Article

ECBAWM Files Civil Rights Lawsuit on Behalf of George Bell, Wrongfully Imprisoned for Over 24 Years

ECBAWM, together with co-counsel Scott Stevenson, has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of New York and eight former New York City police officers on behalf of George Bell. The suit alleges that as a result of rampant misconduct by the police and prosecutors within the Queens County District Attorney’s Office, Mr. Bell was convicted of a double homicide that he did not commit. Mr. Bell faced the death penalty before being sentenced to life in prison. He was 19 years old at the time of his arrest. Mr. Bell’s conviction was vacated and he was finally freed at the age of 44, having spent over 24 years incarcerated.

During the criminal investigation of the crimes for which Mr. Bell was charged the police pursued Mr. Bell based on an unreliable tip, interrogated Mr. Bell through the night on Christmas Eve, and then brutally beat him until he agreed to falsely confess. After Mr. Bell’s arrest, the prosecution and/or police came into possession of exonerating evidence that they did not disclose to Mr. Bell. This evidence made clear that a local armed robbery gang called Speedstick, not Mr. Bell, had committed these murders, and law enforcement knew it years before Mr. Bell was even tried. Rather than admit that they had the wrong man, police and district attorneys suppressed this evidence and fabricated additional evidence to implicate Mr. Bell. These civil rights violations were part of a pattern of the Queens District Attorney’s Office under District Attorney Richard Brown that has recently come to light and has formed the basis for multiple wrongful conviction claims against the City of New York. When vacating Mr. Bell’s conviction, Queens County Supreme Court Justice Zayas concluded that law enforcement’s handling of Mr. Bell’s case “leaves the distinct impression that the suppression of the [exonerating] information was not an isolated instance of misconduct, but part of a larger pattern of behavior that was calculated to deprive the defendants of fair trials, which is particularly egregious given that the death penalty was being sought against 19-year-old George Bell.”

Mr. Bell is represented by Richard Emery, Earl Ward, Debra Greenberger, and David Berman of ECBAWM, as well as co-counsel Scott Stevenson.

Article

CNN Investigates Wrongful Conviction of Anthony Sims

The wrongful conviction of Anthony Sims for the 1998 murder of Li Run Chen is the subject of a recent investigation by CNN reporter Jeff Winter. Anthony has served 23 years in prison despite undisputed evidence that points to a different perpetrator altogether, and despite decades of wrongdoing by law enforcement officials in withholding substantial Brady material and evidence of Anthony’s innocence.

CNN’s detailed report presents the timeline of the crime, the initial investigation, trial, and current legal hearings on Anthony’s motion to vacate his conviction and dismiss all charges against him. It also recounts testimony from a new witness whose testimony directly implicates another individual and exonerates Anthony.

As previously established, Mr. Chen was killed by a single shotgun blast while working at a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn. Anthony has maintained throughout his arrest and incarceration that the murder was committed by his former friend Julius Graves – who was, conveniently, the single eyewitness to testify at trial that Anthony fired the fatal shot. In the current hearing on Anthony’s motion, however, Graves’ neighbor Rachel testified that the murder was committed by Graves because he was mad that Mr. Chen had touched Graves’ wife’s hand earlier that day. Rachel also testified that she saw Graves running out of the restaurant after she heard a shot, and that she called the police to tell them that Graves was the killer.

“On the basis of (Rachel’s) testimony alone, it’s plain that Anthony Sims did not receive a fair trial and his conviction should be vacated,” said Ilann M. Maazel, one of Anthony’s attorneys. “The jury never heard any of this evidence.”

ECBAWM attorneys Ilann M. Maazel, Sam Shapiro, and Nairuby L. Beckles, along with attorneys Thomas Hoffman and Jonathan Hiles, represent Anthony Sims. More information about the case is available on the Free Anthony Sims website.

Article

ECBAWM Defeats Detroit Police Officers’ Attempt to Avoid Trial in Wrongful Conviction Case

In a December 28, 2021 decision, United States District Judge Paul D. Borman rejected a motion for summary judgment filed by four Detroit Police Department (“DPD”) officers seeking to drastically narrow the scope of a lawsuit brought by Kendrick Scott, an innocent man who was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent nearly two decades in prison as a result of the DPD officers’ egregious misconduct.

The Court ruled that Mr. Scott’s case will proceed against all four DPD officers and held that each of Mr. Scott’s federal civil rights claims must be decided at a jury trial. Specifically, the Court found that, in light of the evidence presented by ECBAWM, a jury must decide whether the DPD officers violated Mr. Scott’s constitutional rights by suppressing exculpatory evidence and forcing witnesses to testify falsely.

“Mr. Scott endured almost 20 years in jail for a crime he did not commit. We look forward to showing all the evidence of this injustice to the jury at trial,” said ECBAWM partner Zoe Salzman.

