NEW YORK—There were only a few hours before Christmas was over. Nicole Hamilton sped along the familiar barren highway to get home in time to open presents with her sons before midnight. She had spent the day visiting her husband in prison—a husband whom most of her family and friends did not know she had.
They had fallen in love under inauspicious circumstances.
Every weekend—for 18 years—Nicole Hamilton sacrificed her time and money to visit a man whom she had only known for a year before he went to prison. She drove around 100,000 miles a year to go back and forth between Brooklyn and his various correctional facilities upstate.
Out of the few close friends she told, some were supportive, while others strongly opposed. But she married him anyway on a nondescript weekday in 2005.
Nicole Hamilton, 34 at the time, pushed aside her old girlish dreams of splashy boutonnières and ivory gowns, as she and Derrick Hamilton signed their papers in a lackluster room inside the Attica Correctional Facility. It was the same room where inmates took their ID photos when they first entered prison.
She began visiting Derrick Hamilton as a friend when he was arrested in 1991 for a murder he did not commit. By 1993, most of his other friends and family stopped checking up on him, she said.
A thought seized her conscience: How can one leave an innocent man in prison for the rest of his life?
“There were just so many things about his case that did not add up,” Nicole Hamilton said. “It did not make sense for him to have a 25-to-life sentence. Maybe it was my curiosity, wanting to see this one through.”
She took it as her responsibility to see him every weekend, just to make sure he was doing all right; over the next two decades they became each other’s worlds.
Little did she know, her emotional support throughout the years would make all the difference for Hamilton, who was wrongfully convicted of murder at age 24 and exonerated at age 50.
Although he was released early on parole three years ago, he continued to fight for his innocence. Her support allowed him to become a self-taught paralegal in prison, secure a retrial, and obtain exoneration on Jan. 9. Lawyers call his case an anomaly that may change how U.S. courts perceive exonerations.
The Rarity of Exonerations
Nicole Hamilton learned just how easy it was to wrongfully convict someone and how hard it was to reverse a verdict. For years, she’d often go to work early and skip lunch in order to file her husband’s motions with the court. But one after another, the motions were denied.
In the last 26 years U.S. courts have exonerated just 1,536 prisoners, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Yet at least 20,000 innocent people are currently imprisoned across the nation, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, the law school of Yeshiva University in New York.
False convictions are not as uncommon as one would think. An eyewitness misidentifies a suspect. A detective twists forensic science. A lawyer tells an innocent defendant to plead guilty to save them both time and money. Any of the above reasons, or a combination of them, has resulted in wrongful life sentences for at least 2 percent of prisoners across the nation, according to the Innocence Project.
Yet courts are often hesitant to give wrongful conviction cases a retrial.
“Looking at old cases is time consuming and expensive,” said Ekow Yankah, a professor at Cardozo School of Law who specializes in criminal law. “While lawyers understand that at some point cases need a finality, I think most people are taken aback when they hear that real evidence of actual innocence is not enough for [lawyers] to invest in cases.”
Most people who are wrongfully convicted do not have money to hire good lawyers in the first place. Lawyers rarely provide pro bono legal representation, as the chances of securing a retrial are so low.
“Some lawyers asked for $75,000, and half up front,” Nicole Hamilton said.
One reason old cases are not retried more often is the Double Jeopardy Clause in the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which does not allow retrials after a conviction. The law was designed to protect an individual from being tried multiple times for an alleged offense.
The Catch-22 is that it prevents retrials as well when the conviction is wrong.
Retrials are also believed to hurt the public’s confidence in the justice system.
Yet what is most troubling about Derrick Hamilton’s case is not the unlikelihood of an innocent exoneration, but how easily one can be wrongfully convicted.
Right Place, Right Time, Wrong Conviction
The following account of the events that led to Hamilton’s wrongful conviction is taken from papers written by Derrick and Nicole Hamilton based on police and court records.
On the dead-cold morning of Jan. 4, 1991, when a red Pontiac pulled up beside 15-year-old Tasheen Douglas, she saw familiar faces in the car: Amir “YaYa” Johnson, Willie “MoneyWill” Dawson, and a man she knew as Dequan.
