A landmark decision by the Appellate Division, Second Department has given new hope to individuals wrongfully convicted of a crime in the state of New York, and unable to obtain post-conviction relief due to the procedural restraints statutorily imposed under New York Criminal Procedure Law. On January 15, 2014, the Appellate Court Second Department handed down its epic decision, becoming the first New York Appellate Court to recognize a freestanding claim of actual innocence, reaffirming that the incarceration of an innocent person is inherently unconstitutional.
In People v. Hamilton, the Court ruled that a defendant’s claim of actual innocence may now be recognized as a “freestanding” ground to vacate a judgment of conviction pursuant to NY CPL 440.10. (1)(h), which provides that a court may vacate a judgement if obtained in violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights. Notably, the Court directed that a defendant’s claim of “actual innocence” may be pursued independently of the other grounds for relief prescribed by New York’s post-judgement statute, and can even be supported by evidence that may fail to survive the “newly discovered” criteria imposed under NY CPL 440.10(1)(g). The Court explained that the defendant may present a claim of actual innocence based upon new evidence, whether or not it satisfies the Salemi factors or is barred by other legal hurdles, such as prior adverse court determinations.
The Court directed that relief based upon an actual innocence claim should only be granted when the court is presented with clear and convincing evidence that the defendant is innocent. The court reasoned that
Mere doubt as to the defendant’s guilt, or a preponderance of conflicting evidence as to the defendant’s guilt, is insufficient, since a convicted defendant no longer enjoys the presumption of innocence, and in fact is presumed to be guilty.
The Court also explained that an exploration into the merits of a case may be necessary when a prima facie showing of actual innocence has been made by a defendant. In this case, the court found that Hamilton had made such a showing to require a hearing.
In response to the court’s decision, Derrick Hamilton, who spent 20 years in prison for murder, stated that “it is a crime that it has taken this long for me to receive a shot at justice.” Since his conviction, Hamilton had spent the last twenty two years battling the criminal justice system in an effort to clear his name. All prior attempts to vacate his conviction were denied, although making a credible presentation of alibi evidence, witness recantation, and possible manipulation of witnesses by police. The Hamilton case has also been vetted for review by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, which is currently reviewing cases handled by retired detective Louis Scarcella. The Office has undertaken a review of about 50 homicide cases to determine whether the defendants were wrongfully convicted as a result of possible police misconduct.