By David Brand
The two leading candidates for Queens district attorney, Melinda Katz and Tiffany Cabán, have both said they would institute a conviction review unit in Queens, the only New York City DA’s office without one.
That pledge will be put to the test with one of them likely to inherit a 26-year-old murder conviction that defense attorneys, local leaders and even a Queens Supreme Court justice say deserves a thorough review.
Justice Stephen Knopf on Wednesday ordered a hearing in the case of Michael Robinson, who was convicted of murdering his estranged wife in 1993 and spent 26 years behind bars for a crime he says he did not commit. Robinson is now free and, with support from his Legal Aid Society defense attorneys, filed a 440 motion to overturn the conviction.
Knopf’s ruling is based on freshly reviewed DNA evidence found under the victim’s fingernails, which show that the material is 78 trillion times more likely to match someone else than Robinson. The Queens DA’s Office stands by the conviction.
Robinson’s attorneys say in court documents that the DNA test provides immediate grounds for vacating the conviction, which they say was based on questionable evidence — including a single eyewitness. Katz and Cabán say they will re-examine cases like this one.
“While I cannot comment on specific cases that I'll be overseeing, cases like this are exactly why I plan to create a Conviction Integrity Unit,” Katz told the Eagle. “My first priority will be to review all the facts for cases that rely on a sole witness and make appropriate determinations based on the evidence."
Cabán said the judge’s decision to order a September hearing, combined with other facts of the case, “reinforces the need for a dedicated conviction review unit in Queens County.”
“For too long, prosecutorial decisions centered on expedience and political optics have led to dubious convictions,” Cabán said. “Flimsy convictions, for both violent crimes and less serious charges, reinforce the overcriminalization of our black and brown communities while reducing public safety.”
Queens prosecutors accused Robinson of killing his wife Gwendolyn Samuels, a home health aide, at the home of her 89-year-old client Alveina Marchon.
The prosecution’s case relied on witness testimony from Marchon, who had vision problems, provided inconsistent testimony and did not immediately identify Robinson in a police lineup, Robinson’s attorneys said.
Marchon said the killer was a tall, black man, but Robinson was described as “broad and stout” by the victim’s father, according to court documents.
The Queens DA’s office also relied on testimony from the NYPD officer who found Samuels’ body and got a description of the killer from Marchon. The NYPD did not immediately attempt to obtain fingerprints from the scene and was unable to get fingerprints later in the investigation.
Robinson provided several alibi defenses from family members, who also described Samuels’ abusive relationship with another man. The defense suggested that the abusive boyfriend was the likely killer. Nevertheless, a Queens jury convicted Robinson of second-degree murder.
The federal government declined to review the case in 1999 after appellate courts upheld the conviction on two occasions. In 2013, Robinson sought DNA testing of two blood samples from the crime scene, blood stains on Samuels’ sweater and hair and nail scrapings.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner found male DNA under Samuels’ fingernail, and a company hired by Legal Aid determined that the DNA sample was “78.1 trillion times” more likely to match another “unrelated African-American person” than Robinson.
“The record in this case — the case-altering, exonerating DNA evidence, the unreliability of the sole identifying witness, and Mr. Robinson’s compelling alibi — entirely undermines the foundation of the original 1993 conviction,” said Harold Ferguson, staff attorney with the Criminal Appeals Bureau at The Legal Aid Society.
A spokesperson for the Queens DA’s Office said the OCME’s analysis of the DNA could not include or rule out Robinson as the contributor of the DNA, however.
“The defense claims a private lab they retained came to a different conclusion,” the spokesperson said, adding that the evidence barrel containing the fingernail scrapings was thought to be “rendered inaccessible” by Superstorm Sandy until it was found in 2017.
Potential DNA evidence linked to the victim’s then-boyfriend would not be compelling cause to accuse him of the murder, the DA spokesperson said.
“The defense has argued from virtually the outset of this case that another individual is the actual killer, however, the presence of this individual’s DNA is irrelevant since it is well established that the other individual — the woman’s then-boyfriend — was with the victim the morning before she was killed and thus even if it were his DNA there would be nothing unusual about that,” the spokesperson continued.
Regardless of the outcome of the specific September hearing, a review unit is necessary for taking a more “practical and realistic look at the evidence and circumstances of both the investigation and the prosecution,” said Councilmember Rory Lancman, a former DA candidate, and a longtime advocate for establishing a CRU in Queens.
“Is there anything more unjust than sending an innocent man to prison, and then failing to put in place a mechanism for a wrongfully convicted person to show they’ve been unjustly convicted?” Lancman said.
In addition to their comments Wednesday, Katz and Cabán both told the Eagle in February that they would institute a CRU in Queens — and that they supported creating an independent agency to oversee conviction reviews statewide.
"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 at the time.
“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,” she added. “As DA, I will make Queens a leader in addressing wrongful convictions and establishing much-needed bail and discovery reform.”
A spokesperson for Cabán said she “supports [the] call for a statewide Independent Conviction Review Commission.”
“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,” the spokesperson added. “Tiffany also supports retroactively applying contemporary charging standards to people who are currently incarcerated, as well as a new state law offering automatic expungement.”
The Democratic primary for Queens DA is undergoing a full manual recount. Before the recount began, Katz led Cabán by 16 votes.