Families of wrongly convicted rally for change outside Brooklyn DA’s office

DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — He's been credited with helping more than two dozen people get released from prison for crimes they did not commit, as well as for trying to get even more people out from behind bars. Despite that, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, who's been called a national leader on overturning convictions, was the target of protest on Thursday by a group of people who've either been exonerated through the D.A.'s efforts, or who are trying to win exoneration.

"There's no more transparency," said Derrick Hamilton at the rally Thursday.

The rally was held in front of the same office from which Hamilton was freed in 2015 after serving nearly 30 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

He led at least one other exoneree , as well as families of people who claim they were wrongfully convicted, in a demonstration calling for more action from the D.A.'s office.

The protesters said the D.A.'s Conviction Review Unit, or CRU, is not working nearly hard enough. It's helped to free 25 people, who've served a total of nearly 450 years behind bars for crimes they didn't commit.

Still, Hamilton said, there is a need for protest.

"You talk about due process," he said before the group of a few dozen demonstrators. "What process is due to people who are in the CRU?"

The protesters said that the CRU hasn't been working fast or hard enough once it's agreed to review a case to see if it can prove innocence in the case.

Nicki Smith's husband, Terence Smith, is one of those cases. She spoke for him at the rally, saying that he was falsely accused of shooting at police nearly 30 years ago and has sat in prison ever since. She said that she and her family provided evidence to the CRU to help get him freed.

"We brought a whole big big box, thousands of pages, and had them sign a receipt for it," she told PIX11 News. "Now, they claim they don't have the documents again."

For his part, in an interview with PIX11 News that aired this week, District Attorney Gonzalez acknowledged that he's a leader in exonerations. A variety of human rights groups has heralded his office as the gold standard for overturning convictions, and on Thursday, the Economist magazine said the office is "setting an example for the rest of the country.

Still, families whose loved ones' cases are being reviewed by the CRU said that the efforts of Gonzalez's predecessor, Ken Thompson, who set up the CRU, has to be stepped up.

"Ken Thompson implemented the CRU and it's done great work under his leadership," said Kevin Smith, who served more than two decades for a murder conviction that the CRU is currently considering trying to overturn. "But now under Eric Gonzalez," Smith continued, "we're questioning that. There's cases that have been languishing for years."

Following Thursday's protest, a spokesperson for the D.A.'s office released this statement: “The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit is the national model for reviewing wrongful convictions. This fully staffed unit pours over evidence, including interviewing witnesses, visiting crime scenes, and reviewing voluminous court transcripts to do justice. It’s conclusions elate those who are exonerated and, naturally, disappoint those who aren’t. We remain fully committed to exonerating those who have been wrongfully convicted.”

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