By Gregory Lasak
Special to the Eagle
For most of us, the holiday season means spending time with family and friends. Yet, I cannot help but wonder how many innocent people are facing the holidays in prison away from their loved ones.
They have already missed Thanksgiving, countless birthdays, and milestones in their children's lives. All because we have a criminal justice system that failed them. A District Attorney's office in their home county — an office that is supposed to protect them — that failed them. Now, they sit with little hope that their wrong will be righted.
In the late 1990s, when I was in charge of the Major Crimes Division of the Queens District Attorney's Office, which meant that I oversaw the prosecutions of all homicides, sex crimes, career criminals, and domestic violence felonies, Seymour James, then the head of the Queens County Legal Aid Society, approached me with a case.
James informed me that he had a client he swore was innocent, but he couldn’t prove it. The client, Lee Long, had already served six years in jail on a rape conviction and all his appeals had been denied. Seymour asked me to give the case another look.
I knew reinvestigating this case would not win me any popularity contests. By doing this, I was going up against the cop who arrested Lee, the grand jury that indicted him, the judge who upheld the indictment, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted him, the jury who convicted him and an appellate court that had upheld Lee's conviction. None of that mattered to me because I knew giving this case a fresh look was the right thing to do.
Unraveling the truth was not easy. Working closely with one of my investigators, I spent countless hours interviewing additional witnesses and examining more evidence. Ultimately, we discovered that Lee was on the J train when the rape occurred. After a post-conviction hearing, Lee Long was finally a free man.
Sadly, Lee wasn’t alone in his plight, and I continued to investigate questionable convictions both on my own initiative and at the request of defense attorneys and other legal professionals.
Another case I reinvestigated was that of Lamar Palmer, a nineteen year-old young man who was convicted of assault-robbery for slashing a woman in Queens Village and sentenced to nine years upstate. An innocent man, Lamar had been sitting in jail for months when I received a letter from his brother Dwayne.
Dwayne wrote, "I was told that a defense attorney's job was to defend his or her client to the best of his or her ability, but that a district attorney's job was to seek justice for the accuser as well as the accused."
Dwayne was correct, and that’s why I reopened Lamar's case. After a thorough reinvestigation, we exonerated him too.
In all, I helped exonerate nearly two dozen Lee Longs and Lamar Palmers during my time in the office. Some of these men had even confessed or pleaded guilty, but with diligent work, we were able to free them. Unfortunately, that work ended when I left the office and no one else attempted to continue those efforts.
Even as other district attorneys’ offices in the city have taken up this work and stories of the wrongfully convicted garner national attention, Queens has bucked the norm.
The current district attorney has resisted opening a Conviction Integrity Unit claiming that such a unit is unnecessary. Instead, the district attorney asserts that it is a shared responsibility of everyone in the office to prevent wrongful convictions in the first place.
That is a nice platitude, but it does not reflect reality.
In reality, assistant district attorneys already have a great deal on their plates. And though we’ll try to lessen that load when we begin declining to prosecute low-level offenses like small amounts of marijuana and fare evasion, there is still much work to do.
Each assistant cannot focus on wrongful conviction work on top of his or her normal caseload. It is intensive work that takes time and effort. We need dedicated, experienced prosecutors that are up to the task.
More importantly, people get things wrong. Prosecutors make mistakes. Police officers make mistakes. Witnesses make mistakes.
Sometimes, young assistants become so focused on obtaining convictions that they never stop to probe the evidence. They go with their gut when that simply isn’t enough.
Prosecutors are human; it happens. A prosecutor's lapse in judgment, however, should not ruin someone else’s life. Moreover, a person should not have to sit in jail because a prosecutor's office refuses to admit it was wrong. I firmly believe that any prosecution anywhere should be able to withstand the harshest of scrutiny.
Queens needs a Conviction Integrity Unit so we can correct mistakes and continue to seek justice for all our citizens.
When I’m district attorney, anyone who believes he or she has been wrongfully convicted will have the opportunity to have his or her case looked at anew by a unit committed to that work.
The unit will be staffed with seasoned prosecutors and investigators with the experience to complete the task. It will review cases without fear or favor because everyone in Queens deserves equal justice under the law.
As a young assistant district attorney, I was taught that in trying to decide whether or not to prosecute a case, you should always try to prove the suspect innocent first. If you cannot do that, you have reason to believe he or she is guilty.
I fear that the current office has moved away from that approach. For that reason, I will also revamp the training program in the office to ensure that assistants are taking this approach seriously because someone's life hangs in the balance in each case, and that responsibility should not be taken lightly.
In short, the central tenet of our justice system is innocent until proven guilty. We must never move away from that. Further, when we get it wrong, we have to be willing to admit that we did and make it right.
That’s what we’ll start doing in Queens again — for all the Lee Longs and Lamar Palmers out there.
Hon. Gregory Lasak is a retired New York Supreme Court Criminal Term Justice and a former assistant district attorney. Lasak is running for Queens District Attorney.