They told Douglas they were on their way to see Nathaniel Cash, whom Johnson had a conflict with.
They drove to Cash’s apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Dawson called Cash to come downstairs for a talk inside the building’s vestibule. The conversation grew tense: emotions heightened and then snapped.
Cash slapped Johnson across the face and Johnson pulled out a pistol and fired the gun one, two, three, four, five, six times.
Three bullets hit Cash but he remained standing. He limped outside and was going down the steps toward the street when Dawson, still in the building, shot Cash in the back and killed him.
Someone called 911 at 11:01 a.m. A male was shot at 215 Monroe St., and three black males were fleeing in a red Pontiac. The police arrived at the crime scene at 11:04 a.m. and found a trembling woman kneeling over Cash’s warm body, crying.
Detective Frank Delouisa questioned the woman. She was Cash’s girlfriend. She said her name was Karen Smith. She had gone to the corner store at 10:25 a.m. When she returned, she found Cash dead outside.
But the woman’s name was not Karen Smith. She was Jewel Smith. Jewel Smith was on parole and did not want to get involved with another crime.
Dawson, the killer who had stayed behind, came out of his hiding place and began telling onlookers and police that Derrick Hamilton shot Cash.
Smith, frantic, began repeating the same name to Detective Delouisa.
Dawson was murdered two months later. His death remains a cold case.
“He didn’t have a grudge against me. I believe he just wanted to throw the police in the wrong direction,” Hamilton said. “He most likely did not think I would actually get convicted.”
Most likely not since Derrick Hamilton was 78 miles away from the crime scene on that morning, at a Quality Inn Hotel in New Haven, Conn. He had gone to a friend’s goodbye party the night before, where he laughed and danced to the thump-thump, thump-thump of Hip Hop and Reggae played by an eccentric DJ who occasionally threw in rock songs.
The good vibes were still with Derrick Hamilton when his friend Kim Freeman, who was in New Haven with him, received a phone call. She was told the father of her child—Cash—was dead.
They did not believe the news at first. Derrick Hamilton and Cash grew up together in the Lafayette housing projects. He remembered Cash as a kindred soul who was always the first to buy the boys’ drinks after a basketball game. Who would kill Cash?
Then Freeman received a call from her mother. The police were at their house. And they said the killer was Derrick Hamilton.
Freeman told her mother that it was impossible because he was with her in New Haven during the time of the murder.
Derrick Hamilton was positive that the ordeal would be resolved soon. He had witnesses. He had hotel records.
By the time Hamilton went on trial in the Kings County Supreme Court in 1992, Detective Delouisa had retired and Detective Louis Scarcella, a star detective famous for getting copious convictions in Brooklyn in the ’80s and ’90s, had taken over the case.
There was a reason why Scarcella got so many convictions. Many said he threatened and bribed his witnesses.
According to court papers, Scarcella told Smith that if she did not accuse Hamilton she would be convicted for the crime herself and lose custody of her children.
Smith identified Hamilton as the gunman during trial. Smith went on to describe the murder, saying Cash was shot by one person as he was running up the stairs. But the ballistics evidence showed that Cash was running down the stairs and shot by two guns.
The defense had listed two alibi witnesses, but neither were called. Alibi evidence was not revealed to the jury either.
According to court papers, the jury believed Karen and Jewel Smith were two different witnesses. While Jewel Smith recanted her testimony a few days before Hamilton was sentenced to 25 years to life—Karen Smith did not.
As a response to Hamilton’s exoneration, Scarcella’s lawyers released a statement stating, “To date there has been no finding by any judge, nor has there been a statement by any prosecutor, to sustain the sensational claims that have appeared in the press that Detective Scarcella contributed to any person’s wrongful conviction.”
DNA and False Accusations
Not all innocence cases are equal. It depends on whether it’s a DNA case or a non-DNA case.
DNA analyses of particles such as skin tissue, hair, and semen are used to link criminals to crimes. But it only has been widely accepted in courts in the last 10 years.
Out of the lawyers who do take on innocence cases, most would only take on DNA cases. The Innocence Project, for example, only accepts DNA cases. It’s much easier to prove than a non-DNA case because it brings in new evidence.
