New York City is grappling with a number of wrongful criminal convictions and in January 2015 agreed to pay 3 related civil rights claims at a cost of $17 million. The 3 latest settlements involve 3 half-brothers – Robert Hill, Alvena Jennette and Darryl Austin – who spent a combined total of 60 years in prison for murder convictions that were finally vacated by a judge in May 2014.
Robert Hill, who spent approximately 27 years in prison before the conviction was vacated in 2014, will receive $7.5 million. Alvena Jennette, who was paroled in 2007 after serving 20 years in prison, will receive $6 million. $3.85 million will go to the estate of Darryl Austin, who died in prison in 2000 after 13 years of incarceration.
The 3 settlements are part of New York City’s examination of 130 criminal convictions, 70 of which involve a retired Brooklyn homicide detective named Louis Scarcella. Scarcella was known for closing cases quickly in the City’s crime ridden 1980s and 1990s; however, investigators have since discovered that Scarcella used some questionable tactics, including information/testimony of a crack addict called Teresa Gomez in six cases. Those six cases include all the cases against Hill, Jennette and Austin, and her testimony often contradicted physical evidence and/or other witness versions.
These 3 settlements come after 2 other pretrial civil settlements: $6.4 million in February 2014 to David Ranta, wrongfully convicted of murder and imprisoned for 23 years; and $2.25 million in October 2014 to the estate of Jerome Murdough, a homeless military veteran who baked to death in a Rikers Island jail cell that overheated due to malfunctioning equipment.
Why all the recent settlements? Scott M. Stringer, the New York City Comptroller who took office in 2014, is taking a new tack when dealing with serious lawsuits against the City. Balancing the needs of the Plaintiffs and their families with the City’s benefit by avoiding strong cases that could lead to very high damages after trial, Stringer has opted to settle cases that were likelier tried under the previous Comptroller.
As Comptroller, Scott is empowered to obtain these settlements without the participation of the Mayor’s Office or the City’s Law Department. Briefly explaining his approach, Scott stated, “Clearly, our heart goes out to those who have been wrongfully incarcerated. We are also very concerned about the impact these cases will have on the fiscal health of the city.”
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