Taxpayers have shelled out nearly $25 million for wrongful convictions obtained and upheld under former district attorney Charles Hynes, and the money could keep flowing as his replacement continues to reinvestigate questionable cases.
The city has paid out the cash as part of pre-litigation settlements to people who spent decades in prison only to have their convictions overturned during the past two years. With dozens more cases currently under review by District Attorney Ken Thompson, that figure can only go up, way up, according to one longtime Hynes critic.
“Hynes’s reign of error will wind up costing the city of New York more than $600 million,” said John O’Hara, a lawyer who Hynes targeted in the 1990s with New York’s second felony prosecution for voting in the wrong district after that of Susan B. Anthony. “It’s millions of dollars of taxpayer money and it is going to add up fast.”
Hynes ruled as Brooklyn’s top lawman from 1990 until Thompson beat him by a landslide in 2013. During Hynes’s reign, opponents frequently accused him of targeting political opponents and looking the other way for allies, including accused child molesters in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
Also under Hynes, Det. Louis Scarcella and star prosecutor Michael Vecchione put away dozens of people on murder charges, several of whom have alleged Scarcella coerced witnesses, induced false confessions, and hid evidence. Thompson has assembled a team to review possible wrongful convictions, starting with Scarcella’s cases, and has already overturned 11 convictions, including five Scarcella helped obtain.
On Jan. 13, Comptroller Scott Stringer announced a $17 million pretrial settlement with the estate of three half brothers, one of them deceased, who were wrongly convicted of murder in a pair of shootings in the 1980s, before Hynes took office. Robert Hill and Alvena Jennette were exonerated in May and their half-brother Darryl Austin, who died in prison, had his conviction posthumously tossed out. The payout came on top of the February, 2014 settlement of $6.4 million for David Ranta, who spent 23 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
A lawyer for Derrick Hamilton, another man recently exonerated of a murder rap brought by Scarcella and upheld under Hynes, said taxpayers should get used to seeing new settlements, and pointed out massive sums have already been spent obtaining and defending bogus convictions.
“I’m sure that each one of these cases implicates millions and millions of dollars,” said Ilya Novofastovsky, who runs the Novo Innocence Project. “Just imagine over the years how much taxpayer money was wasted to put the wrong people in prison.”
On top of the settlement costs, the amount prosecutors spent, and continue to make in retirement, should be considered as part of the overall toll Hynes’s tenure took, O’Hara said. O’Hara estimated that felony trials cost the city about half a million dollars a pop, and by 2013, his last year in office, Hynes was taking home $189,460 a year according to the website SeeThroughNY.
Stringer is doing what he can to mitigate the damage. Ranta had originally sued for $150 million, and the settlements, for him and for the brothers and their mother, are supposed to save the city money by avoiding costly trials, while also doing the right thing, Stringer said.
“There are a lot of these cases, and many more could come to our office,” he said. “We are untangling a complicated era in the city’s history. We have a professional legal team looking at the merits of each claim and we are trying to do our best to balance the fiscal needs of the city while working with potentially innocent people.”
But even with the discounted settlements, city leaders should be prepared to pony up many more tens of millions of dollars as Scarcella cases unravel under scrutiny by Thompson’s review unit, and without complaining, Novofastovsky said.
“Wrongful convictions leave significant carnage,” he said. “If they don’t want to pay out they should stop wrecking people’s lives.”
Robert Hill Schwartz, a lawyer for Hynes, chuckled at the mention of O’Hara’s name, then declined to comment.