“The Court’s decision makes clear that police officers who threaten witnesses and suppress exculpatory evidence—and do so without any regard for the rights and liberty of an innocent man—cannot escape liability on a technicality,” said ECBAWM attorney Nick Bourland. “Mr. Scott deserves to present his case to a jury and this victory guarantees that he will have his day in court.”

ECBAWM attorneys Zoe Salzman and Nick Bourland represent Mr. Scott.

Article

JJ Velazquez’s Sentence Is Commuted After Fighting for His Freedom for 23 Years

On August 17, 2021, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo commuted the sentence of ECBAWM client Jon-Adrian (“JJ”) Velazquez. Mr. Velazquez has maintained his innocence ever since he was wrongfully convicted in 1998 for a murder he had nothing to do with. Now he has been released from prison and reunited with his family, friends, and supporters.

While incarcerated in the New York correctional system for over 23 years, Mr. Velazquez seized every opportunity to learn, support his peers, and give back—all while fighting for his freedom. He emerged as a leader at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, where, among other achievements, he earned his college degree with honors, founded a youth program to combat gun violence, organized nonviolence workshops for incarcerated people and their families, and led various fundraising efforts to support his community on the outside.

ECBAWM attorneys Jonathan Abady, Earl Ward, Sam Shapiro, and Nick Bourland represented JJ Velazquez in his clemency efforts.

Article

Second Circuit: Forensic Examiner Not Entitled to Qualified Immunity

In a significant qualified immunity ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit denied a state ballistics examiner’s motion to dismiss a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights lawsuit.

ECBAWM client Vernon Horn was incarcerated for over 17 years for a crime he did not commit. His wrongful conviction stemmed from exculpatory evidence that was concealed before and during trial: New Haven Police detectives hid phone records in the basement of a detective’s house because they did not support the case against Horn, and the Connecticut State Police ballistics examiner failed to disclose that he prepared a second ballistics report that falsely implicated Mr. Horn because the original report would have exonerated him.

Following their release from prison in 2018, Mr. Horn and his co-defendant Marquis Jackson brought civil actions against the City of New Haven and certain law enforcement officials for violating their constitutional due process rights under Brady v. Maryland.

The state ballistics examiner, James Stephenson, filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuits against him on the grounds that he is entitled to (a) qualified immunity for failing to turn over exculpatory evidence and (b) absolute immunity for preparing the second false ballistics report because he did so at the prosecutor’s direction. The U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut denied Stephenson’s motion to dismiss and he appealed to the Second Circuit.

In upholding the lower court’s ruling and denying Stephenson’s motion to dismiss, the Second Circuit wrote that “no reasonable forensic examiner in Stephenson’s position” would have concluded that Brady did not apply. The Court also concluded, “The allegations here are consistent with [Horn’s] theory that Stephenson independently decided to manipulate the margin of error upon learning that the memo … would weaken the state’s case against [Horn].”

Vernon Horn is represented by ECBAWM lawyers Ilann Maazel and Nick Bourland along with co-counsel Doug Lieb and Tamar Birckhead.

Article

ECBAWM Wins Prison Release for Christopher Ellis, Who Served 30 Years After Being Wrongfully Convicted

On Monday, August 9, New York State Supreme Court Justice Patricia A. Harrington ordered the release from prison of Christopher Ellis, a man who served over 30 years for a crime he did not commit.

Mr. Ellis was accused of committing a murder on Long Island in 1990. Despite no physical evidence against him, Mr. Ellis, who is Black, was investigated by white detectives, convicted by an all-white jury, and sentenced to prison in 1992. Last month his conviction was vacated because the police had concealed multiple murder suspects from the defense and, apparently, the prosecution.

“The police showed absolutely no regard for Chris,” said ECBAWM partner Ilann Maazel, noting that during Mr. Ellis’ 18-hour interrogation he was denied food and drink and repeatedly roused from sleep. “He was worthless to them. And he is one of many young Black men who have had that experience.”

The Nassau Country District Attorney’s Office will decide by September 20 whether to retry Mr. Ellis.

Mr. Ellis is represented by Mr. Maazel and ECBAWM associate Scout Katovich.

Press
“After Key Evidence Was Withheld, 2 Men Spent 3 Decades in Prison,” The New York Times
“Man jailed for murdering Hofstra coach has conviction overturned after decades behind bars,” New York Post
“Judge orders Hempstead man released after 30 years behind bars,” Newsday
“‘I just want to run to the car’: NY man leaves prison after wrongful conviction,” PIX 11
“Long Island man’s conviction in 1990 murder of Hofstra coach tossed,” FOX 5
“Nassau man’s murder conviction overturned after 3 decades behind bars,” News 12 Long Island [VIDEO]

Article

ECBAWM Partner Ilann Maazel Featured on “The Trial Brief” Podcast Episode About False Confessions and Faulty Witness Identification

ECBAWM partner and civil rights attorney Ilann Maazel was featured on the latest episode of The Trial Brief, a podcast hosted by New York City trial attorney David M. Oddo.

