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Harvard Law professor leads review of Brooklyn DA, cops

Brian Wright O’Connor | 9/24/2014, 11:07 a.m.
Harvard Law Professor Ronald Sullivan Jr.is heading up a panel reviewing prosecutorial misconduct in Brooklyn.
Harvard Law Professor Ronald Sullivan Jr. is heading a review panel investigating prosecutorial misconduct in Brooklyn, NY.

Beginning in the 1990s, prisoners on death row saw long-standing claims of innocence vindicated by DNA analysis of evidence that had been locked up for years. Inmates walked free into the arms of their families, at least those lucky enough to have anyone waiting for them outside the prison gates.

The spotlight shone on the judicial system by these cases, many of which raised serious questions about fair trials for African American defendants, resulted in more sweeping inquiries into charges of police and prosecutorial misconduct.

Nowhere was that more apparent than in New York City, where recently elected Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson rode into office on a promise to review questionable convictions in murder cases.

Thompson’s Conviction Review Unit, touted as a model effort, took on over 100 cases that raised questions about what critics said was a winner-take-all attitude in Brooklyn’s police precincts and courthouses.

Close to 60 of those cases, prosecuted under former District Attorney Charles Hynes, were linked to former New York City Police Detective Louis Scarcella, who often used the same dubious witness to obtain convictions against predominantly African American defendants.

The profound power of the judicial system to upend lives and devastate families should never be exercised indiscriminately, says Harvard Law Professor Ronald Sullivan Jr., 48, a former Washington, D.C., public defender who helped revamp New Orleans’ public defense system in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Thompson selected Sullivan in the spring to head up the review panel.

“Even before starting my work in Brooklyn, my research made it clear that wrongful convictions were certainly a significant problem nationally. It was also clear that in cases where convictions were up for review that many prosecutors’ offices looked first to vindicate their offices rather than engage in an honest effort to review their convictions,” said Sullivan during an interview in the dining hall at Winthrop House, a Harvard undergraduate dormitory where he and his wife, fellow Harvard Law School alum Stephanie Robinson, serve as co-masters — essentially surrogate parents to some 200 Crimson students.

Amid the clattering of trays and the buzz of conversation bouncing off marble floors and oak-paneled walls, the Gary, Ind., native and Morehouse College graduate said he brought no particular orientation to the task of organizing a robust office of 10 full-time prosecutors to review convictions — up from three under Hynes — just a desire to methodically comb through the files to see that justice was done.

“Much of my background is in defense,” said Sullivan, sitting at a long table with his wife and two sons. “I’m not a former prosecutor and hold no allegiance to prosecutors’ offices. That was a clear signal from the DA that he wanted someone to come in and take a fresh look at the cases. In too many review offices, it’s a case of the fox guarding the henhouse — justifying their colleagues’ actions rather than taking a full and honest appraisal.”

Since taking up the review, seven convictions have been vacated and 13 affirmed. A separate conviction review panel, headed by another independent counsel, reviews recommendations from Sullivan’s unit and files a confidential report with the DA, who then decides whether to take the case to a judge for final disposition.