54-year-old African American wrongfully imprisoned for 23 years gets $7 million as settlement

Mohammed Awal November 20, 2019
Derrick Hamilton leaving State Supreme Court in Brooklyn after his murder conviction was overturned in 2015. Credit...Anthony Lanzilote for The New York Times

An African American man wrongfully imprisoned for 23 years has received a $7 million in settlement.

City officials in New York and New Haven, Conn., agreed to pay Derrick Hamilton, 54, the amount to settle a lawsuit he had filed against three police officers for fabricating evidence against him in the trial that sent him to jail.

The New York Times reports that one of the officers, Louis Scarcella, a retired New York detective in recent years emerged as a symbol of wrongful convictions, as several cases he had handled fell apart. Despite the settlement, Scarcella under the terms of the agreement reached on the night of what would have been a trial in a Federal District Court in Brooklyn admitted no wrongdoing as he and Hamilton had been scheduled to testify at the trial.

Reacting to the settlement, Hamilton said: “It’ll help my family out financially…[but] it doesn’t settle what I went through. Everyone’s life went on for 20 years. Mine stopped.”

Wrongful incarceration 

Hamilton was 28 and living in New Haven when he was arrested in 1991 by Scarcella and the local police on the accusation that he murdered a Brooklyn man named as Nathaniel Cash. 

Cash’s girlfriend, Jewel Smith was the only eyewitness against Hamilton at his trial in the State Supreme Court and despite her accounts of the murder found to be conflicting, the jury reached a conviction and Hamilton was thrown into prison in 1992.

But in 2007, Smith went to the authorities and backtracked on her accounts, asserting Hamilton’s innocence. According to her, she was coerced into testifying against Hamilton by Scarcella. Eight years later, the Conviction Review Unit of the Brooklyn district attorney’s office would ask a judge to quash Hamilton’s guilty verdict.

According to prosecutors, Smith had been “unreliable, untruthful and incredible in her testimony” and by that time, The New York Times reports the district attorney’s office was two years into an expansive investigation of dozens of Scarcella’s former murder cases, looking into allegations that he had coerced other witnesses and had threatened people to get them to confess. 

The investigation, which is ongoing, led to the release of 14 inmates and resulted in the city and state paying tens of millions of dollars to settle lawsuits against Scarcella.

That notwithstanding, the district attorney’s office, however, maintained that Scarcella has not committed any punishable conduct or broken the law.

Fighting injustice in and out of jail

Hamilton became a jailhouse lawyer during his wrongful incarceration, helping fellow inmates appeal their convictions.

He is reported to constantly pore over trial transcripts, filing motions on behalf of other inmates and occasionally winning their appeals. 

At one point — in Attica Correctional Facility — he filed papers challenging his long stint in solitary confinement, claiming it was “cruel and unusual punishment,” reports The New York Times.

Also when he became a free man, Hamilton labored to overturn many convictions linked to Scarcella working with lawyers as a paralegal to investigate facts and help draft lawsuits and motions in support of new trials.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: November 20, 2019


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