]," said Deskovic, "witnesses aren't being rubbed out."

That statement is supported by both the biggest study of states that provide all evidence to defendants, and by New Jersey State Police crime statistics .

Also, opening files may increase public safety, according to the man who did not have full access to the evidence against him.

"Every time the wrong person is convicted," Deskovic said, "the actual perpetrator is free to strike again."

He should know. Four years after he was imprisoned for the murder he didn't commit, the person who later admitted to the murder -- Steven Cunningham --- committed another murder, of Patricia Morrison, the sister of his girlfriend.

"She was a teacher and mother of two," said Deskovic, "which would have been prevented if he'd been convicted in my case."

Deskovic last month became the recipient of the largest jury award ever for misconduct that led to a false arrest, $41 million. He's calling on the New York state legislature to change the law to allow what's called open-file discovery.

The state assembly, the lower house of the legislature, has repeatedly passed bills that would allow open-file discovery, but the state senate keeps voting it down. The upper house of the legislature is expected to revisit the issue in January.