Criminal Justice

The Most Amazing Wrongful Conviction Story You'll Read Today

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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.

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  1. but Vecchione of course has absolute immunity

    I hurts my head that anyone, at any time, could have thought this was a good idea to enshrine into law. It’s literally asking for misconduct. I mean, what purpose can absolute immunity serve other than to shield terrible violations?

    Thanks for a great start to a Friday morning, Radley.

  2. Even Balko’s GOOD storries result in sore testicles (and appropriate girl parts for those testicle free individuals). There truly is no redress against prosecutors and judges and to a lesser extent cops. Some are appointed and some have jobs for life. It is agrifing…ohh wait, I don’t want to create a hostile rhetorical environment…my bad.

  3. And everyone spends their days worrying about Sarah Palin instead of publicizing true injustice.

  4. Remember those olden times when we used to hear about what a hell hole the USSR was and all the injustice and such??? Of course, there will be apologists who say “Well,the system ultimately worked.” Well, no, one guy got lucky.

  5. We can’t risk stirring up ill will by publicizing stories like this.

    1. We can’t… WHAT?
      We need ill will stirred up over this. This is a classic example that there needs to be a way to hold people like Vecchione responsible for what they’ve done. This man needs to be – at a minimum – disbarred. Personally, I think he needs some jail time. There is no excuse for this level of misconduct.
      This kind of prosecution is all too common. Something needs to be done, and only by raising awareness (or, as you put it, “stirring up ill will”) can it be brought out into the light.

      1. Lurk moar

  6. Vecchione doesn’t have absolute immunity from losing his law license. I can’t imagine that what he did here (and who knows what would come out of the woodwork if a determined state bar started twisting arms) isn’t a terminal violation of professional ethics.

    1. Right, let’s trust lawyers to police their own.

      HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

    2. RC–as you probably know, prosecutors tend to be active and influential in state bar association. No profession–none–is very good at policing it own ranks.

      1. I don’t see an IOLTA screw-up here or a practicing while administratively suspended charge(translation: he didn’t pay his bar dues on time); ergo, the state bar won’t do anything.

        On second thought, considering Nifong, this guy didn’t railroad anyone who had rich, white, or politically connected relatives, did he? No? Never mind then.

  7. the sheer mendacity of prosecutor Michael Vecchione

    You don’t get to be Governor of New York by being a nice guy; just ask Spitzer.

  8. he posed as a DA investigator

    —-

    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.'”

    And prosecutors have never sent their people out to pose as drug dealers, or murderers, or long lost relatives, or bank officials who have “discovered” a dormant account…

    1. Yeah, I found that particularly egregious given the nature of all criminal investigations. Heck, the police will routinely promise lenience in exchange for a confession. Such promises are not in any way binding, of course. Not that such a practice would constitute more of a fraud than saying you are clearing up records for the DA’s office. After all, garnering a confession might only result in many years of prison time… talking to a fake DA clerk might reveal prosecutorial misconduct.

  9. What if the convicted had been illiterate or not bright enough to read law books? He’d still be rotting in prison and mafioso prosecutors would continue congratulating themselves for a job well done.

    You know what some good ol’ justice would be? If the real murderer caught this Vecchione asshole in a dark alley…..

    1. …and then politely gave himself in to custody. That’s where you were going, right?

      1. He’d probably want to thank him for locking up the other dude and making sure that the full weight of the DA’s office is behind a continuing belief in someone else’s guilt. Even if they do catch the real killer he’s got built in reasonable doubt now.

      2. Yes, persackly.

  10. Doesn’t immunity only protect prosecutors from being sued for actions taken while carrying out their official duties?

    Lying during the trial and witness tampering don’t line up with a prosecutor’s official duties in my book.

    1. “Lying during the trial and witness tampering don’t line up with a prosecutor’s official duties in my book”

      I agree. Are there any examples where police or prosecutors have been investigated? Prosecuted?? Convicted???
      I thought not…funny how they newver investigate this stuff.
      Of course, there is always the never ending piety of our wonderful legal system, blind justice (or more aptly, blind to injustice), the bar, the majesty of the law, ad nauseum.

    2. Unfortunately, Pottawattamie County v. McGhee and Harrington http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000…..09_08_1065 ) was settled, so we don’t know what kinds of boundaries the Supreme Court would’ve drawn around prosecutorial immunity.

      This article goes into a bit more detail. http://www.law.com/jsp/article…..pt=Law.com

    3. It is a prosecutor’s job to keep a 95% conviction rate! How can he keep that up without greasing the skids?

      1. Don’t take the borderline cases?

  11. Is it permissible for me to contact Michael Vecchione’s office to tell him that I think he is the scum of the Earth and deserves hell-fire?

    1. As long as you don’t mind a visit from the feds before being involuntarily committed.

      1. And don’t forget to drink some Four Loko before they come in the white van.

        1. Dude, if the fuzz thinks you have alcohol and caffeine in your house, it’s gonna be SWAT team time for sure.

          “We had to shoot his dog, Your Honor, you never know how crazy these rum and coke monsters might get”

  12. If we’re going to have a Federal Department of Justice, it would be nice if they would ever consent to depart some justice.

    But medical marijuana is just too important, I guess.

  13. Balko – you are about the only person I’ll thank for making me steaming angry on a regular basis – thank you.

    1. Thanks to Sean Gardiner for the fine article in the WSJ. I’d like to see a more in-depth report. Preferably by a TV news magazine so we can have footage of the judges and prosecutors being confronted in parking lots and stairwells.

      1. There’s a WSJ video article about it too. Both the article and the video focus on the story of redemption – a convict in jail who becomes a paralegal and regains his life and family. There’s scant focus on the massive injustice and systemic oppression at work in this case. I like the uplifting bit, but I’d prefer that it was attached to a full inquest into the infuriating meat of the story.

  14. Ouch, my testicals/ovaries!

    1. The wife and I have a weekly routine – I read Balko on Friday and she lovingly massages my half-shattered balls back to life.

  15. I trust that when the miscreant is an attorney, you email your article to the state bar regulators and to the civil rights Divn. of the Justice Department.

  16. There is nothing unusual about the conduct of the prosecutor or the cops or the judge here. They know that the public wants convictions and doesn’t really care about guilt, innocence, truth, justice. Once the system turns on you, it’s too late; you have no credibility. We get the justice system we demand, or the justice system we settle for.

  17. 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.

    And when I say there’s none, I mean there is a certain amount.

  18. It’s happening nation wide. Small town Oregon USA, innocent men and women go to prison on a regular basis. I’m glad this forum is bringing it out in the open. More people need to speak out against this travesty.

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