Inevitable Error: Wrongful New York State Homicide Convictions, 1965-1988


This Article reports the preliminary results of a continuing study by the New York State Defenders Association’s Wrongful Conviction Study Project. The purpose of the study is to catalogue wrongful homicide convictions in New York State during the period from 1965 to 1988. The Project has found a significant number of wrongful convictions, as defined and reported below. The data presented in this Article support the position that the State of New York should not reenact the death penalty. If New York does so, the Association’s study suggests, there will almost certainly be a significant number of persons wrongfully convicted of capital murder in New York, and many of these persons will very possibly be executed before the errors are discovered, if they are discovered at all. Stated simply, the study indicates the fallibility of the New York criminal justice system, which militates against the use of capital punishment.

The Association has defined the subject of its study as follows: a “wrongful homicide conviction” is a conviction for any degree of homicide – including murder, manslaughter, or criminally negligent homicide – which is overturned and never reinstated. This includes basically three categories of cases: those where the conviction was overturned and either (a) the defendant was subsequently acquitted on retrial (seventeen of the cases catalogued below), (b) the charges were dismissed (thirty-five cases), or (c) the charges were resolved by conviction of a non-homicide crime (seven cases, of which three also included acquittals on the homicide charges). There is no subjective element whatsoever to the study: it merely catalogues the cases which fit the above definition.

The study has thus far found fifty-nine such cases during the twenty-three-year period reviewed, each of which is separately noted below. These findings in no way purport to be exhaustive, and the author is reviewing additional cases which may eventually supplement those listed here.

The death penalty has a long history in New York State. New York was the first state to employ the electric chair as a method of execution, a practice which led to one of the United States Supreme Court’s earliest decisions on capital punishment. Although death penalty legislation has remained on the books in New York throughout the twentieth century, the last person to be

executed in the state was Eddie Lee Mays, in 1963. Following the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Woodson v. North Carolina, the New York Court of Appeals has held that the mandatory nature of the New York death penalty statute violates the United States Constitution. The decisions of the Court of Appeals have left in place only a very limited provision in the statute for those who murder a police officer, but this mandatory death penalty provision is clearly unconstitutional in view of these Court of Appeals decisions and the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Sumner v. Schuman. Although there have been repeated attempts to enact a new and expanded death penalty statute in New York, those attempts have failed due to executive vetoes.

During the period from 1900 to 1985, New York is estimated to have sentenced more innocent persons to death than any other state in the country except Florida. New York has the dubious distinction of leading all states in executing the innocent; eight New Yorkers have been executed in error.

During recent years, this issue has continued to haunt the state, as the question of erroneous convictions has been central to the debate over whether to reenact the death penalty in New York. Governor Mario M. Cuomo, members of the State Senate and Assembly, the news media and others have stressed the imperfection of the criminal justice system and the potential for a miscarriage of justice as one of the most important reasons not to enact death penalty legislation. The results of the Association’s study support this position.

Several important points regarding erroneous convictions should be madebefore presenting the raw data. First, a substantial number of the wrongful convictions we have found in New York resulted from prosecutorial misconduct. Such misconduct has included, among other things, the suppression of exculpatory evidence and the conscious use of perjured testimony. There is no reason to believe that prosecutorial misconduct would be any less prevalent in capital cases. Indeed, given the generally high public profile of capital cases, which often involve brutal deaths that have inflamed the community, the likelihood of prosecutorial overzealousness and misconduct is arguably enhanced in cases where the death penalty is sought. This suggestion is supported by the fact that prosecutorial misconduct has been shown to have resulted in wrongful convictions in death penalty cases in a number of other states in recent years.

Besides prosecutorial misconduct, police misconduct can also contribute to an erroneous conviction. Police may suppress evidence, coerce false confessions, or simply conduct negligent investigations. Like prosecutorial misconduct, there is no reason to believe that this type of misconduct occurs to any lesser degree in capital cases, and some reason to believe that it may occur to an even greater degree.

Wrongful convictions also result from other factors. For example, witness error is a significant factor in erroneous judgments, and may arise from mistaken eyewitness identification, perjury by a witness, or simply unreliable prosecution testimony. In addition, misleading circumstantial evidence, incompetence of defense counsel, erroneous judgment as to a cause of death, and a variety of other factors can lead to a conviction that is rendered in error.

Finally, it should be noted that in many of the cases we have studied, the defendant was exonerated only after having spent many years in prison. Often the direct appeals process had been exhausted and only the persistence of a family member, a friend, the defendant pro se, or a volunteer led to the discovery of exculpatory evidence and the defendant’s release. This illustrates not only the fundamental unfairness that results from any miscarriage of justice, but also that if capital punishment is reinstated in New York, there is a substantial likelihood that death sentences will be carried out before errors are revealed.

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