BROOKLYN – “Brian and I were born just one year apart and raised in Brooklyn by mothers who came here from somewhere else to make a life for themselves and their families. But our lives were set on very different courses—irreversibly so—in March of 1988 when Brian was arrested for a crime he had nothing to do with. That spring, I was in my first year of college. Brian spent the next 30 years in prison, while I graduated from college and law school, became a prosecutor in the very county in which he was convicted, and ultimately, was elected District Attorney of Brooklyn.”
This morning, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office released a comprehensive report examining the wrongful convictions of 25 people, who in total, served 426 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. The stories are heart-wrenching and real. In a letter to readers, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez compared the story of one man to his own.
“I identify with Brian, and we all should. All of us are diminished when the criminal justice system fails and makes people’s lives worse rather than better,” Gonzalez said. “I am mindful that we are publishing this report at a time when the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the racial violence it has called up have filled so many Americans including me—with anger and despair. Much of that anger and despair is directed at the criminal justice system and those who work in it. We are asked to do better, and I believe we can and will. And I believe that to do better, we must reckon with and be transparent about the mistakes of the past—particularly in the institutions in which we now work.”
The Brooklyn District Attorney’s office launched the Convictions Review Unit (CRU) in 2014, to “investigate and remedy wrongful convictions by examining certain prior prosecutions and determining whether the convictions were reliable, fair, and just, in light of the facts known at the time or discovered subsequently.” The 100-page report describes and analyzes CRU’s recommendations regarding twenty-five convictions from 2014 to through the first half of 2019.
The CRU looked at the following factors to potentially vacate the convictions: false or unreliable confessions, eyewitness misidentification, significant witness credibility issues, nondisclosure of favorable evidence, the role of police conduct, the role of prosecutor conduct, the role of defense conduct, and new evidence.
The report analyzes 20 cases involving 25 people– 24 are men, 24 are Black or Latinx, and three of them were younger than age 18 at the time of the crime. The longest sentences were 30 years for Brian Davidson and Dylan Gold. Davidson was convicted of one count of Rape in the First Degree, two counts of Sodomy in the First Degree, one count of Robbery in the Second Degree, and two counts of Coercion in the First Degree for which the aggregate term of concurrent sentences was 19 to 57 years’ imprisonment. “The CRU recommended his conviction be vacated based on several factors, including its conclusion that the main witness for the prosecution had misidentified Davidson as one of her assailants.”
Gold was indicted for Murder in the First Degree, a charge that carried the death penalty at the time. Before the trial concluded, Gold pled guilty to Murder in the Second Degree in order to avoid the death penalty. He was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison. “The CRU recommended that Gold’s plea be withdrawn given the problematic testimony of the prosecution’s main witnesses, the likelihood that favorable information was withheld from defense counsel, and the fact that shortly after Gold pled guilty the law changed to provide substantial additional protections for criminal defendants.”
In 2005, Spencer Mitchell was convicted of Murder in the First Degree and with various other charges in connection with two murders that occurred during an attempted robbery of a tire shop. He was sentenced to life in prison. He had served eleven years when the “CRU recommended that his conviction be vacated because of issues with the integrity and origin of the physical evidence used to convict Mitchell, evidence undermining the reliability of the prosecution’s eyewitness testimony, and failure to disclose exculpatory evidence.”
Scott Moore and Tony Stevens were convicted of murder, kidnapping, robbery, and weapons charges. Both men were sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. “CRU recommended vacating their convictions, which were unsupported—and in many instances directly contradicted—by physical or testimonial evidence. Moore served 29 years in prison and Stevens died in prison after 15 years.”
In 1989, Nathan Fitzgerald was convicted of Murder in the Second Degree and was sentenced to 18 years to life in prison. He served 24.5 years in prison when the “CRU recommended his conviction be vacated based principally on the recantation of the sole identifying witness and the apparent failure to disclose a key document to the defense that directly supported Fitzgerald’s alibi.”
The most recent one was Charlie Bloom. In 2011, he pled guilty to Rape in the Second Degree and was sentenced to 4 years’ imprisonment and 10 years of post-release supervision. “The CRU recommended his conviction be vacated based on its conclusion that Bloom was likely mentally disabled at the time of the alleged offense.”
And the stories go on and on. You may read them all here.
“By giving the public a view into the facts that led to these wrongful convictions—and the ways wrongful convictions were identified and understood —our hope is that this report will aid the public, including surviving victims and victims’ families— in understanding why this work had to be done, even if the result was to vacate convictions that many had considered ‘final’ decades ago,” the report read. “We hope that it will add to the body of literature that aids existing and future conviction review units and innocence advocates across the country in recognizing when a prior conviction was wrongful.”
“And perhaps most of all, we hope that it will help police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and the public more broadly determine what each of us must do to reckon with failures in the criminal justice system, to respond as best we can now to injustices, and to ensure that the tragedies of wrongful convictions do not persist.”