August 30th, 2014
by Joe Sexton, ProPublica
This story was co-published with the New York Daily News.
The dollar figure was so large and the public statements of vindication and concession so harmonious, one might have been tempted to think the system had actually worked.
A wrongly convicted Brooklyn man had won his freedom when a federal judge called out a local prosecutor for misconduct. And then, this week, with the help of an able lawyer, the freed man won a $10 million settlement from New York City, gaining possible financial security for life.
But ProPublica's reporting over the last two years suggests that any such temptation to think the system worked in the case of Jabbar Collins should be resisted.
The system for identifying and punishing misconduct by prosecutors is badly broken, our reporting shows, and with the Collins case settling, a crucial channel for exposing systemic problems and ensuring they don't recur may close as well.
So many shortcomings spotlighted by the Collins case remain unresolved.
Michael Vecchione, the prosecutor who gained a murder conviction against Collins in the 1990s and who was later accused of having committed an array of misconduct in the case, has to date faced no sanction.
And history suggests he won't. He even managed to cash out a couple hundred days of vacation as he quietly left the Brooklyn district attorney's office last year.
The taxpayers who paid for those vacation days are now on the hook for $10 million more, footing the bill for Collins' wrongful conviction.
The lack of consequences for Vecchione -- who was accused by Collins and his lawyer of intimidating witnesses, suborning perjury and lying about it all for years while Collins sat in prison -- get at larger problems with the system of prosecutorial oversight.
Two federal judges ultimately came to damning conclusions about Vecchione's conduct. They upbraided him in open court. But there's no evidence they reported him to the state disciplinary committees appointed to investigate complaints of attorney misconduct.
The fact that it is not clear whether any state panel charged with policing attorneys has or will take up Vecchione's history underscores what many have complained about for years: The state's disciplinary system operates almost entirely in secret. Its rare disciplining of prosecutors, then, often remains unknown to the public, including the men and women later facing those prosecutors in court.
The system offers the innocent and the damaged only one meaningful recourse for exposing prosecutorial misconduct: a civil lawsuit. But such suits require years of expensive effort, and, of course, are only even theoretically available to those who have managed to win their freedom.
The Collins case, in this respect, highlights yet one more disturbing component of the way cases of misconduct are handled.
In a statement announcing the $10 million settlement, lawyers for New York City called it only fair. The Brooklyn district attorney's office, the city's lawyers pointed out, had admitted as far back as 2010 that Collins' constitutional rights to a fair trial had been violated.
One might ask, then, why the city fought so vigorously over the subsequent years, deriding Collins' lawyer for trying the case in the press, suggesting Collins could still be guilty and denying Vecchione had done anything improper.
The city, of course, has many interests in defending itself in such lawsuits. Still, it effectively acknowledged this week that it had spent years of effort and untold taxpayer dollars on a case in which it conceded Collins had an undisputed legal claim.
All of this, ProPublica's reporting has shown, is hardly isolated. Our reporting found examples like Collins in other boroughs in the city. And a growing body of reporting by other news organizations has demonstrated that it goes on in all corners of the country.
This is, one might say, how the system works. Or doesn't. The Collins settlement ratifies nothing but how broken it remains.
See previous ProPublic articles on this story:
- A Prosecutor, a Wrongful Conviction and a Question of Justice (Jaoquin Sapien, Propublica, 23 May 2013)
- New York City Will Pay $10 Million to Settle Wrongful Conviction Case (Jaoquin Sapien, Propublica, 19 August 2014)