Candidates Weigh In On Creating A Conviction Review Unit In Queens

By Christina Carrega

 Queens Supreme Court Justice Gregory Lasak (left) and Councilmember Rory Lancman (right). Lancman photo courtesy of Rory Lancman. Lasak photo by Andy Katz.

Queens Supreme Court Justice Gregory Lasak (left) and Councilmember Rory Lancman (right). Lancman photo courtesy of Rory Lancman. Lasak photo by Andy Katz.

For over 30 years, the wheels of justice turned in Kew Gardens at the hands of District Attorney Richard A. Brown. Within those decades of leadership, there were thousands of wins to tally on the prosecutor’s end. But since 2014 as the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office rapidly exonerated more than two dozen convictions, critics have repeatedly questioned where is Queens in this conversation?

“Queens is a notorious hotbed of questionable convictions,” said Lonnie Soury a spokesman for the Families of the Wrongfully Convicted. “Advocates focus of Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx when it comes to wrongful convictions, but those in the know, know Queens has the untold story.

Since 1992, Queens had 25 cases -- that range from robberies to murders -- overturned, according to the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE).

Brooklyn, which became a national model for investigating case after the late District Attorney Kenneth Thompson renamed the office’s Conviction Review Unit, had 69 since 1993 -- 24 within four years. Manhattan overturned 35 and the Bronx tossed 41, both since 1989. Staten Island only exonerated one case in 2000.

The difference between these city district attorney offices and Queens are they do not have a dedicated unit or bureau that focuses on reviewing requested cases.

“More than half of the exonerations that occurred in 2017 were due to ‘professional exonerators,’ which include prosecutorial Conviction Integrity Units (CIU) and Innocence Organizations (IO),” according to a report released in March from the NRE. “An increasing number were the product of cooperation between CIUs and IOs.”

“It is inexcusable that Queens is the only borough that has not sought to implement a conviction integrity unit. As Queens District Attorney,” Council Member Rory I. Lancman told the Eagle.

Lancman, along with newly retired Queens Supreme Court Justice Gregory Lasak have thrown their hats in the ring with hopes that the over million registered voters in the county will chose them as their next district attorney.

“I would maintain a dedicated conviction integrity unit, where the wrongfully convicted and their lawyers can get the focused and skilled attention necessary to undo the all too common tragedy of an innocent person sitting in prison for a crime they didn’t commit,” said Lancman.

In Judge Lasak’s candidacy announcement video posted on YouTube Oct. 9, a wrongfully convicted robbery suspect Lamar Palmer thanked the “Wrong Man Unit” for reviewing his case.

The “Wrong Man Unit” is not an actual unit in the Queens prosecutors office.

“It is everyone’s job here at the Queens County District Attorney’s Office that every case is thoroughly investigation and when there is such a claim or allegation made, a senior Assistant District Attorney is assigned to look into the claim and possibly reinvestigate,” a spokeswoman from the Queens DA’s office told the Eagle.

Lasak was a part of that unit of senior prosecutors and prides himself for “reinvestigated cases and exonerated nearly two dozen innocent people -- before the first Conviction Review Unit existed.”

“I went up against decisions made by the DA, the judges, the cops, and the court system. I did it because it was the right thing to do. Of course I'll bring that important work back to the Queens DA's office when I'm elected," said Judge Lasak in a statement to the Eagle.

As the 2019 election is more than a year away, cases will continue to get appealed and judges will continue to answer motions to conduct evidentiary hearings that could lead to retrials or overturned convictions.

“There are horrible, horrible cases of wrongful conviction in the Queens DA’s office,” said Soury.

In Sept. 2011, Kareem Bellamy had his 1994 murder conviction tossed after spending 14 years behind bars. Bellamy, now 51, was released from prison in 2008 after another person was recorded confessing to stabbing James Abbott in Far Rockaway. After Bellamy was released, the tapes were revealed as a phony, but a higher court agreed he deserved a new trial. Queens prosecutors begrudgingly agreed not to retry the case.

In 2014, Benjamin Anderson filed a motion to have his 1996 murder conviction heard by a judge. Anderson, now 45, was sentenced to 22 years to life in prison for an August 1993 botched robbery in Jamaica. Anderson told 1010WINS, “he was coerced to confess. His alibi witnesses were ignored and the shooter, the main witness putting him at the crime scene, has apparently recanted.” According to public records, Anderson was released on parole in 2015.

In Oct. 2016, Tullie Hyman was released from prison after he spent more than 16 years in prison for a Far Rockaway murder he did not commit. Hyman was wrongfully convicted for opening fire at the Redfern Houses in March 2000 where a stray bullet hit and killed Maria Medina. According to the New York Post, the sole eyewitness to the crime recanted their testimony saying they were “threatened to finger Hyman.”

“This is really important election and a new DA in Queens is a necessity...We are looking forward to meeting with Lancman and anyone else who is running or anyone who is interested in criminal justice reform,” said Soury. “The advocates are excited for change...This is long overdue.