Hamilton’s exoneration was rare because it was a non-DNA case, and it only used old evidence in court.
Another exceptional aspect of his case was that it was able to prove false testimony. Recantations are generally considered unreliable, especially without DNA evidence.
“His case erases all the procedural bars that courts used to use to decide difficult cases,” said Scott Brettschneider, one of Hamilton’s lawyers. “Hamilton’s case opens doors for cases that don’t involve DNA, cases surrounding police misconduct, evidence of people who have recanted.”
“You can point to Hamilton’s case and say this is what people are looking at now,” said Oscar Michelen, an attorney who exonerated three men in separate cases over the last 12 years. “We need a larger system. And the more you can point to cases like Hamilton’s and my clients’ cases, the more hope there is.”
Alone and Cold Up North
Hamilton did not lose hope. For 21 years, he read law books for at least six hours a day. He constantly reached out to lawyers and filed motions.
Although his concentration on learning law kept him occupied, he could not ignore the loneliness he felt in prison.
Derrick Hamilton’s mother and brother died while he was behind bars. He did not get to attend their funerals.
His first wife left him after he was sentenced because she stopped believing in his innocence, he recalled more than two decades later at a restaurant in Queens. He lifted up his large hands to cover his eyes and remained silent for some time. “To have your wife, after all those years, ask you why you killed that man …” he trailed off.
It was all the more important that Nicole Hamilton persevered during those years, driving 16 hours every weekend to see him. “She was the one person I could depend on,” he said.
But it was difficult for Nicole Hamilton to maintain morale, as she watched her husband’s psychological condition deteriorated over time. She recalled the day he began repeating things to himself. He would say every sentence four times before he let her speak.
He was no longer conscious of his repetitions, even when he spoke to her in a silent room. He developed that habit because it was too loud in prison. Inmates endlessly banged their trays, bowls, spoons, sometimes their own fists and heads, on walls out of boredom and rage. One had to repeat oneself many times to be heard in prison.
Nicole Hamilton’s love kept him sane, he said, so that he could do the unthinkable. He and a group of intelligent inmates formed a paralegal team to fight for their exonerations.
Self-Taught Lawyers in Prison Unite
In a humid, hue-less library about the size of three standard bedrooms, Derrick Hamilton and seven other inmates at Auburn Correctional Facility poured over law journals, researched legal databases, and printed copies of transcripts from trials.
It was an exclusive group of wrongfully convicted prisoners who met once a week in the prison’s library. They didn’t help fellow inmates unless there was sufficient evidence of innocence.
“Time was everything to me because I was working on my own case,” Hamilton said.
He wrote to many lawyers about his case, and some gave him feedback on his motions.
He corresponded with Brettschneider through handwritten letters for 18 years. He did not have email in prison.
Over the years, around a hundred inmates have tried to work on their cases in the library, coming in for a day or two, getting excited over an inconsistency in their case, and then giving up all together. The chance of exoneration was bleak.
“But every time you did hear about a case of exoneration it was like drinking an energy drink,” said Daniel Rincon, the founder of the self-taught paralegals group, over the phone when he called from Five Points Correctional Facility.
In 1995, Rincon was sentenced to 158 years to life for a quadruple murder committed by members of Bronx’s Red Top gang. But Rincon said he was not a part of the Red Top gang. In fact, he was a part of its rival crew, and he was not there when the murders occurred.
Rincon submitted statements from members who participated in the quadruple murder stating that Rincon was not involved. He is currently waiting for a hearing.
Lawyers say prosecutors often don’t take innocence cases seriously when the person has been previously convicted or associated with other crimes.
It was the case with Hamilton, for he had previously gone to prison for seven years for manslaughter.
“It is regrettable to hear [prosecutors] say if someone is a bad guy it doesn’t make a difference whether we got him on the right crime,” Brettschneider said. “That’s not the right way to ensure justice.”
Courts Warming Up to Retrials, Brooklyn Takes Lead
A major reason why Hamilton was able to get exonerated was because of Kenneth Thompson, the Brooklyn district attorney (DA).
