By David Brand
A coalition of wrongfully convicted individuals, their families and advocates rallied outside City Hall on Wednesday to call for a statewide independent conviction review unit that would examine complaints typically handled by individual district attorney’s offices.
At the event, Assemblymember Dan Quart announced he would introduce a bill to create the state body, which would also support the efforts of local conviction review units (CRUs).
The Queens District Attorney’s Office does not currently have a dedicated CRU like their counterparts in the other boroughs. But even those offices with existing CRUs have significant problems, said Lonnie Soury, the co-founder of Families of the Wrongfully Convicted, which organized the rally.
“We support local DAs in their conviction review units, but the problem is they slow-move cases,” Soury said. “We need something that speaks louder. We need to light a fire under these people.”
Soury and other attendees took specific aim at the Queens DA’s office for its failure to implement a CRU.
“Queens is a disaster, a den of wrongful convictions and it doesn’t get much attention because it’s Queens,” Soury told the Eagle.
There have been at least 25 exonerations in Queens since 1992, including 18 since 2000, according to the National Registry of Exonerations maintained by the University of Michigan.
“We’re trying to get a CRU in Queens. We want the same fairness in Queens,” said Chianne Johnson, whose husband Tyrone Johnson was convicted of murder in 2000 in a case that was prosecuted by disgraced assistant district attorney Claude Stuart, who was later fired from the Queens DA’s Office and stripped of his law license.
“The Queens DA’s Office is stuck in the 50s — the 1850s,” said defense attorney Ron Kuby, who added that he would support a state conviction review unit if the body were properly funded.
“The reinvestigation of these cases is time-consuming and lengthy,” Kuby said. “It’s the legal equivalent of an archeological dig into the Pleistocene. If you’re not committing resources, then it’s just a display.”
A spokesperson for Queens DA Richard A. Brown said that the DA’s office “promptly and thoroughly” investigates wrongful conviction claims.
"District Attorney Brown believes that it is the responsibility of everyone in our office to prevent wrongful convictions and that should a claim be raised that someone has been wrongfully convicted or is being wrongfully prosecuted to promptly and thoroughly investigate that claim to ensure that justice is done,” the spokesperson said. “It is his view that responsibility must be shared by everyone in our office — in particular, his senior staff — and not delegated to one unit and/or a handful of assistants.”
In 2018, the City Council approved funding for a CRU in the Staten Island DA Office, which was the only other New York City county that lacked a review unit.
“When Staten Island is ahead of you on criminal justice reform you know you’re in trouble,” said City Councilmember Rory Lancman, a candidate for Queens DA, who attended the rally.
Lancman added that it was “hard to think of anything worse, more awful or frightening than spending time in prison for a crime you didn’t commit, but that’s the reality for far too many New Yorkers.”
The Brooklyn DA’s office declined to provide comment for this story because they had not heard of Quart’s Bill to create a state CRU
A former employee of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, who asked to remain anonymous when discussing DA office procedures, said she opposed giving local control of the CRU to the state.
“It’s dangerous to give up control to a one-size-fits-all approach that may not work in individual DA offices across the state,” she told the Eagle. “Changes need to be made on the local level.”
Where the DA Candidates Stand on a State CRU
Lancman said he would create a CRU in Queens and supports Quart’s bill because he said it would bolster the work of local offices.
“I will establish and maintain a CRU that is independent from the rest of my office, as every DA office should. The statewide entity proposed in Quart's bill will do its own work, choosing to collaborate with local DA CRUs as it sees fit. The two aren't mutually exclusive, any more than a statewide Prosecutorial Conduct Commission is exclusive of my DA office establishing its own internal ethics rules and enforcement procedures.
Borough President Melinda Katz, another DA candidate, also said she supports the state CRU.
"In December, I pledged to create a Conviction Integrity Unit to work with family members, community leaders and defense attorneys to ensure that no one remains jailed for a crime they didn’t commit,” Katz said in a statement. “An additional level of review, by an independent state panel, to further this fight for justice would be an important step forward, building on the state’s recent actions on criminal justice reforms. As DA, I will make Queens a leader in addressing wrongful convictions and establishing much-needed bail and discovery reform.”
A spokesperson for public defender Tiffany Cabán said Cabán “shares the goals of the Families of the Wrongfully Convicted and supports their call for a statewide Independent Conviction Review Commission.”
“She also supports state legislation mandating discovery reform,” Cabán’s spokesperson said. “As a public defender for her entire legal career, she’s seen far too many cases in which prosecutors have refused to turn over exculpatory evidence. Tiffany also supports retroactively applying contemporary charging standards to people who are currently incarcerated, as well as a new state law offering automatic expungement.”
Former Judge Gregory Lasak has made implementing a CRU — which he also calls a Conviction Integrity Unit — a key part of his campaign for Queens DA. He cited his work on behalf of wrongfully convicted defendants during his time as a Queens assistant district attorney in his campaign announcement last October.
“A DA should never be afraid or hesitant to take another look at a case,” Lasak told the Eagle. “We must, as prosecutors, always be vigilant to ensure as much as humanly possible, that an innocent person does not get caught up in the system. Though it was far from popular with others in law enforcement in the 1990s, I exonerated almost two dozen people of color who were wrongfully arrested, indicted or convicted. That is why I've committed to start a Conviction Integrity Unit, the first of its kind in Queens.”
Lasak did not say whether he supported a statewide unit.
Attorney Betty Lugo, who announced her candidacy last week, said she would support a state unit.
“It’s a shame that the Queens DA Office and others do not have a conviction review unit,” Lugo said. “We need legislation as well to support this review and ensure that the unit is made up of diverse members of the community, representative of the communities that are served.”
Mina Malik, who has filed with the Board of Elections to run for DA, designed the Conviction Review Unit in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office under late-DA Ken Thompson. Malik declined to comment for this story because she has not officially announced her candidacy for Queens DA.
Former state Attorney General’s Office prosecutor Jose Nieves, another candidate for DA, said he supports the creation of a statewide CRU, but added that the Attorney General’s Conviction Review Bureau already conducts conviction reviews and flags specific cases for local DA’s offices.
“I support the state unit, but we need to look at what’s already in place statewide in the Attorney General’s Conviction Review Bureau,” Nieves said. “We need to put pressure on the DAs of all 62 counties to create units and to make sure these convictions never happen.”
“I don’t think we can let DAs off the hook,” he said, adding that he would implement a CRU and an advisory council comprised of justice reform organizations and wrongfully convicted individuals to examine past convictions.