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Advocates say Connecticut must reckon with history of wrongful convictions

Adam Carmon walks in downtown New Haven on December 20, 2023. He’s piecing his life back together after spending most of his life in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit. After being previously convicted of murder, a judge ruled in July 2023 that he was entitled to a new trial because prosecutors failed to turn over evidence in his case, and the state declined to prosecute him again.
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Adam Carmon walks in downtown New Haven on December 20, 2023. He’s piecing his life back together after spending most of his life in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit. After being previously convicted of murder, a judge ruled in July 2023 that he was entitled to a new trial because prosecutors failed to turn over evidence in his case, and the state declined to prosecute him again.

Adam Carmon spent most of his life in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit. Now that he’s out, Carmon says the transition hasn't been easy.

“We're coming back to these very communities that once called us animals,” Carmon said.

Carmon was previously convicted of murder. But in July, a judge ruled that he was entitled to a new trial because prosecutors failed to turn over evidence in his case. The state declined to prosecute him again, so Carmon remains free.

These days, he’s working on piecing his life back together.

“Dealing with computers and things of that nature is daunting,” he said.

Carmon is part of a group that understands those challenges well. He said he’s regularly in contact with people who were wrongfully incarcerated in Connecticut, including Scott Lewis. Lewis was exonerated in 2015, and ultimately settled a lawsuit against the city of New Haven for $9.5 million.

Sarah Stillman, a staff writer at The New Yorker, met Lewis while she was an undergraduate student at Yale University. She taught a writing class then at the state prison in Cheshire, where Lewis was incarcerated.

Stillman now teaches at Yale. Her students researched the case of Lewis and others imprisoned in Connecticut. She said they began to see patterns.

“Another student wrote about another case, and then another student wrote about another case, and then another student wrote about another case. And across the years, we started putting together this body of work and realizing this goes so far beyond these individual cases of wrongful convictions,” she said.

More than a dozen people convicted in New Haven and the surrounding area from the 1980s through the early 2000s were later exonerated due to official misconduct by police and prosecutors, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Now, some activists and lawyers are calling for Connecticut to conduct a more comprehensive review of criminal cases from that time, with the goal of ensuring the integrity of past convictions.

Stillman and her students collected their reporting on those potentially problematic cases in a project called Holding Me Captive.

Their work highlights recurring problems with how police and prosecutors handled criminal matters. In one example, the project describes several cases in which New Haven police officers had conversations with witnesses that weren’t recorded. Experts say those kinds of “pre-interviews” can be coercive.

They also found, and court records support, cases where the prosecution failed to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense.

The cost of such misconduct is high. The state has awarded close to $40 million to people who were wrongfully incarcerated in the New Haven area. More lawsuits against the city and individual New Haven police officers are pending.

“I think it's really important that we recognize the patterns – that it shouldn't stop at the victories in these individual civil suits,” Stillman said. “The civil suits should be the jumping off point for demanding broader community accountability.”

That misconduct can take different forms, said Kayla Vinson, executive director of the Yale Law and Racial Justice Center.

“It’s things like putting a witness on the stand when you know that person — their reliability — is low,” Vinson said. “It's police investigation tactics that encourage people to say that they committed crimes they didn't commit.”

James Jeter is a local activist, who was instrumental in helping identify patterns in Holding Me Captive. He said he believes there was a “culture of injustice,” which raises concerns about more cases – not just major crimes, such as murder.

“On wrongful convictions, you currently see homicide cases,” he said. “To believe that both [police and prosecutors] acted illegally and unethically only in the hardest to prove charges is a willful ignorance and blindness.”

The New Haven Police Department did not respond to questions from Connecticut Public.

The Connecticut Division of Criminal Justice previously launched its own initiative to ensure past criminal cases are sound. It formed a new Conviction Integrity Unit in 2022. Deputy Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Lawlor spoke to Connecticut Public about the initiative last year.

“The division really lacked a way to be introspective and to be able to look at previous cases where we had concerns, or possible concerns, that were being brought to our attention,” Lawlor said, “where we needed a kind of a neutral way of being able to look at those issues.”

One of those cases was the murder conviction of George Gould. Gould was recently exonerated after the conviction integrity unit determined his case was mishandled.

John P. Doyle Jr. has served as the New Haven State’s Attorney since June 2022. As the chief law enforcement officer in the New Haven judicial district, he oversees criminal cases in New Haven and twelve surrounding communities.

Responding to questions from Connecticut Public, Doyle said in a written statement that the integrity of all investigations and prosecutions are of the utmost importance.

“As such, I am personally reviewing several matters that have been brought to my attention that occurred prior to my appointment,” he wrote. “If this office finds an appropriate reason to set aside a conviction, then this office will act accordingly pursuant to the law.”

But some say Connecticut isn’t doing enough. Vinson, the Yale Law professor, is among those calling for the state to reexamine past convictions in and around New Haven.

“Yes, it would be hard work,” she said. “Yes, it would be tedious. Yes, it would reopen things that technically are supposed to be finished. But you know, putting someone in prison is a huge use of government power. It's an awesome power. And we have to take that seriously.”

Elsewhere in the country, some cities have taken additional steps to reckon with misconduct in the criminal justice system. Some focus not just on exonerees, but on their families and communities.

Chicago wrestled with a painful history of police coercing people into making false confessions, in some cases through the use of physical torture.

Joey Mogul is a partner at The People's Law Office, and co-founder of the Chicago Torture Justice memorial. Mogul worked with advocates to press the state to hold perpetrators accountable. Mogul also helped pass reparations legislation for victims, and implement a curriculum for Chicago school students to learn the history of these cases.

A new Chicago Torture Justice Center also provides counseling and mental health resources to those affected by police violence.

“I think that for so long, the issue of justice has been left to the criminal courts or the civil courts,” Mogul said. “I think both are ill-equipped and unable to provide the holistic redress that those impacted by police violence are entitled to and deserve.”

After being convicted of murder, a judge ruled in July 2023 that Adam Carmon (above) was entitled to a new trial because prosecutors failed to turn over evidence in his case, and the state declined to prosecute him again.
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
After being convicted of murder, a judge ruled in July 2023 that Adam Carmon (above) was entitled to a new trial because prosecutors failed to turn over evidence in his case, and the state declined to prosecute him again.

Carmon, the man who was released from prison last year, has an ongoing lawsuit against the city of New Haven and six individual police officers. The filing calls the city the “wrongful conviction capital of the state.”

In a court filing, the city denied that police misconduct led to Carmon’s imprisonment. Patricia King, corporation counsel for the city, previously said in a statement to The Associated Press that she could not comment on the specifics of Carmon’s case, but that “the City is committed to cooperating with all parties and appropriately engaging in the civil litigation process to ensure there are reasonable resolutions on matters where city employees are deemed legally responsible for wrongful convictions or miscarriages of justice.”

Carmon said he agrees the court process isn’t sufficient to address the harm caused by official misconduct in the past.

“My story is not unique,” he said. “There's something to be said for a system that's predicated on justice, but it's so much injustice.”

Kate Seltzer joined Connecticut Public as an investigative reporting fellow in January of 2023. She's also the co-host of the station‘s limited series podcast 'In Absentia'.