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Joaquin Sapien: New York City Will Pay $10 Million

August 20, 2014

How revelations about the prosecution of Jabbar Collins, who served 15 years for a murder he did not commit, helped to bring down longtime Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes

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Image from Flickr via fusion-of-horizons
By Joaquin Sapien
By arrangement with ProPublica

New York City has agreed to pay $10 million to settle a wrongful conviction lawsuit filed by Jabbar Collins, who spent 15 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

The settlement announced today concludes a decades-long struggle for Collins, now 42.

He was just 22 when he was sent to Green Haven Correctional Facility in upstate New York for the 1994 murder of Brooklyn landlord Abraham Pollack. In the years that followed, Collins turned his cell into a full-fledged jailhouse lawyer’s office. He filed Freedom of Information Requests, re-interviewed witnesses, and taught himself to write and submit legal motions. Eventually, he gained the attention of a Manhattan defense attorney named Joel Rudin, who helped Collins win his freedom by persuading Federal Judge Dora Irizarry to vacate his conviction in 2010.

As ProPublica has reported, the effort by Rudin and Collins, in many ways, helped trigger the downfall of former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles “Joe” Hynes, whose top aide Michael Vecchione prosecuted Collins. In their lawsuit, Collins and Rudin accused Vecchione of violating several bedrock legal principles in order to win the conviction, saying he coerced witnesses, withheld exculpatory evidence, and suborned perjury. To bolster their claim, Collins and Rudin pointed to other instances of similar abuses by Brooklyn prosecutors, suggesting thatwhat Vecchione did was part of a larger, systemic pattern of misconduct that Hynes either overlooked or encouraged during his 23 years in office.

In an interview, Rudin said that the settlement marked a very gratifying moment for himself and Collins.

“I worked for four years to get him out of prison and another four years to get him some compensation and some sort of vindication,” Rudin said.

Rudin also represented Collins in his lawsuit against the state of New York, which settled last month for $3 million. The total of $13 million Collins will receive is among the largest settlements New York has agreed to pay anyone wrongfully convicted in the state.

“I had three goals when I brought this lawsuit,” Collins said in a press statement issued today. “One was to expose the illegal practices of District Attorney Hynes and to help drive him from office. The second was to obtain personal vindication and to demonstrate my innocence. The third was to receive compensation that would recognize the enormity of the harm that was done to me and my family and would provide financial security for the rest of my life. I accepted the City’s offer because it meant that I had achieved all of my goals.”

Collins’ victory comes on the heels of several other settlements for high-profile wrongful convictions in New York. Earlier this year, David Ranta was awarded $6.4 million after spending 23 years in prison for a murder he always swore he did not commit. In June, five men wrongly convicted in the infamous Central Park jogger case were awarded $1 million each for every year they spent in prison.

A spokesperson for the New York Law Department issued a brief statement about Collins’ settlement, pointing out that when Collins’ conviction was first overturned in 2010, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office conceded that exculpatory evidence was withheld.

“We believe this settlement is fair and is in New York City’s best interests,” the statement said.

Last year, Hynes lost his bid for a seventh term as Brooklyn District Attorney after coming under heavy criticism for his handling of wrongful convictions. He is now being investigated by the New York Department of Investigation over allegations that he received advice from a top Brooklyn judge on several sensitive matters, including media coverage of Collins’ case.

A spokesperson for Kenneth Thompson, who has since taken over the District Attorney’s office declined to comment for this story.

Joaquin Sapien has covered criminal justice, military healthcare, and environmental issues for ProPublica since 2008.

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