LOWER MANHATTAN — Collectively, they’ve spent hundreds of years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
On Tuesday, a group of wrongfully convicted people joined with families of people currently behind bars who claim their innocence at a rally calling for swifter action on pending requests for convictions to be overturned. They said that now that newly elected leaders are preparing to enter City Hall and other places of power, there’s new momentum to act.
Derrick Hamilton, whose conviction for murder was vacated seven years ago after he’d spent two decades in prison, now leads the organization Families and Friends of the Wrongfully Convicted. It set up a rally outside of City Hall to call for newly elected as well as longstanding officials to make overturning
“We’re your constituents,” Hamilton said in an interview. “You can’t speak for us. We want to come out and speak for ourselves.”
Darlene Murray was among a couple of dozen speakers at the rally. Her son Darnell has been in prison for 19 years, and has always insisted on his innocence.
She said that Mayor-elect Eric Adams, who’s called for greater action on wrongful convictions in the past, should be sympathetic to their cause.
“His background with the police and how they victimized him,” she said, referring to Adams’s history of being abused by law enforcement before ultimately becoming an NYPD captain himself. “He can understand the stories of people out here today and what they’ve gone through.”
Also, newly elected Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg had pledged during his campaign to step up investigations into wrongful convictions. The people at the rally said they intend to hold him accountable.
Some of the speakers, including Jeffrey Deskovic, an exoneree who served 16 years in prison for a murder and rape that he didn’t commit, also said that longstanding prosecutors aren’t doing enough.
“They have the ability to free wrongfully convicted people in a very fast and efficient manner,” said Deskovic, who is now an attorney himself. He cited former Brooklyn D.A. Ken Thompson for overseeing 27 exonerations in three years. “Why are the other D.A.s not doing the same thing?” Deskovic asked.
The current Brooklyn D.A., Eric Gonzalez, got criticized at the rally for not having his Conviction Review Unit, or CRU, act swiftly enough on wrongful conviction investigations.
His office responded with a statement after PIX11 News requested a comment.
“During DA Gonzalez’s tenure,” the statement from a spokesperson began, “Brooklyn’s CRU has vacated 99 convictions with more to be announced soon, enhanced transparency by partnering with the Innocence Project on a first-of-its-kind study, and expanded its work by advocating for parole and clemency of individuals who were justly convicted but have successfully rehabilitated themselves after serving many years in prison.”
Similarly, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark was criticized at the rally. Her office responded with a statement that read in part:
“The Bronx District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Bureau typically receives 20-35 requests to investigate each year. So far this year, we have opened 30 cases for possible reinvestigation. Since the Bureau’s inception in 2016, we have vacated eight convictions. Each involved intensive investigations involving interviewing dozens of people and reviewing thousands of documents.”
The statement continues, referencing some cases related to NYPD Detective Joseph Franco, who’s currently facing perjury charges:
“In addition to investigating claims of actual innocence and wrongful conviction, the Bureau engages in audits of past convictions that relied entirely on information provided by police officers who we later learned were not credible or reliable. Thus, we have vacated 125 convictions that depended on former Detective Franco’s testimony.”
The Brooklyn D.A. has also vacated 90 cases involving Franco’s testimony.
Still, Kevin Smith, who served 27 years in prison for a murder that he says he didn’t commit, said the pace of justice isn’t fast enough. His case is being handled by the D.A. Gonzalez’s office.
“My case has been pending in the CRU in Brooklyn for over six years without a determination,” Smith said. “My case is a reflection of what’s going on today.”