H&F Selected as Lead Counsel in Derrick Hamilton Wrongful Conviction Litigation

Hamilton after his exoneration, in 2015, with his wife, daughter, and brother. Photograph by Anthony Lanzilote / The New York Times / Redux

On January 4, 1991, 26-year-old Nathaniel Cash was fatally shot in Brooklyn.

Cash’s girlfriend, Jewel Smith, told Detective Frank DeLouisa that she had bailed Cash out of jail on January 3 and spent time with him at his apartment before going to a store. When she returned, he was lying on the ground after being shot.

Smith changed her account, however, to implicate 25-year-old Derrick Hamilton in the shooting. She later said that Detective Louis Scarcella told her that if she did not accuse Hamilton she would be charged with the crime herself. Hamilton had been paroled in August 1990—about four months before Cash was killed—after serving a seven year prison term for convictions of manslaughter, robbery and criminal possession of a weapon.

Detective Louis Scarcella. Photograph by John Taggert for the New York Times.

In March 1991, the police arrested Hamilton in New Haven, Connecticut at a hair salon that Hamilton jointly owned with Alphonso White. Hamilton was charged with second-degree murder. Hamilton went to trial in Kings County Supreme Court in July 1992. Smith identified Hamilton as the gunman. She said Hamilton shot Cash and that Cash chased after Hamilton before he collapsed.

The defense had listed two alibi witnesses, but neither were called. One of the witnesses, Mattie Dixon, the wife of Alphonso White, later said that she and her husband, Alphonso, did not testify because police in New Haven, for whom White had acted as an informant in the past, threatened to arrest Alphonso if they testified for Hamilton in Brooklyn. In fact, Dixon later said in a sworn affidavit, she and her husband had collected hotel records showing that Hamilton was at a New Haven hotel at the time of the crime.

On July 17, 1992, a jury convicted Hamilton of second-degree murder. Before sentencing, Smith recanted her testimony, and the defense learned for the first time about a statement she gave to police under the name “Karen Smith” in which she said that she was not present when Cash was shot. At an evidentiary hearing on a motion to vacate the conviction, Smith testified she only implicated Hamilton after Scarcella told her she would be charged with the murder if she did not change her account.

The motion was denied in 1993 and Hamilton was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Over the next two decades, Hamilton filed a series of motions attempting to overturn his conviction, but all were denied.

In 1994, he sought to vacate the conviction on the basis of an affidavit from a witness who said that two other men—Amir Johnson and “Money Will”—shot Cash. In 1995, while that motion was pending, two more witnesses came forward and said Hamilton was at a going away party at a hotel in New Haven for a man who was going to prison.

One of the witnesses, Kelly Turner, was worked as a talent agent at the time of the crime but had since become a decorated police officer in New Haven. She provided a sworn statement that she was with Hamilton at the party until 1 or 2 a.m.—well after the shooting in Brooklyn. The other witness, Davette Mahan, said she was Turner’s assistant and that she also saw Hamilton and Turner together, discussing business, at the party.

Hamilton sought to expand his motion to vacate the conviction to include Turner and Mahan, but the judge refused because Turner and Mahan were not on Hamilton’s alibi witness list prior to trial. An evidentiary hearing was held on the claim that Amir Johnson and “Money Will” shot Cash, but the judge said the witness was not credible and denied the motion.

In 1998, another hearing was held with testimony from an additional witness who said “Money Will” shot Cash. That witness also was not believed.

In 2009, Hamilton filed a motion seeking a new hearing to allow Turner and Mahan to testify in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing witnesses to testify to actual innocence if they had not been previously allowed to testify. The prosecution opposed that motion as procedurally barred. While the motion was still pending, two more witnesses came forward to corroborate Turner and Mahan’s statements.

One of those witnesses was Mattie Dixon, the wife of Alphonso White (who had since died). Dixon provided hotel records showing that she and her husband had rented a room for Hamilton at the hotel on the night of the party and that a banquet room was reserved for that night. In a sworn affidavit, Dixon said that the detective for whom her husband worked as an informant became angry for “being Derrick’s alibi” and that the detective told them to “forget about Derrick Hamilton” or go to jail.

In August, 2011, the motion for a hearing to allow the witnesses to testify was denied. In December 2011, Hamilton was released from prison on parole after previously being denied parole because he would not admit that he committed the murder.

 Read the decision in  People v. Hamilton .

Read the decision in People v. Hamilton.

In January 2014, the Appellate Division of the Kings County Supreme Court, in an unprecedented ruling, reversed the trial court. The appeals court eliminated a procedural barrier to criminal appellate claims to allow an assertion of “actual innocence” to be heard. The case was remanded to the Kings County Supreme Court for a hearing.

At that time, Kenneth Thompson, the newly-elected Kings County District Attorney, assigned the case to his Conviction Review Unit. In January 2015, Thompson concluded, of the basis of a re-investigation of the case, that Hamilton was innocent.

The re-investigation showed that the medical evidence contradicted Smith’s claim that Cash was shot in the chest and then chased after the man who shot him. In fact, the medical examiner’s office said Cash was shot in the back and that the nature of the wound was such that he would have died almost instantly. In addition, ballistics showed that more than one gun was used in the shooting.

On January 9, 2015, Thompson and Hamilton’s defense lawyer jointly asked that Hamilton’s conviction be vacated. The motion was granted and the charge was dismissed.

Hamilton’s case was the sixth homicide conviction involving Detective Scarcella to be vacated and dismissed after the Kings County Conviction Review Unit’s wide-ranging review of about 100 murder cases in Brooklyn, including about 60 of Scarcella’s cases.

We are representing Mr. Hamilton in his wrongful conviction action in the Eastern District of New York -- Hamilton v. City of New York, et al., 15 CV 4574 (CBA) (SJB).

The NYPD continues to support Detective Scarcella.