The latest man exonerated following a wrongful murder conviction under former district attorney Charles Hynes wants to dedicate his life to helping free innocent people in prison — but first, he is hitting the beach.
District Attorney Ken Thompson announced on Jan. 5 that he was vacating the conviction of Clinton Hill native Derrick Hamilton, who spent 20 years in prison for the 1991 shooting death of Nathaniel Cash despite his insistence that he was in Connecticut at the time of the murder. Cash’s girlfriend, the only witness, recanted her testimony, and pushed for Hamilton’s release. Now that his name is cleared, Hamilton has big plans, but on the top of his to-do list is taking a trip to Puerto Rico.
“It feels like a million pounds off my back,” Hamilton said. “I feel like I’ve been reborn.”
Cops arrested Hamilton in March, 1991, and he said that at the time he thought the whole thing would blow over once he showed he was innocent. But he never even made bail.
“I knew I didn’t do it, and I thought, ‘I can stand a couple months at Rikers,’ ” Hamilton said. “It was so depressing. You can say you’re innocent a million times, but no one is going to believe you.”
Hamilton was released in 2011, but was subject to the same restrictions as other parolees. He had to obtain permission to leave the state and inform potential employers of his status. On paper he remained a convicted killer.
Now he can move freely, and his record is officially scrubbed of any trace of the wrongful murder conviction.
When Thompson signed the documents freeing him of the murder rap and everything that came with it, Hamilton said he was overcome with emotion.
“To actually be invited in and hear him say, ‘You were right,’ was indescribable,” he said. “I wanted to go up and hug the guy. It was the best day of my life.”
One of the cops who helped put Hamilton away was retired, now-disgraced detective Louis Scarcella, whose record has come under intense scrutiny by a wrongful-conviction review team assembled by Thompson, and who has seen five homicide convictions he helped secure be overturned, according to the New York Daily News.
Hamilton said he feels plenty of anger at Scarcella for putting him away in the first place, but he reserved most of his fury for Judge Edward Rappaport, who presided over his trial and multiple appeals.
“What he did was worse than Scarcella,” Hamilton said. “He had the opportunity to right what he did, but he never did. He knew Scarcella was crooked but believed him anyway. Judges who don’t uphold the Constitution should be taken off the bench.”
Thompson, whose campaign focused on alleged prosecutorial misconduct under 23-year top prosecutor Charles Hynes, said his exoneration of Hamilton and others is an attempt at restoring faith in the courts.
“Wrongful convictions ultimately destroy the lives of the people who are wrongfully convicted, as well as their families, and also do damage to the integrity of the justice system,” he said in a statement. “The people of Brooklyn elected me to ensure that justice is done and that is what my decision to vacate Derrick Hamilton’s conviction reflects.”
A longtime critic of Hynes who helped exonerate David McCallum cheered Thompson’s latest overturned conviction, his 11th since taking office, casting it as a blow against Hynes’s legacy of corruption.
“You gotta hand it to him. He’s not sweeping anything under the rug,” said John O’Hara, who Hynes once prosecuted for voting outside of his district. “All of Hynes’s convictions were bad. Nothing straight came out of that office.”
Hamilton praised Thompson, but said he is troubled that people who worked on his case and others involving Scarcella still have high-ranking jobs in Thompson’s office. Anne Gutmann, the prosecutor who relied on Scarcella’s work to put Hamilton behind bars, is still in the District Attorney’s Office, overseeing the Intake Bureau, which processes the early stages of criminal cases.
“I think he has an important task ahead of him and so far he is doing a great job,” Hamilton said. “But there are still people in this office who don’t want to see justice done, and it taints the process.”