Innocent Man Freed from Prison After Being Wrongly Convicted And the City Refuses to Give Him a Dime

By Jake Pearson and Mike Hayes

As members of the New York City Council convened last month to discuss the Law Department’s budget, they asked the city’s top lawyer to account for the rising cost of police misconduct.

The topic had been driving headlines for weeks. In February, an analysis of payout data had shown that the city shelled out $121 million in NYPD-related settlements and judgments in 2022, a five-year high. Weeks later, officials announced that millions more in taxpayer dollars would go toward what lawyers for demonstrators called a “historic” deal to settle claims involving the NYPD’s violent response to racial justice protests in 2020. Of particular concern to some members of the council’s Committee on Governmental Operations was reporting by ProPublica and New York Magazine on how city lawyers aggressively fight these kinds of misconduct claims, even in the face of compelling evidence that officers crossed the line.

“I found it really troubling,” said Council Member Lincoln Restler of ProPublica’s reporting, which focused on the unit that handles the most high-profile police misconduct cases, the Special Federal Litigation Division, or Special Fed. “And I am concerned about the approach of the Law Department over many years.”

In response, Sylvia Hinds-Radix, the head of the Law Department, told Restler and the committee that she “vociferously” disagreed with any characterization that agency lawyers fought claims tooth and nail “without evaluating what is before us.”

“We have the obligation to defend those things we do,” she said. “And the cases that need to be settled, we evaluate them and settle them.”

Left unmentioned in Hinds-Radix’s March 22 testimony was any reference to Jawaun Fraser, whose case provided an almost textbook example of her department’s hardball approach, a strategy that confounded even the judge overseeing the lawsuit. Just a day earlier, a federal jury in Manhattan had awarded Fraser $2 million after city lawyers spent the previous three years fighting him in civil court.

Fraser had sued New York and three NYPD detectives after spending two years in prison on a robbery conviction that was later overturned. A jury found not just that officers had fabricated evidence against him but that the city itself was liable for massive failures in NYPD training. Yet for years, city lawyers had treated it as what’s called a “no-pay” case, steadfastly refusing to settle while labeling Fraser a “drug dealer” who was unworthy of “a dime.”

They maintained that position even as Fraser’s lawyers revealed numerous inconsistencies and contradictions in the arresting officers’ own testimonies — and as evidence mounted that the NYPD had, for decades, failed to properly train its 35,000-officer force on their legal obligations to disclose certain material, like past lawsuits, that could impact officers’ credibility in court. That violation flew in the face of bedrock legal protections codified by Supreme Court rulings from a half-century ago, beginning with the marquee 1963 case Brady v. Maryland, which requires the government to turn over information favorable to the accused.

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Amid the revelations, the senior district court judge overseeing the case took the rare step of declaring that she’d “never understood why this was a no-pay case, and I understand it less now.” The judge, Colleen McMahon, went on to say that in her 22 years on the bench, she’d never seen documentation of the city’s constitutional failures “like the evidence I’ve heard in this case.”

“I am pretty appalled by what I have heard,” the judge said.

A Law Department spokesperson defended Special Fed’s litigation of Fraser’s lawsuit, saying in a statement that after evaluating “all the facts and evidence” agency lawyers “challenged this case all the way to trial.”

“While we are disappointed with the verdict, we respect it,” said department spokesperson Nick Paolucci.

But Thomas Giovanni, who served as a top official in the Law Department from 2014 until last December, said the agency’s police defense practice too often seeks to justify misconduct after the fact, rather than proactively identifying problems, settling them early and pushing its client to reform.

“Are we the oncologist,” he asked of the city lawyer, “or are we the janitor?”

Some civil rights lawyers in the city say the Law Department’s conduct in the Fraser case suggests the latter.

Fraser’s civil lawsuit centered on a botched buy-and-bust operation that NYPD narcotics officers conducted in a Manhattan public housing project on Oct. 21, 2014 — and the lawsuit history of the detectives who played key roles in Fraser’s arrest.

In sworn filings, the police said Fraser confronted an undercover police officer that day, robbing him of a fake New York state license and $20 in drug buy money. Fraser, then 18, denied this, saying that the officer offered up his ID as proof that he wasn’t a cop, and that the detectives framed Fraser for robbery after he merely took a photo of it.

Even though no drugs or buy money were discovered on Fraser that day, he was charged based on the detectives’ claims that he stole the undercover officer’s ID. The case hinged on the officers’ testimony versus Fraser’s, and a jury eventually convicted him of a robbery charge. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

What that jury didn’t know, and what Fraser’s appellate lawyers only discovered years after his conviction, was that six officers involved in his arrest had been named in a total of 35 civil lawsuits. Yet Fraser’s defense lawyer said he only received two cases from a prosecutor ahead of trial — a lack of disclosure that would later prompt a judge to overturn Fraser’s conviction in 2019. The following year he filed a lawsuit in civil court seeking accountability — and compensation — for the actions of the NYPD detectives who had put him behind bars.

In her opening statement last month, though, Special Fed attorney Caroline McGuire’s pitch to jurors was that Fraser was actually guilty of the robbery and was now trying to “trick you into awarding him money.” She pointed to comments Fraser had made to a parole board in which he appeared to accept responsibility for his “crime” — a position Fraser said he only took after older inmates counseled him to express remorse if he wanted to get paroled.

McGuire argued that Fraser had been lucky to get his conviction overturned, going so far as to say that his own defense lawyer was partly at fault for the whole ordeal because he hadn’t looked up lawsuits against the officers “despite the fact that it would have taken him only five minutes.”

McMahon stopped her. “My first instruction of law, under the Brady rule, a defense lawyer has no obligation to look for lawsuits,” the judge explained.

“You had better watch it,” she warned McGuire.

After the city lawyer finished, the judge went even further, excusing the jury and summoning to the podium the chief of Special Fed, Patricia Miller, who was watching from the gallery.

“Ms. Miller, do you have an explanation for why one of your assistants would come into my courtroom and suggest that a defense lawyer has an obligation to go look up material that he doesn’t have any obligation under Brady to look up?” she asked.

Miller told the judge that McGuire hadn’t intended to mislead the jury and was in fact trying to make a point about the relevance of the lawsuits — an argument McGuire’s co-counsel then reiterated. But the judge rejected the city’s position entirely: “I’m here to tell you what came out of Ms. McGuire’s mouth was not permissible,” McMahon said.

Over the next week, Fraser’s lawyers pointed out multiple inconsistencies in the various police accounts of Fraser’s arrest, casting doubt on the official narrative of events. Among them: The undercover officer claimed that Fraser had stolen his ID, but no officer testified seeing a detective recover it from Fraser. In fact, only a photocopy of it was later submitted as evidence.

Fraser’s lawyers also elicited testimony that went to several officers’ credibility, showing that the undercover officer and another detective had never told the prosecutor in Fraser’s case about a combined eight lawsuits they’d been named in, which alleged false arrest and other civil rights violations, and which settled for $246,500 in total. (The district attorney’s office, which has its own obligation to search for such material, also conducted an incomplete search in Fraser’s case, failing to turn up all the lawsuits the office knew about, a prosecutor testified in Fraser’s civil trial.)

Continue reading at ProPublica

Sourced from The Free Thought Project

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