It's about a month old, but this Wall Street Journal article about Jabbar Collins, wrongly convicted for killing Rabbi Abraham Pollack in New York City in 1994, is equal parts inspiring, jaw-dropping, and infuriating. After his conviction, Collins spent his 15 years in prison teaching himself law in the prison library; then filing, re-filing, and appealing requests for information about his case; then finally breaking his case open by getting a witness to admit he had lied . . . while Collins posed as an investigator for the prosecution. Collins' tenacity, resourcefulness, and determination in the face of long odds are inspiring. But the dark side of the article is the sheer mendacity of prosecutor Michael Vecchione (who of course has since been promoted to the appropriate-sounding title of the Brooklyn DA's "chief of the rackets division"), the obstinacy of trial judge Robert Holdman, and the general indifference of the criminal justice system that put Collins away.
Excerpts don't do the article justice, but here a few bullet points from the story worth emphasizing:
- Vecchione said at trial that none of the eyewitnesses who testified agaisnt Collins at trial received any reward for their testimony. As it turns out, all of them did.
- The man the prosecution claimed called 911 to report Pollack's death, a "24 hour" drug user who later identified Collins at trial, tried to recant just before trial. That, he says, is when Vecchione began "yelling at me and telling me he was going to hit me over the head with some coffee table." The Journal reports that the man was "threatened with prosecution, then locked up for a week as a material witness. When he agreed to testify, he said, he was taken from jail to a Holiday Inn, which he described as 'paradise.'"
- When Collins' information requests hit a dead end, he posed as a DA investigator and managed to get a witness to divulge that he had been rewarded for his testimony. Instead of focusing on the perjury and prosecutorial misconduct, Jude Holdman, "dismissed the appeal, declaring it to be 'wholly without merit, conclusory, incredible, unsubstantiated, and, in significant part, to be predicated on a foundation of fraud.'" The Journal article adds, "For good measure, he barred Mr. Collins from filing future requests for information."
- When Federal District Court Judge Dora Izirarry called for a hearing to hear from the witnesses who had recanted, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes defended Vecchione. When it became clear Collins had a case, Hynes' office dropped the charges and freed Collins. But they couldn't resist a final kick to the teeth, adding that the office's "position, then and now, was that we believe in this defendant's guilt."
Collins now works as a paralegal in the office of the defense attorney who eventually helped him with his case. He has filed a civil rights suit against New York City, but Vecchione of course has absolute immunity. Which means he'll get to keep prosecuting people. One of the people he won't be prosecuting? Rabbi Abraham Pollack's actual killer, who likely remains free.