New York Times

October 26, 2012

Exoneration for a Man in Prison for 2 Years


The assault conviction of a Brooklyn man was reversed on Friday after a special investigation by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office revealed he was the victim of mistaken eyewitness testimony and innocent of the crime for which he had already served two years in prison.

The exoneration was the latest in a string of troubled cases handled by the office of Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney, that were marred by faulty testimony, aggressive police tactics and, in some cases, misconduct by prosecutors. But the case of the Brooklyn man, Lawrence Williams, also set its own precedent: it was the first felony case dealt with by a special unit that Mr. Hynes set up a year ago to root out miscarriages of justice.

Like prosecutors across the country, Mr. Hynes created the unit to investigate defendants’ claims of innocence, calling it the conviction integrity unit. Many other prosecutors, like Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, are newly elected and investigating the wrongs of previous leaders. But Mr. Hynes, who has been in office since 1989, is in the uncomfortable position of investigating his office’s own mistakes. Mr. Williams, who was released on bail in April when prosecutors first acknowledged that he was probably innocent, showed little emotion during a quick hearing in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn on Friday.

“I lost a lot,” he said in an interview after the hearing. “I have issues now that I deal with. You know, personal issues. I had a family. I lost my mother in this incarceration. I lost a lot. I’m hanging on a string right now.”

Mr. Williams was convicted of assault in 2010 after a jury found that he and an unknown accomplice robbed a man of his chain necklace in the hallway of a Coney Island apartment building, shooting the man in the shoulder when he failed to hand over the chain.

The victim of the robbery and a witness both picked Mr. Williams out of a lineup and their testimony at trial was enough to win a conviction. There was no other evidence connecting Mr. Williams to the crime. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

But there were problems with the case. The victim, Alberto Ortiz, told a police detective, Brian Harrington, that word on the street was that a man named Lawrence Williams was his attacker, according to police records. That information prompted Detective Harrington to assemble a photo lineup of men who had that name but had no other known connections to the crime. Mr. Ortiz selected Mr. Williams, who wore the same hairstyle, cornrow braids, as the man who assaulted him.

Other evidence presented at trial was inconclusive. A surveillance video, shot from above, did not show the faces of the attackers. And a T-shirt recovered near the scene of the crime contained the D.N.A. of another man.

That man, Taevon Hutchinson, already in prison, eventually confessed to the crime.

“One of the functions of the prosecutors is to monitor the systems they preside over to detect miscarriages of justice,” said Samuel R. Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan who is the editor of the National Registry of Exonerations. “Prosecutors are the central actors. They run the show. They are the people who have the most opportunities and the best ability to detect and correct wrongful convictions.”

John P. O’Mara, a longtime prosecutor in the Brooklyn office, leads Mr. Hynes’s unit. A dozen other investigations are under way, according to prosecutors.

When Mr. Williams left the courthouse on Friday with his name cleared, he bought a sandwich with his wife and went to a nearby park to watch the children play. But on the very day that he was released, he was roped back into the system. A police officer gave him a summons for sitting in the park without a minor.

“That was a pill to swallow,” Mr. Williams said. “I’ve been away from this for a little while. I would just like to see life happening. You all are going to take this from me too? I don’t know.”

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