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

 

Article

Exoneree Sues New Haven Police for 17 Years of Wrongful Imprisonment

Vernon Horn, who was exonerated in April 2018 after spending 17 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, today filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of New Haven, three New Haven detectives, and a state firearms examiner. The New Haven Police Department (NHPD) hid 137 pages of exculpatory phone records in a detective’s home basement, failed to investigate evidence that would have proven Mr. Horn’s innocence, and coerced witnesses against him. Mr. Horn is represented by the law firms of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP and Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, P.C.

Mr. Horn was convicted of murder for a shooting at the Dixwell Deli in New Haven on January 24, 1999. A cell phone stolen from the murder scene was a key piece of evidence at trial. The state claimed that Mr. Horn had taken the phone to Bridgeport, given it to his accomplice, brought it back to New Haven the next day, and lent it to a friend to make a call.

In fact, the stolen cell phone never left Bridgeport, and Mr. Horn never touched it. Evidence proving as much was readily available to the NHPD all along, but detectives never bothered to ask for it. Phone records showed that every call from the stolen cell phone was linked to the same crew of Bridgeport drug dealers. But instead of turning those records over to Mr. Horn, as the Constitution requires, the NHPD buried them in a basement.

This and other new evidence was discovered only because the Federal Public Defender for the District of Connecticut doggedly reinvestigated the case. In April 2018, in response to the new evidence uncovered by the investigation, the State’s Attorney’s Office moved to vacate Mr. Horn’s conviction and dismiss the charges. Mr. Horn’s co-defendant, Marquis Jackson, was also exonerated and released.

Today’s lawsuit, filed in United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, seeks damages for the 17 dehumanizing years that Mr. Horn spent in prison as an innocent man. While in prison, Mr. Horn was assaulted by inmates, strip-searched by guards, held in solitary confinement, and denied essential medical care for serious injuries suffered in a car accident. His young daughter began to grow up without him.

Mr. Horn offered a statement:

First and foremost, I would like to thank the Most High for allowing me to make it through this injustice.  I would like to thank my attorneys David Keenan and Terence Ward of the Connecticut Federal Public Defender Office for securing my freedom.

What happened to me was not only a crime against me, but it was a crime against humanity. I was falsely prosecuted and lied about by people who are supposed to be public servants. I suffered emotionally, and I was physically and mentally abused in prison. I was not able to go to college and learn the things a man should know. I was taken away from my first child when she was only 10 months old.

After being released, I was put back into the world without any help and without an apology. The thing that hurts the most is that my daughter does not know me. After what happened, I cannot trust anyone or hold on to relationships because I think everyone is trying to hurt me.

I hope that people who are a part of the criminal justice system learn from what was done to me. They need to know that there are more innocent men and women who have been framed and falsely accused. It is real, and it needs to end.

Ilann M. Maazel, partner at Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP and counsel for Mr. Horn, said, “The New Haven Police Department stole the prime of Vernon Horn’s life. This was a complete breakdown in the criminal justice system. We intend to hold the police and everyone responsible for this travesty of justice accountable.”

Sean McElligott, a lawyer at Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, P.C. and counsel for Mr. Horn, said, “After seventeen years of lies and betrayal, Vernon Horn will finally have the opportunity to speak the truth through this lawsuit. We look forward to helping him gain some measure of peace after decades of wrongful incarceration and suffering.”

Matt Blumenthal, a lawyer at Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, P.C. and counsel for Mr. Horn, said, “We all depend on law enforcement to act with competence and integrity. Vernon Horn suffered a spectacular betrayal of this trust. We are proud to stand with him in his fight for justice and accountability.”

Article

City Agrees to Pay $2.5M to Wrongly Convicted Man

New York City will pay $2.5 million to ECBAWM client Joel Fowler, who was wrongly convicted of a 2007 Brooklyn murder. Prosecutors under the watch of late Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson concluded in 2015 that Mr. Fowler had nothing to do with the murder. This settlement is the latest of the many wrongful conviction cases that Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP has settled.

ECBA attorneys Earl Ward and Ali Frick represented Mr. Fowler, along with the Law Offices of Joel B. Rudin.

“City to Pay $2.5 Million to Settle Suit,” New York Daily News

Article

City Agrees to Pay $6 Million to Settle Wrongful Conviction Suit

The City of New York has agreed to pay $6 million to Derrick Deacon, a man who spent over twenty years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Mr. Deacon was initially convicted in 1989 as the result of egregious misconduct by law enforcement and prosecutors. After new evidence came to light showing that Mr. Deacon was not the perpetrator, he was granted a retrial and acquitted in minutes. This suit, filed after his acquittal, challenged the official misconduct used to initially convict Mr. Deacon. The New York Daily News covered the settlement here.

ECBAWM attorneys Earl Ward, Andrew Wilson, Hayley Horowitz, and Jessica Clarke represented Mr. Deacon, together with Glen A. Garber, P.C.

Article

Earl Ward Speaks on Panel on Wrongful Convictions

ECBAWM partner Earl S. Ward appeared on a panel at Fordham Law School to discuss wrongful convictions. The panelists discussed the problems with eye witness testimony, Brady material, and prosecutorial discretion. Earl has successfully represented many people challenging their convictions. Most recently, he helped secure over $30 million from New York State and New York City for three men who were convicted of a murder they did not commit. Two of the men spent 18 years in prison; the third was incarcerated for over 12 years. Read more about the Firm’s wrongful conviction work here.

.