Thompson is Brooklyn’s first African-American DA. He defeated incumbent Charles Hynes in the Democratic primary in 2013, making him the first challenger to defeat a sitting DA in Brooklyn since 1911.
Since taking office, he has made at least one significant change to how the Brooklyn DA office operates.
He set up a Conviction Review Unit, which is currently examining 100 wrongful-conviction claims, many of which occurred while Hynes was in office.
Thompson’s office has reversed seven wrongful convictions so far, marking a notable shift from his predecessor’s attitude toward exonerations.
“Ninety-nine percent of the evidence we presented to Hynes’ office were unmoved unless we found the killer,” said Michelen. “Thompson’s office has taken a different tactic.”
In light of Hamilton’s appeal, the Conviction Review Unit began investigating around 70 of Scarcella’s cases. Scarcella was the detective for four of the seven overturned cases.
That was able to happen because Thompson’s office is a new administration, and it was willing to look at the past administration’s mistakes.
“There should always be someone from the outside looking at cases,” said Michelen.
“Most of these cases are headed by prosecutors still working in the DA’s office,” he said. “There should at least be a voice from someone unconnected to the office, someone who is not afraid to hurt the office’s appearance.”
There has been a gradual change across the country. In 2007, a North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission was created to examine wrongful convictions. It is the first of its kind in the country because the commission is separate from the appeals process, according to its website.
The game changer, however, was the Troy Davis case in 2011. Davis was the first innocence case that got approved for an evidentiary hearing, mainly because it drew support from figures such as former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Pope Benedict XVI.
Davis was executed before he could get a retrial. But the fact that he was granted an evidentiary hearing made Hamilton’s retrial and conviction reversal possible.
Hamilton’s case, a successful non-DNA exoneration with no new evidence, will open more doors as long as more DA offices create integrity units.
“It would be shameful if other DA offices don’t follow suit,” Michelen said. “I’m hopeful.”
A Perpetually Full Voicemail
Today, Hamilton feels that time cannot be wasted on finding parking in New York City when the wrongfully convicted are depending on him. He walked over to his red Ford Flex and found yet another ticket. “I already got a ticket so I can stay as long as I want,” he said, returning to his office.
When Hamilton got out on parole, former inmates advised him to get a construction job. When Hamilton said he wanted to be a paralegal, they laughed.
Yet Brettschneider helped Hamilton get a job as a paralegal at NOVO Law Firm, which has taken on 20 innocence cases.
“My knowledge will never be as strong as Derrick’s,” Brettschneider said, noting that inmates make confessions to one another in prison. “A lot of these cases are 30 years old, and he has lived through them. He knows who the real killers are.”
Four days a week, Derrick Hamilton commutes three hours from his home in Bensalem, Pa.—where he lives with his wife and their 2-year-old daughter—to New York City to work on innocence cases.
Derrick Hamilton spends his time writing drafts for motions, knocking on doors, interviewing old witnesses, and getting at the truth.
Strangers who believe they are wrongfully convicted call Hamilton for advice. His cellphone rings every few minutes and his voicemail is perpetually full.
Hamilton always says this is going to be the last case, and then he gets a call and he can’t refuse. “It’s really hard to say no,” he said. “What if he really is innocent? I don’t want to do to him what they did to me.”
He does what he can to save time, making new calls on his cellphone before he finishes a conversation on his landline. Sometimes one can catch the end of his last conversation when he calls.
But he does not appear stressed. He has a friendly disposition: warm, alert eyes, and a resounding laugh that ends in a staccato chuckle when something is really funny.
Since his exoneration, he hasn’t taken a vacation. He has to make sure the cases are all moving forward before he can take time off.
Derrick and Nicole Hamilton plan on going on their first vacation to Florida in March.
“I’m going to see Micky Mouse Club House!” their 2-year-old daughter Maia Hamilton shouted and giggled.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the article incorrectly quoted Oscar Michelin saying that ninety percent of the cases he presented to former District Attorney Charles Hynes’ office were ignored. Michelin stated that ninety-nine percent of the evidence he presented in one case was ignored. It also incorrectly stated that Troy Davis was granted a retrial. He was granted an evidentiary hearing. Epoch Times regrets the errors.