During New York’s crack era in the early 1990s, with homicide counts five times higher than today, the authorities resorted to ruthless policing.
“The police would pull over your car at will, just because you were Black, and go through the car and your pockets,” said Derrick Hamilton, 57, who grew up in public housing in Brooklyn in the 1980s and was first arrested as a teenager . “They’d take your socks off, take your pants off.”
Crime fell across the country over the following decades in a broad social change, and New York became one of America’s safest cities and a thriving tourist destination. But in its darkest days police and prosecutors cut corners and used tactics that left untold numbers of innocent people – mostly poor men – imprisoned on false murder, rape and robbery charges.
The prisoners’ persistent legal challenges prompted reinvestigations aided by left-wing prosecutors, advances in DNA testing, pressure from newly formed advocacy groups and generous government restitution, making New York a national hotbed of exoneration. In recent years, one innocent middle-aged man after another has been released, devastated by years in prison, into a tame city.
There is no more striking personification of the change than Yusef Salaam, 49, who was arrested in the infamous 1989 Central Park jogging rape case, in which detectives coerced false confessions from five Harlem teenagers. They were acquitted after years in prison.
Last month, Mr. Salaam won a Democratic primary for a City Council seat, making him almost certain to become the first ex-area to hold elected office in the city.
“It was unimaginable in the 1990s that Yusef Salaam could be elected to the City Council, but all these years later, there is a shift in public awareness and there is now a willingness to put victims of that era in positions of authority,” said Joel . Rudin, an attorney who has handled dozens of wrongful conviction claims. “We’ve come a very long way.”
Once, prosecutors’ offices were invested in defending bad convictions, but now they uncover them through review units in all five boroughs. Progressive district attorneys who campaigned on the issue have thrown out hundreds of low-level convictions related to discredited police officers.
The case attracted wealthy patrons, as well as prestigious law firms now devoting themselves to pro bono work. It has become fodder for documentaries, docudramas and podcasts.
For those exonerated, compensation cases are settled for increasing amounts, often totaling well over $10 million. Over the past decade, the city has paid about $500 million. And payouts for claims against New York State, another source of compensation, are among the highest in the country.
Taken together with recoveries from civil rights cases, the more than $1 billion paid to those wrongfully convicted in New York is the highest of any state in the country by far, according to Jeffrey Gutman, a law professor at George Washington University. A small industry of private lawyers has sprung up to help former prisoners get paid, and to get paid themselves.
The situation was generated by a very different New York. For many residents, streets and subways were to be avoided after dark. Bryant Park in Midtown, today a revitalized urban gem, was a drug market. In 1990, there were almost 2,250 murders, five times the totals of today.
For the police, it was time to strike against minor offenses, and street crime units operated under the motto “We own the night.”
The desperation to catch and convict at any cost fostered a “willingness to bend the rules,” Mr. Rudin said.
Trained detectives produced cases by manipulating witnesses, coercing confessions, using suggestive identification procedures and withholding exculpatory evidence, he said. Locking up a certain percentage of innocent people was simply “collateral damage”.
Mr Salaam said in an interview last week that he and the other members of the Central Park Five had been “run over by the spiked wheels of justice”, thanks to detectives who knew which levers they could pull in 1989.
“The system worked exactly as it was designed,” he said. “These were people who were supposed to protect and serve us, but they literally built their careers off the backs of people just like me.”
As the city’s economy improved and unemployment declined during the 1990s, murder and other violent crime decreased. Bad arrests continued though.
Rudolph W. Giuliani took office in 1994 with a promise to crack down on crime through aggressive policing. His administration was plagued by allegations of police brutality and civil rights abuses, as well as wrongdoing such as the torture of Abner Louima and killing of Amadou Diallo.
The highest totals of bad convictions in the city came in 1997, when there were 22, of which 15 were for murder, as listed in the National Registry of Exonerations (National Registry of Excuses). The group lists at least 230 excuses for New York since 1989.
“It was expected that detectives would clear cases, and once they made up their minds, they would stop investigating,” said Irving Cohen, 80, who has represented about 15 wrongfully convicted New Yorkers since the late 1980s. He recalled receiving weekly letters from inmates asking for help. “There were a lot of murders,” he said. “They did whatever they had to do to convict the person, whether they believed the person was guilty or not.”
Mr. Salaam’s acquittal in 2002 was a stunning reversal, one of the first cases to show the flaws in New York’s wholesale justice system. A convicted murderer and serial rapist admitted he was responsible for the attack, and the Manhattan district attorney’s office filed court papers clearing Mr. Salaam and the other members of the Central Park Five.
But some law enforcement officials continued to blame the wrongfully convicted men despite DNA evidence. The district attorney at the time, Robert M. Morgenthau, found no coercion by officers or prosecutors.
Many dismissed cases involved a relative handful of officers, including Louis Scarcella, a former Brooklyn homicide detective whose conduct led to the review of dozens of cases and to at least eight murder convictions being overturned. Mr Scarcella has denied any wrongdoing.
One of his cases was that of Mr. Hamilton, who served more than 20 years on a murder charge from 1991. He tried from prison, with limited access to telephones and correspondence materials. He drafted reports from a cramped cell, researched cases in a meager law library and wrote legal letters in longhand from seclusion.
For Mr. Hamilton, things changed when a key witness came forward years after his conviction to say that Mr. Scarcella had forced her to lie.
The case was taken by the Brooklyn district attorney’s conviction integrity unit, which, with more than 30 exonerations since 2014, is one of the most robust units in the nation and one reason the borough has by far the highest number of overturned convictions of anyone. in the city, with 88 in the national register.
In 2019, after the Bronx prosecutors’ integrity unit and the Innocence Project presented new evidence, a judge vacated the 1989 murder conviction of Huwe Burton, who was coerced by detectives into a false confession at the age of 16.
The district attorney of Bronx, Darcel Clark, said that detectives used the discredited practices of the time.
“What they did wasn’t necessarily wrong — that’s the way things were done back then,” she told The New York Times in 2019. “For 1989, that was standard practice for the NYPD, but now we know better.”
Some disagree. Police and prosecutors are almost never disciplined for misconduct, including forcing innocent suspects to confess, said Rebecca Brown, who for the past eight years has been director of policy at the Innocence Project in Manhattan.
And police can still lie and make false promises to suspects, including children, to elicit false confessions, she said.
“Many of the contributing causes are still alive and well in New York,” she said. “There’s nothing like robust accountability.”
However, changes have been made to interrogations and suspect lineups, and there is more oversight by prosecutors and access to officers’ disciplinary records.
Standards have been improved to obtain more reliable confessions and identifications, Mr. Rudin said, adding that judges and prosecutors are now generally more skeptical of cases built around prison informants. Defense attorneys, previously hampered by limited access to prosecutors’ case information, now have access to more of it, and can prepare a proper defense, he said.
And the policy changed. In Mr. Salaam’s City Council campaign, he often spoke of his conviction and exoneration. In his interview, he encouraged initiatives like drug treatment instead of prison for drug offenders and allowing low-level offenders to avoid Rikers Island.
“We don’t want to put innocent people in jail,” he said.
As for Mr. Hamilton, he has worked since his release as an activist and paralegal to identify and overturn other wrongful convictions, including many related to Mr. Scarcella. He is part of a brotherhood of exonerees who work together to prepare legal briefs and continue to visit inmates, donate money and raise awareness of cases.
“My loyalty,” he said, “is to those guys still unjustly in prison.”