In “False Confessions and Faulty Witness Identification,” Maazel walks listeners through the evolution of wrongful conviction case law, including the role of DNA in uncovering truth and the creation of the Innocence Project, through the New York State Bar Association’s Report of Taskforce on Wrongful Convictions, which concluded that the top two causes of wrongful convictions are false confessions and mistaken stranger witness identification.

Maazel also explains the factors that can lead to a false confession, including whether the person being interrogated is young, potentially has a developmental disability, or is impressionable, as well as the length of the interrogation. “The longer the interrogation is, the more likely you’re going to get a false confession, because the message the interrogators are sending is, ‘until you admit to something, we’re not letting you go,’” says Maazel. “Just about anyone could confess to something they didn’t commit. You just want to tell them what they want to hear so you can get out.”

This immediate need to be free of the interrogation can override any other thought process. “Many people believe, incorrectly and tragically, that even if they falsely confess to something to just end the interrogation, the truth will come out later, because of course they know they’re innocent,” says Maazel. “But the truth doesn’t always come out later, or at least the prosecutors and juries don’t always understand what the truth is later.”

Maazel notes that while confessions are videotaped, interrogations are often not. “If you want to understand the iceberg, you don’t just look at what’s above the water. The critical work occurred before the camera was turned on.” Cameras should be required to be turned on from the very beginning of the interrogation, explains Maazel. “Let’s have the will to get to the truth, and not just the will to have the ‘gotcha’ evidence at the end that leads to a potential conviction.”

The second main contributing factor to false confessions is mistaken identification of strangers. Maazel cites The National Registry of Exonerations, a database created by the University of Michigan Law School that documents every known exoneration since 1989. “As of this recording, there have been 782 exonerations involving mistaken witness identification, accounting for 9,455 lost years in prison,” says Maazel. “That is a staggering injustice caused by misidentification.”

Maazel outlines a multi-part approach to ending wrongful convictions, including a systemic review of every single case that has relied on stranger witness identification or a confession or both, rigorous application of the latest social science research about identifications and confessions, and a conviction integrity unit in every District Attorney’s office that is staffed by people other than career prosecutors. “We need to correct all those injustices,” says Mazel, “and we don’t have a moment to spare, because people are in jail who need help.”

The Trial Brief is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, PodBean, and Audible.

Article

NYLJ Publishes Wrongful Conviction Article by ECBAWM Partner Ilann Maazel

In “False Confessions, Mistaken Identification and Wrongful Convictions,” his most recent column for the New York Law Journal, ECBAWM partner Ilann Maazel explains the role false confessions and mistaken witness identification play in leading to wrongful convictions. “Many criminal convictions today are suspect,” writes Maazel, who has represented criminal defendants seeking exoneration and exonerees seeking justice through civil lawsuits. “For these defendants, only an honest assessment of the facts, the science, and the research will lead to justice.”

Article

NowThis Profiles ECBAWM’s Wrongfully Convicted Client Jon-Adrian Velazquez

On May 27, 2020, NowThis released an episode of “Wrongful Conviction” with Jason Flom that focuses on the case of ECBAWM client Jon-Adrian Velazquez. The episode features ECBAWM partner Sam Shapiro, who details Mr. Velazquez’s 22 years of advocating for his freedom after being wrongfully convicted of murdering an NYPD officer in 1998. In spite of phone records backing up his alibi and witnesses recanting their testimonies against him, Mr. Velazquez remains behind bars.

Article

ECBAWM Files Case for Innocent Man Who Spent 20 Years in Jail

ECBAWM filed a case in the Eastern District of Michigan today against Detroit Police Department officers whose misconduct resulted in the wrongful conviction of Kendrick Scott, an innocent man. Detroit Police Department officers framed Mr. Scott for murder by beating up an illiterate, intoxicated sixteen-year-old boy until he falsely inculpated Mr. Scott and threatening another teenager with a history of mental illness to do the same. They concealed evidence that pointed to the victim’s husband as the likely true culprit. They threw Mr. Scott in jail, then they threw away the key.

After nearly 20 years of proclaiming his innocence and fighting to be exonerated, Mr. Scott was finally released in November 2018. Through this case, Mr. Scott hopes to vindicate his civil rights, shine the light on police abuse, and bring an end to a decades-long injustice.

“No amount of money can properly compensate Mr. Scott for the loss of twenty years of his life,” said ECBAWM partner Zoe Salzman.

“Mr. Scott’s story is tragic for its familiarity: a young black man, framed by police through a pattern of egregious misconduct, lost nearly two decades of his life for no reason,” said ECBAWM attorney Ashok Chandran.

ECBAWM attorneys Zoe Salzman and Ashok Chandran represent Mr. Scott.

“Man wrongly imprisoned for 1999 murder sues Detroit Police Department, 4 officers,” Detroit News

 

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